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A few nights ago my husband and I went to watch Hope Springs, a movie starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a struggling couple, and Steve Carrell as their therapist.

I had been told that it was both funny and a little shallow. After watching it, I’d agree on both fronts. But I’m still very glad it was made. It’s really a pro-marriage movie, and we need as many of those as we can get. Will you all love it? Perhaps not. There’s no swearing or nudity that I can remember, but it does talk rather explicitly about some sex acts (including oral sex) that may make some people uncomfortable. It’s definitely not one to take your teens to. But if you’re married, there’s really nothing in it that you likely haven’t talked about or experienced.

The disappointing aspect, to me, is that they seemed to blame all of their communication and intimacy problems on sex. And as someone who writes a ton about sex, you would think that I would wholeheartedly agree that sex is the main problem. But I don’t. I think sex is part of a relationship–an important part, but only part. And to say that “if we fix the bedroom, everything else will fall into place” is a little naive to me. Perhaps it’s true in a very small number of cases, but there are usually many, many more issues, too.

Okay, that’s what I didn’t like. Here’s what I did: I have rarely seen a movie which so perfectly depicts how couples in trouble interact. They are in a horrible rut, and they can’t seem to move past it. A few years ago he throws out his back, so starts sleeping in a different room. He never returns to their bedroom. Every morning she gets up and makes his breakfast–two eggs and a piece of bacon, a glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee. They may exchange information, but they don’t actually talk.

And then one day she loses it and tells him that she wants to go to an intense couples counselling session. He resists, obviously, but eventually turns around. But even then things don’t work very well. He’s not cooperative. He’s so tied up in knots that he can’t reach out to her at all.

Until the end, when finally they break through the walls and intimacy is restored (a little too quickly and with too little fuss, but it is a movie, after all).

My husband and I laughed a lot in this movie, and not even at the specifically “funny” parts, because we could totally relate to what was going on in the couples’ heads. We’ve seen these same dynamics in ourselves, or in other couples we know. It’s really funny.

And the theatre was just packed with couples over 50, enjoying the movie together. I think I was the youngest one there, but I certainly don’t think the movie is just for older people. I think any married person can enjoy it, and glean from it. In fact, for younger people the message would be this: deal with stuff as it happens. Don’t let your marriage get in such a bad rut that you can’t climb out of it.

But I do want to dwell on the sex issue for just a minute, because while I think it was handled a little too flippantly in the movie (really, all the counsellor talked to them about was sex, and not communication or appreciation or any other important things), the dynamic that had developed is definitely one I’ve seen. In my surveys of men for The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, I had several guys say almost word for word what Tommy Lee Jones’ character said, and it went something like this:

At the beginning of our marriage I wanted her so much. I was always asking her for sex, and she sometimes said yes. But when we did make love I could tell it was “pity sex”. She didn’t really want to be there. And that was so demoralizing. I tried to think of anything but what she was doing, but it was so hard. And after a few years I just stopped trying. But don’t feel sorry for me now. I’m not really hurting. I’ve moved on, and I stopped caring years ago.

Basically, these guys used to be really into sex. But now they had totally shut down. They didn’t ask for sex anymore. They didn’t initiate. They had turned off that part of their lives. And that’s what was shown in the movie: Meryl Streep can’t get him to have sex with her no matter what she does, even though it used to be him who had the higher sex drive. And why? Because he was tired of “pity sex”. He was tired of her not really wanting it. It felt horrible. And so he just shut down.

Most marriages have problems where one partner has the higher sex drive. But it’s quite common for the partners to switch roles at some point in the marriage, largely because of this dynamic. The one who really wanted it eventually shuts down, and then the other partner, who still wants to feel some intimacy, can’t seem to get the other to engage.

And that’s sad, because what you’re really missing out on is true intimacy. It’s not just the sex; it’s the physical contact, and the spiritual intimacy, and the oneness that comes from making love.

I guess the lesson that I took from it is that we have to guard our sex lives well. As I said in a recent post, I do not believe the message to women should be:

Your husband needs sex so you should give it to him as often as possible.

That makes sex all about him, and as this movie showed so well, that’s not what men want anyway. They don’t just want quantity; they want to feel an actual connection, and that means that they want their wives to actually WANT to make love.

And honestly, that’s what I think women want, too. We want to be swept away. We want to feel great. We want to be breathless. Perhaps that’s not a reality in your life right now. That’s okay. For many couples it takes a long time to get it right, and over the month of September, during our Revive Your Marriage series we will have a week where you can read lots of people’s wisdom on how to make your sex life better. And, of course, there’s always The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex!

But if you commit to working towards making sex great in your marriage, most husbands will jump right in, even if it takes a while to get there. And for those of you who have husbands who just don’t want sex, then I’d recommend reading this series that I wrote on it a while back, too.

So all in all: a bit of a shallow movie, but still good nonetheless. And in our culture where marriage is always denigrated, the fact that these movies which focus on the benefits of a great marriage are out there make me so happy (even if the movie itself isn’t perfect).

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