Is changing a relationship like changing a lightbulb?
You may recall the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb. The answer is one: but the lightbulb really has to want to change. It may take one therapist or less to change a sterile long-term relationship, but both partners have to want to change, and often one doesn’t…
One of the interesting things about this film, like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is that its main target audience is clearly the over fifties. We have arrived as a market segment! The gist of the story is that a couple married for thirty-one years go for an expensive, intensive week of sessions with a couples therapist in Hope Springs.
Early scenes paint a poignantly convincing portrait of a couple who share a house, but not much else. They have been in separate bedrooms for years. Arnold (played by Tommy Lee Jones with echoes of Jack Nicholson) is in a boring job, and spends his evenings watching golf programmes on TV until he falls asleep. This picture of a man who has retreated behind his defences, into his routines, because he thinks it hurts less that way, is sadly true of many men I’ve seen in mid-life.
His wife, Kay, is brilliantly played by Meryl Streep: we can see traces of the younger, beautiful Meryl we remember, but Kay is overweight, lonely, with her self-confidence erased by years of her husband’s indifference. At one point she says, “I’d feel less lonely if I was actually living on my own.”
If this all sounds a bit serious, it’s worth pointing out that the film has a lot of funny moments: for example, when the couple nervously approach the double bed in their motel, and try to share it, or when they try to play out a sex fantasy in the local cinema.
As the film goes on, we see how the love has slowly dried up, how both partners have been reluctant to meet each other’s sexual needs, and how they have lacked the skills and courage to talk about the problems. At times I felt the characters and the therapies could have been more subtle. You might conclude from this film that couples therapy is expensive and gimmicky, because it doesn’t work well here.
The real turning point is when Arnold realises that unless he changes, the marriage may well be finished. And once both parties really want to change, it seems that trying a little tenderness does the trick. My view is that for many couples, the defences, the habits, the mutual disappointment, are so deep that some external help is needed. This might mean couples therapy, or relationship workshops, or maybe just buying a copy of my book when it is published next year!
One of the most difficult issues in a long-term couple, which this film does highlight, is how difficult it can be to find your partner attractive, and keep the sexual chemistry going, as you both get older. Overcoming this issue is not as simple as choosing a new attitude, but there are some good methods which really can help.