Getting help for your relationship. Realistic expectations for couples counseling.
Hope Springs is a great jumping off point to discuss relationships. I agree with most everything that has been written about the movie. From my perspective as a Mental Health Counselor, there are a few things that I would like to add which gives more depth and authenticity to couples counseling. I want to point out this is not an evaluation of Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones acting abilities. They did a fabulous job conveying the vulnerability and complexity of the relationship between Kay and Arnold. What is an issue is that the character development is constrained due to time limitations for the movie itself. I would like to add to the character development and relate it to realistic expectations for those who choose to engage in couples counseling. 'Hope Springs' Gets Couples Therapy Right
4 ways that real life relational interactions are more complex than the movie relationship has time to develop.
1. Meryl’s character Kay, is somewhat stereotyped as the compliant housewife who refrains from any sort of confrontation. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her enthusiasm in purchasing the $4000 couples intensive with a therapist played by Steve Carell. This was a “new behavior” for her, which involved risking the relationship status quo. She showed courage and hope for improving her marriage. In my experience, many couples are experiencing conflict and are vocal about it. They are stuck, arguing about getting their needs met by the other person. Sex is believed to be the problem for many couples. Alas, there is always a deeper reason why sex is not working. The emotional connection between the partners may not be working. Many times, people do not have words to describe their feelings. As a counselor, my most used handout is a feelings chart. People need to be able to label their own feelings. Once someone understands themselves, then they are able to share that understanding with another person. At the start of the movie, Kay and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) did not have any tools to talk about their relationship. Both were protecting their own and the others shame about the state of their relationship.
2. Kay compliantly made daily breakfast for an emotionally unavailable, unappreciative man. She was giving too much to the relationship without even knowing it. Many women are convinced they can change a man by showing him love and care unconditionally through acts of service. What ends up happening is he gets his need met albeit poorly, and then has no incentive to love and cherish his wife. He is getting by in the relationship and that’s good enough for him. He’s gotten a free pass to not meet her emotional needs which she most likely has no words to express. What would be helpful is for Kay to learn how to take care of her emotional needs. By knowing what her needs are she would be able to talk with her husband about the relationship and feel more secure. Kay needed a unbiased person to counsel her and address the fear she had about disrupting the status quo in the relationship. Kay would learn to put words to her dissatisfaction in the marriage and be able to talk with her husband about her hopes and dreams. Each person needs to care for themselves emotionally, and let other safe people care for them for the experience. Bottom line: Be ok with who you are. It is ok to have needs, it is ok to express your needs. It is not ok to demand, guilt or coerce someone to meet your needs. Learning how to listen and understand each other is the building blocks for true intimacy.
3. The Couple will have a better relationship if they have sex. Tommy Lee Jone’s Character, Arnold, was dissatisfied with his sex life and rather than talk about it with his wife he chose to distance himself from her to protect his pride. The movie hints at the shame he feels about his sexual self and his inability to connect with his wife in any meaningful sort of way. His pride burst forth in the initial counseling sessions as anger and his resistance to change. His “shame” was revealed in that moment, and who wants to feel shame? Undisclosed and hidden shame robs people of the ability to try new things and live life to the fullest. Arnold needed to face his emotions, and share his inner world with someone.
4. The movie has a happy ending conclusion after a 1 week intensive with a therapist. In real life, facing shame, insecurity, and sexual problems is a slow process over months or years. It involves personal courage and persistence. Working through the emotional wounds couples come to counseling with takes time. One of the hardest emotions that people have to face is the feeling of shame. I imagine shame as piles of dark secrets (undiscovered treasure) that are buried deep with in a cave. Developing resiliency to shame involves shining a flashlight onto a small piece of the shame deep within the darkened cave. The cave is the place where you store the shame in your body. The flashlight represents telling your shame stories in small doses to a trusted person, often a therapist at first. This process is repeated many times until you have built up sufficient shame resiliency. Once Tommy Lee shared his story, his shame was diminished and he began to open up to the idea of resuming an active role in his relationship with Kay. Both were blessed with deeper emotional intimacies which lead to a more satisfying relationship. 'Hope Springs': A Revolutionary Film About Marriage
I have to admit the story was very realistic to what I have encountered working with couples dealing with infidelity or sexual addiction. Sex alone isn’t going to fix Kay and Arthurs troubles, or yours. Going through a therapeutic process to help couples deal with both the emotional and physical aspects of their relationship will be a better fix for any couple. Life is too short to hide because of shame, if it is stopping you from living life to the fullest. By all means, find a good couples counselor and learn how to live a life full of abundance.
Teresa Maples MS is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Washington State. Connect with me for more information about healing from those things that get in the way of living life to its fullest.