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Sex and relationship therapy: Fiction and fact

Sex and relationship therapy: Fiction and fact

This weekend I saw the new romantic comedy Hope Springs. The movie is about a couple in their sixties (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) who go to intensive couple therapy (with Steve Carrell) because Streep’s character is concerned about the lack of intimacy and sex in their relationship.

 

On one level I loved the movie. The performances were all astonishingly good, the comedy was pitched perfectly and had me laughing out loud, and I shed a tear or two in the darkest hour before the dawn because it was such a good depiction of how lonely it is possible to be in a relationship.

However, as soon as I left the theatre, I started to reflect on the messages about sex and relationships in the film and found some of them pretty problematic. In this post I’ll go through a few of the ideas from the film, saying why I question whether these are good sex and relationship therapy.

Spoiler alert: I have written in detail about the film so don’t read on if you want to suspend disbelief and enjoy the movie like I did before engaging your critical faculties!

Fiction: Relationships are tough – Fact: Relationships are tough

One of the best things about the movie is that it doesn’t present a totally Hollywoodised version of relationships as some perfect happily-ever-after. The couple, Kay and Arnold, have not found that the love and sex that were present at the start of their relationship have stayed constant all the way through. They have changed over time, as all people do, and they have found they can’t communicate very well and don’t feel close any more. Kay captures a common experience well: ‘It shouldn’t be hard to touch a person that you love. But it is.’

Fiction: Older people can still want sex – Fact: Older people can still want sex

Another big plus was the depiction of people in their sixties as just as sexual beings as the people in their twenties and thirties who we are more used to seeing in films. This includes a number of realistic sex scenes which are a rarity in mainstream cinema. It is often assumed that people cease being sexual as they age, with a great deal of prejudice and ridicule around sex between older people, so it was nice to see this challenged. Also the therapist in the movie did not make the assumption that the couple should stop caring about sex, which many professionals do make when confronted with older people, or people with disabilities or health problems.

Fiction: It’s good to communicate in relationships – Fact: It’s good to communicate in relationships

The relationship between the main characters does improve and this seems to be due to the fact that they’ve started communicating with each other during therapy. However I did have some sympathy with Tommy Lee Jones’ character when he questioned whether blurting out all of the resentments that had developed over the relationship was really a good idea. In the early weeks of relationship therapy I often see clients individually (alternating weeks) so they can have a free space to talk about how the relationship is for them and think about the ways in which they might kindly communicate this to their partners.

Secrets and lies are not a great idea in relationships, but it is also valuable to learn what each other’s vulnerabilities are and to tread gently around these. Having some empathy for how what we say might be received makes it easier for the other person to hear it.

Fiction: Space can help a lot – Fact: Space can help a lot

One key moment in the movie was when both characters went off and had a day on their own. This seemed to enable them to become closer and take more of a risk with each other. I thought that this was a nice portrayal of how valuable space is for a relationship. Time apart helps to remind us of who we are with other people as well as with our partner, so we are less focused just upon the relationship and how difficult it is. We can also get some fulfillment from ourselves and from other people so that we stop expecting the relationship to be everything for us. For example, Kay got the reassurance she wanted from people she met in a bar and that took the pressure off Arnold. Arnold was able to calm down. Time apart also often means that we are able to see our partners more fully rather than fixing them as just one side of who they are (boring or difficult, for example).

Fiction: Relationships must be sexual – Fact: Relationships can be sexual or not

Perhaps the main problem with the movie is that it reinforces the common myth that the romantic relationships must be sexual all the way through and that not being sexual is a sign that there is a problem. This is a big ask given how long relationships last, and Esther Perel has written very well on the difficulties of sustaining relationships that are both warm and hot. Many relationships go through long periods of not being sexual, some are never sexual, some cease being sexual at a certain point, and some involve partners who get their sexual desires met in other ways (e.g. with other people or with pornography, erotica, fantasy and/or solo sex). Interestingly open relationships are twice presented as a big joke in the movie. Of course they might not be the thing for Kay and Arnold, but they do work for many people so it is a shame to ridicule them.

Asexual communities are currently raising awareness of the fact that it is perfectly possible to not experience sexual attraction. The therapist in Hope Springs seemed to assume that Kay and Arnold had to recapture their sexual relationship, rather than really exploring whether this was something that they wanted and, if so, why it was important, and the different possible ways of doing this.

Fiction: People should sleep together – Fact: It is fine to sleep apart

Another common myth reproduced in the film is that sleeping in separate beds/bedrooms is a sign of relationship problems. This is not necessarily the case at all. Some people love sleeping together and some hate it, and it may well change over a relationship (for example if people develop different sleeping routines or if one person snores or moves a lot in their sleep). Indeed having separate rooms to retreat to could be a very helpful way of getting the kind of space that can be so valuable to relationships.

Fiction: There is one thing called intimacy – Fact: There are many different kinds of intimacy

Carrell’s therapist also seems to equate sexual, physical and emotional intimacy and focuses on getting Kay and Arnold to be physically and sexually close. Personally I would have focused more upon their relationship in general rather than forcing physical/sexual closeness before they were communicating well. And, as mentioned above, it is perfectly possible to have each of these kinds of intimacy without the others.

Fiction: Sex is penis-in-vagina intercourse – Fact: There are many different kinds of sex

There is a moment in the movie where the couple are about to have sex and Arnold loses his erection. Kay is very unhappy after this and nearly leaves because she assumes that it means that he doesn’t find her attractive. Everything is better when they manage to have ‘successful’ penis-in-vagina intercourse. There are a whole load of sex myths in here. Clearly penis-in-vagina intercourse is represented as ‘real’, ‘proper’ sex, and sex is seen as requiring an erect penis and ending in ejaculation. There isn’t, for example, the possibility of sex which is focused on Kay’s pleasure, or the possibility of Kay and Arnold enjoying less genitally-focused forms of pleasure. Also erections are equated with attraction when these things may, or may not, be related (there are many other reasons why somebody might lose an erection).

Fiction: It is okay to go ahead with sex without much communication – Fact: Communication first is vital

When the therapist asks Kay and Arnold what they fantasise about sexually Kay struggles to come up with anything, and Arnold manages a couple of possibilities (oral sex and threesomes). The conversation is left there rather than pursuing Kay’s desires or really checking out whether she shares any of Arnold’s desires (teasing apart the cultural views of these activities from her own feelings). The real danger of this is that people will then feel forced into having sex that they don’t want.  At the end of the film Kay seems to be so relieved that she and Arnold are finally having sex that what she might enjoy sexually seems to have disappeared (she has been vague about whether missionary position sex is pleasurable or orgasmic for her).

If people don’t communicate about their sexual desires there is a significant risk that the sex they have will not really be something that they have consented to. It can be very painful to be a person who ends up having sex that they really don’t enjoy (like Kay when she attempts oral sex in the movie theatre because she thinks this is what Arnold wants). It can also be very difficult to be a person who realises that the person they are having sex with isn’t enjoying it (as Arnold speaks about as a key reason why he stopped having sex with Kay).

With somebody like Kay who struggles to know what she desires I would want to work with her on this before doing anything (e.g. reading erotic fiction, exploring her own body). Also it would be useful to explore the menu of what is possible physically and sexually to see whether there was any common ground (rather than pushing them towards one, restrictive, version of sex). It would be useful for Kay and Arnold to make a ‘yes, no, maybe’ list of all the sexual and physical practices that they are aware of, and whether they are interested in them (one of the possibilities I discuss in the sex chapter of Rewriting the Rules).

Overall it is great to see a movie depicting the challenges of romantic relationships and including sex and relationship therapy as a possibility. However it is about time that film-makers started to think a bit more critically about sex and about the diversity of possibilities for a good relationship.

Find out more:

You can find out more about how sex and relationship therapy works on the COSRT website which I helped to write.


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