Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Todd Black, Guymon Casady
Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Brett Rice, Jean Smart, Elisabeth Shue
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2012
Arnold Soames is a cranky, moderately successful executive and partner in an accounting firm. His wife Kay works as a clerk at Coldwater Creek, a middle-class department store. She is sweet, non-demanding, and wistful.
From the outside, the couple's life seems normal. Arnold exchanges bathroom small talk with his colleague and only friend Vince while Kay folds tops at the clothing shop talking to her colleague Eileen. At their 31st wedding anniversary dinner at home in Omaha, Kay and Arnold tell their grown children Brad and Molly proudly that they bought each other a new cable TV subscription for this occasion.
The couple's marriage has frozen into a routine. Since their children were gone, they hardly talk with each other anymore. For years they have slept in separate rooms, forgoing any physical affection. One night, Kay fluffs up her hair, puts on a pretty nightgown, and shows up in Arnold's bedroom. But he receives her overtures with bewilderment and protestations of fatigue. When she leaves, he is glad to continue to read his golf magazine.
Every morning Kay greets her husband with bacon, eggs, and a smile that turns into a disappointed look when he does not respond, because he makes it straight for the breakfast table and his newspaper. At dinnertime, she follows him around with plates of food. Every day ends with him falling asleep in his lounger in front of his golf shows on TV while Kay putters in the kitchen.
While Arnold is in denial about the state of their marriage, Kay knows that she is unhappy. After she finds a book called You Can Have The Marriage You Want by Dr. Bernie Feld in a bookstore, she decides to sign Arnold and herself up for a week of intensive marital counseling with the author in the coastal resort town in Hope Springs, Maine.
Summoning all the reserves she has left, Kay tells Arnold about her plans. But as a creature of plodding, unimaginative routine, he does not see anything wrong with their marriage that has worked quite efficiently for over three decades. Because Arnold resists going on this trip, she gets on the plane alone and waits to see if he will fill the seat beside her. Begrudgingly, Arnold joins Kay at the last minute. After their arrival, he goes along continuing to grouch and sulk every step of the way. He bitterly complains about the cost of everything related to their therapeutic journey.
In their daily counseling sessions, Dr. Feld uses gentle but insistent encouragement. He asks the couple increasingly frank questions about their feelings toward one another, their sex life, as well as their sex fantasies. Both Kay's and Arnold's pain is palpable. They admit to loneliness and anger, swap accusations, and confess disappointments as they discuss their loss of emotional intimacy and missing sex life. Kay expresses hopes and fantasies of a new start with a renewal of their wedding vows.
Arnold is stern, angry, defensive, rigidly resistant to change, and unwilling to recognize the depth of his wife's disappointment. Discouraged by her husband's recalcitrance, Kay leaves one of their sessions angry and crying. She goes to a bar where she vents to the bartender Karen and learns that nobody else in the bar is having any sex. In the meantime, Arnold visits a nautical museum to distract himself.
Back together after this crisis, the couple spends the night in the same bed for the first time in years. Kay awakes in the morning to find Arnold's arm around her. At this sign of progress, Dr. Feld suggests carefully choreographed "sexercises". Kay and Arnold make hesitant attempts at sexual intimacy on the bed of their budget motel and again in a movie theater. Because of their insecurities, their efforts lead to disastrous results. But during their following sessions, the couple understands that articulating their feelings will help them revitalize their relationship and find the spark that caused them to fall in love in the first place. Their masks are starting to disappear.
As Arnold begins to open up emotionally, Dr. Feld explains to him in an individual session how unhappy his wife is. He learns that Kay might leave him if things don't improve. Therefore he now takes the initiative to arrange a romantic dinner and a night at a luxury inn. The couple attempts to make love in front of a fireplace, but Arnold's grand design fails. At their final session, Dr. Feld tells the couple that they have made much progress and should continue with counseling at home.
But back in Omaha, old habits resume, which is disappointing for Kay. One night she tells Arnold that she offered to pet sit for her colleague Eileen for several weeks. He is concerned that this might be a first step in a break up. During the next scene, both are shown in their beds trying to sleep. After some hesitation, Arnold gets up and visits his wife in her bedroom. They tenderly embrace. The lovemaking that follows is warm, natural, and quietly passionate. When he breaks his breakfast routine the next morning, it becomes obvious that their marriage is transformed.
Like Kay had fantasized during their therapy, they renew their wedding vows on a beach. Dr. Feld and their children are present when they make promises to be more understanding and considerate of each other.
Molly and Don, a couple in their fifties, met and got married a few years ago. Following a short "honeymoon period" a few months after the wedding, Molly became disappointed. She said that Don was less emotionally accessible and that they hardly had sex any more. She initiated couples therapy. When they came to see me, Don seemed very uncomfortable. He doubted that counseling could help them and worried about getting blamed for their problems.
During our work, Don remained withdrawn and reluctant to express his perspective until I asked them to watch Hope Springs. I told the couple that the movie plot differs from their situation and that I wanted them to observe how they handle things better than Kay and Arnold. If they see anything they could learn from the movie couple, I would like to know about it too.
Molly started our following session saying: "I am really glad that we saw this movie. Even though Don is much kinder than Arnold, I feel like Kay sometimes. That's why I suggested therapy. It's hard for me to explain to Don how lonely I feel, but now he saw it demonstrated by Kay in the movie".
I wondered whether Don might feel blamed by Molly's remark and close down even more. But he started participating in the therapy process more then before. He smiled when he said, "I think we have a much better relationship than Kay and Arnold."
Molly agreed and said that they were not slavishly devoted to daily rituals like the movie couple. Besides, Don was more loving and affectionate than Arnold. Comparing her husband with Arnold helped her think more positively about Don. I encouraged Molly to expand on expressing her appreciation for her husband. Her high expectations prevented her from praising him before. Molly's positive comment about their relationship seemed to lift a weight from Don's shoulder. "There might be guy's out there who are even worse than I am," he joked with a smile and gave her a kiss on her cheek.
Both Molly's and Don's mood lifted significantly after this interaction. My clients learned that they previously had entered into an unhealthy dynamic. Molly's disappointed expectations and criticism of her husband triggered his desire to withdraw. More criticism followed, and subsequently more withdrawal. I pointed out how they had just reversed this dynamic. Molly was able to focus on Don's positive traits and help him to come out of his "shell" by expressing her appreciation for him.
I asked my clients whether the movie characters demonstrated anything they admired or respected. Both emphasized the courage they recognized in the characters. Don respected that Arnold went on the trip despite his resistance, and that he made a strong effort to change. He smiled again when I told him that he might have gone through a similar process at the beginning of their couples therapy. Molly admired Kay's courage to make sexual advances that were foreign to her. She expected Don to initiate sex because she believed that "this is how things are supposed to be". Now Molly was able to imagine that she could enjoy taking the initiative to start their sexual encounters. Don appeared very happy when he heard that.
My clients both appreciated the characters' commitment to the therapeutic process after Arnold's initial reluctance. Their transformation after a difficult struggle gave them hope. They started to believe that they could improve their relationship if a couple like Kay and Arnold can find their way back together. "Love requires real effort and faith", remarked Don. Molly added, "as well as wine and roses." Their relationship improved significantly.
When one partner resists therapy, encouraging him or her to watch a movie in which a couple struggles with similar issues helps. This partner becomes less intimidated by the therapeutic process and is less afraid of getting blamed.
Movies can be used as a tool to improve communication in couples work. Sometimes communication between clients is strained because they try to communicate a concept that is unfamiliar to their partner or another family member. By watching a film together, both of them can enter into a more productive conversation. The film serves as a metaphor, and therefore represents feelings and ideas that a client had trouble putting into words.
Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions for Work with Couples
While you watch Hope Springs, observe how you handle things better than Kay and Arnold.
What strengths and other positive qualities do you recognize and appreciate in your partner?
Did the movie characters demonstrate anything you admire or respect?
Is there anything that you can learn from the movie couple?
How can you improve your communication?
Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy