Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hope Springs: Don't Ignore Your Partner

I had the pleasure of seeing the new film Hope Springs recently. I saw it with the perfect audience for this film, lots of bright seniors at a late afternoon matinee in Santa Barbara, California. They laughed continuously at all the truths packed in that movie about long-time committed relationships, and what happens if nobody's paying attention to the relationship. Basically, continental drift has occurred between the movie's lead characters, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.  Meryl is desperately unhappy and enrolls them in week-long intensive couples’ counseling a few states away with therapist Steve Carrell. What follows is funny, true, and touching.

I won't spoil the ending for you, but I thought I'd highlight a few of the universal relationship principles the movie explores. Here are some:

1.      Don't ignore your partner. They are not a potted plant. They are a living, breathing person that needs to have your attention, love, and listening ear.

2.      When couples drift apart, there is often (although not always) a part of that distance that each partner contributed to.

3.      In relationships, you sometimes need to decide if you want to be right, or you want to be happy. Choose peace if and when you can.

4.      Physical intimacy is like glue that contributes to a couple being closer. We all need to touch and be touched. We need to be open-minded and expressive about what we want, and how we like to be touched and courted, even by a long-term partner. Don't assume you know what your partner wants. Ask them! People usually change and evolve over time. Try to keep the intimacy thread going.

5.      Couples need some of their own activities, identity, and time apart. It's refreshing, and when you get back together you have more to bring to each other. Couples who are always together can emotionally suffocate each other.

6.      Take warning if your partner is very unhappy. The worst kind of loneliness can occur when you are in a relationship and yet feel the other person doesn't truly try to understand you or meet your needs. A number of my patients have told me over the years that they find this worse than being alone. Don't ignore this red flag and then act surprised when your beloved departs.

7.      Express appreciation that you feel for your partner. Nobody I know likes to be taken for granted.

8.      We're not getting any younger. Don't miss opportunities to join your partner in some fun activity or snuggle together. You really don't want to regret later that you didn't lean fully into your relationship.

9.      Fight for the best relationship you can have with each other. Be open to reading something new, or seeing a couples’ therapist together to have them help you break the impasse and get things going in the right direction. Tommy Lee Jones is not a happy camper about Meryl dragging him into doing couples’ counseling, but he is a better, more open man from the work they do with therapist Steve Carrell. I compare opening up in counseling being like the bear that gets a thorn stuck in his paw, and it is sore, but the bear's afraid to go to the thorn removing expert. The bear has to go through the hurt of the thorn coming out in order to heal. So do people.

10.  Don't give up easily. It's amazing the transformations I've seen in couples in relatively a short time as I have worked with them these last 20 years. Couples can go through tremendous disconnection and come back through it to a new renaissance in their relationship. Even when couples can't find their way back to each other, as sometimes happens, I think there is some peace of mind in knowing you did everything in your power to try to grow through the pain.

11.  Don't be an old grump. Remember Dr. Phil's classic line, "How much fun are YOU to live with?"

12.  Separate bedrooms are usually not a good idea. If you snore so that it disturbs your partner, be a responsible partner and see you doctor to determine if you need a sleep study to check for sleep apnea.

13.  Don't be like a memory foam pillow, and hold on to every dent. Try your best to work through things and then let them go.

14.  Don't give lousy, practical gifts to your partner, like appliances. Not romantic. At all. Ever. Am I clear on this one? Nothing says I've given up like lousy gifts, or forgetting anniversaries.

15.  Change things up a little from time to time. It will help keep things fresh.

Hope Springs? It's a good one to see. Meryl Streep was terrific, as usual. Tommy Lee Jones' character strikes a balance between angry and hurt. Steve Carrell made a pretty good therapist- sincere and direct. (Except, with Steve, I kept waiting for his sense of humor to pop out, but he plays this one straight.) It's interesting to watch the way the device of showing the couples’ therapy sessions, and the homework assignments they struggle with, move the development of the characters and their relationship forward.

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