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London - The middle-aged woman surveys her reflection in the bathroom mirror and fluffs up her blonde hair.
She smooths the pretty nightdress over her hips, takes a nervous breath, pats her hair again, hoping she looks glamorous. Then she goes to knock hopefully on her husband’s bedroom door...
Tucked up in his single bed, he grunts a refusal. He’s not feeling too well: “I ate pork for lunch,” he says.
This moment of sad comedy comes right at the beginning of a film called Hope Springs, which opens in South Afrian cinemas in October
It is a film that (I predict) is going to get many couples talking, and hopefully working together to improve their relationships.
The film, which stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, raises a subject that is almost taboo on-screen and in real life; is it possible to reinvigorate a long marriage in which the passion has died?
To be honest, I’m astonished the movie ever got made since young and old alike seem to find the subject embarrassing.
It’s not just teenagers who say “Yuk” at the thought of older peoplehaving sex; my 32-year-old daughter flinches. Or perhaps that’s just at the thought of her parents ‘doing it’.
Sex (or, rather, the lack of it) between middle-aged people isn’t glamorous or exciting.
Perhaps this is because human bodies grow less beautiful; perhaps because passion is associated with youth and, deep down, we feel that mature people should have outgrown the frenzy.
And yet, it’s a subject we should talk about because when the sexual spark goes it causes real distress and even marital breakdown.
This can happen in many different ways. There are marriages where intimacy has disappeared because the couple end up feeling like brother and sister. Others where the woman detests the idea of contact. And some where a couple have become so distant that they may as well be strangers.
They all wonder what happened to the young couple who kissed and cuddled and couldn’t wait to make love. But time and age and children and anxiety and bodies growing older and many other factors douse the flames of passion.
Many letters to my Saturday advice column are from men whose wives reject them in bed, leaving their husbands to face a celibate future.
From time to time women write with the same feeling of rejection, but it’s more rare. This letter, from a reader I’ll call David, is fairly typical.
He writes: “I yearn for the touch of my wife. I dream of intimacy with her. I cry out to be told by her that she loves me.
“I receive no affection from her and it’s been that way for eight years, and I ache from the lack of love in my life.
“When I ask ‘Why?’ she tells me she does love me, but it’s so matter of fact. She tells me not to push her - and says that sex is unimportant to her now. She’s 47!
“I have everything except intimacy and love, so, in effect, I have nothing. My wife used to be so full of sexuality, but it has gone and I just don’t know what to do any more.”
That bewildered man could be speaking for countless others.
Yet it’s almost impossible to give advice, because the world of the bedroom is private. No one can possibly begin to understand the sexual dynamic between a couple - though, of course, experienced counsellors must try.
I’ll always suggest talking about the issue, but the trouble is that silence is the norm.
Most couples feel that something is wrong, yet don’t discuss it because it is difficult to acknowledge something they perceive as failure. Either that or they hope something will happen to rekindle the passion.
But the truth is that the longer you leave it, the more difficult it becomes to broach the subject.
If one half of a couple is refusing intimacy when the other longs for it, then the marriage may be on its last legs. But perhaps not.
Sometimes people just need a small shock to force them to confront their lack of love-making before it’s too late.
So in answer to the central question of whether or not you can ever put the spark back into a failing marriage, I certainly believe that, with time and effort, you can.
And a good first step for couples struggling to rekindle the passion might be to watch this new film together. I’ll certainly suggest to readers who write to me that they watch this tender, painful, funny and honest movie.
The film has won the approval of Relate, the relationship charity. They know how important it is for couples to talk to each other, as well as to a counsellor. And who knows? Hope Springs might - in its awkward, funny, recognisable way - help to break the silence.
It tells the story of Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) and Kay (Meryl Streep), who, after 31 years of marriage and two grown-up children, have forgotten how to be intimate with each other.
And by that I don’t just mean having sex. Each morning Kay cooks his bacon and egg as he likes it and Arnold eats it while reading the paper, then pecks her on the cheek as he leaves for the office. They don’t talk or share activities.
On their anniversary they give each other a satellite TV package (“Lots of channels!” says Kay, trying to sound enthusiastic) and their adult children try to hide their dismay at the lack of imagination and romance.
Arnold is crusty, Kay is wistful - and neither realises how much trouble their relationship is in.
Kay’s heartfelt words express what many married couples feel: “I might be less lonely if I were really alone.”
Does any of that sound familiar? This is how uptight, grumpy Arnold justifies his inability to communicate: “There are things in this life you don’t say for a reason.” But Kay - a thirsty soul within the emotional desert of their lives - cries from her heart: “I want to have a marriage again.”
Desperate, she scours the shelves of a bookshop and looks online - and that’s how she comes across Dr Bernard Feld, whose business is mending marriages.
He runs “intensive couples retreats” in a pretty town called Great Hope Springs, on the coast of Maine. It’s the last thing in the world Arnold wants to do and he refuses point blank, but Kay books the trip.
I’m not in the business of writing film reviews (though I will say the performances from Streep, Jones and Steve Carell as Dr Feld are nothing short of brilliant); my business is recognising the truth of the human drama.
Yet while the film examines important issues, it is not po-faced. Many moments made me laugh out loud.
The therapy sessions with Dr Feld are not played for comedy, but take us painstakingly - and painfully - through the process of helping a married couple confront what’s happening to them.
They are asked about their fantasies, for example, a question that would embarrass most of us. As the therapist encourages them to re-examine their history together, you can see each wondering how much they really know about the person they married 31 years before.
The therapist prescribes exercises to help them become sexually intimate again and helps them to understand that emotional closeness comes before physical closeness.
Arnold has to see how unhappy his wife is. Kay has to understand why he is as he is.
The scene when they are in a smart restaurant, reminiscing and laughing about when they met, is not simply sweet and touching, but a demonstration to all of us of how to keep a relationship alive - at any age. You have to remind yourself why you fell in love and always be aware that those two souls may not have changed in essence, even if their daily habits have.
Our fictional couple would not have reached that point without their therapist’s promptings - I believe the majority of couples with a perceived problem would benefit from a few sessions with a counsellor.
Steve Carell’s calm, twinkling marriage expert works through readily identifiable issues in such a believable way that filmgoers may pick up some tips without stumping up for marriage counselling.
In the film, Dr Feld’s “intimacy exercises” are almost funny, but desperately touching, too.
To ask a couple simply to hold each other (fully clothed) when they haven’t done so for years is far from easy. They hold out their arms like rusty robots.
Their fondness for each other is a matter of habit, but so is being unable to express it. Physical closeness, the film makes clear, will return only very gradually.
Watching it made me think how many couples could start by giving each other a great big hug once a day, increasing it to two hugs after a couple of weeks - that’s Dr Mooney’s prescription!
After years of marriage, rampant passion inevitably dies down, yet tenderness is essential to a good relationship. And tenderness begins with touch.
The problems sent to me by Mail readers often highlight one of the chief differences between the sexes - women want intimacy and men want sex. Women long for conversation, compliments and gentle cuddles, while men’s sex drive is different and less complicated.
Of course, these are generalisations, but they can be useful, for these differences can be at the root of sexual problems within marriages.
I’ve even had young women complain that their partners find it difficult to show affection unless it’s going to lead to intercourse, which they find upsetting and a turn-off. I want to tell their partners they need to be a bit more subtle before it’s too late and the woman’s refusals become a habit.
But I also want to remind the women that men need tenderness, too, and that sometimes having sex (even if you’d rather snooze) is an act of generosity.
That’s why I’d rather call it love-making. It’s not about playing silly games, but showing consideration. The old, unpleasant idea of “conjugal rights” shouldn’t be seen as a man’s “right” to demand sex, but as every spouse’s entitlement to tenderness.
Even the best marriages go through difficult times and even loving couples find they don’t fancy each other as much as they used to, but ignoring the issue as well as ignoring your spouse isn’t the answer.
For you can put a spark back into a failing marriage - as long as both parties truly want to.
Hope Springs shows what can be achieved when a man and woman are committed to reconnecting with one another and reigniting the fire in their relationship.
It shows that reaching out requires a series of small, shy steps and needn’t be a great ordeal.
The film is frank about the difficulties in re-connecting with your spouse: there’s one point when you think it’s all going to be fine, only to witness tears and disappointment.
Naturally, I wouldn’t dream of giving away the ending of this honest, compelling movie.
What I will say is that it is a brilliant example of how hope does spring eternal in the human breast, and for very good reason.
Every married couple should watch it and learn from it, for the movie contains a vital message: that we shouldn’t give up on an ailing marriage just because the spark has gone out.
That it is possible to reignite the dying embers of a long relationship and that the deep joy of finding each other again can be even more powerful than the passions of youth. - Daily Mail