Sexless in Nebraska: Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in “Hope Springs”

A strange thing, mystifying

In this new movie, Tommy Lee Jones plays an Omaha accountant named Arnold who won’t have sex with his wife — Kay, a sixty-something Everywoman played by a very likeable Meryl Streep.

No sex, no physical attention, minimal eye contact, separate bedrooms.  The marital estrangement combination platter – with fries.

True to life?  Absolutely.  It would be awfully nice if this were just a Hollywood dramatization.   But in fact it happens all the time in real life.

Now what, one might ask, would cause Hope Springs’ Arnold to hang a “no trespassing” sign on himself, especially with such a nice woman as Kay for a wife?   The answer is surprisingly simple.  (Skip the following if you’re about to see the movie).


True to life

Years ago, it turns out, Kay was feeling unhappy that Arnold wasn’t more fully involved during sex — that he seemed “ to want it, but not me.”   (True to life?   Absolutely.  It’s one of the more common complaints among married women in my sex therapy office.)

Frustrated that Arnold wouldn’t listen when she tried to express how she felt, Kay briefly withheld sex, hoping to get his attention.  The plan backfired.  Feeling criticized and hurt, Arnold too went on strike.  Permanently.

Before I became a sex therapist, I would have thought this incredible.  Now I find it utterly believable.  It’s the kind of emotional stalemate that often happens to individuals who can’t express themselves very well.   That includes a lot of folks.

But notice something:  Even though the problem involves sex, it’s not really ABOUT sex. It’s about feelings.  That’s also very true to life.


Cheap laughs and flying popcorn

On the other hand, the sex therapy in Hope Springs ISN’T very true to life.   A good sex therapist today would spend much more time on feelings with this couple.  But in the movie, sex therapy mostly means trying to break down sexual barriers.

That makes for some cheap laughs,  involving such things as an attempted blowjob in a movie theater — complete with flying popcorn.   But in real life it doesn’t work too well.

I know — it’s a comedy.   In a comedy, you need flying popcorn.

But stay tuned, and we’ll discuss how a real sex therapist would treat a couple like this.

Next time.

stephen snyder md author photo Stephen Snyder, MD

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