Is Change Possible?
A few years ago I watched a lesser-known movie with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, called "Hope Springs." In the film, an older couple is trapped in a loveless marriage until one of them takes the initiative to try and change that. Early in the film, the wife asks a friend: "Is it possible to change one’s marriage?" The unequivocal answer of her friend is: "No!" Despite this discouragement, what follows is a full-fledged effort at couples therapy in the form of a week-long out-of-town therapy intensive in which lasting positive changes are made.
As a couples therapist I enjoyed the movie. The film is not a sappy romantic comedy saturated with slapstick, or making fun of psychological struggles. It is neither an engineered tearjerker, nor a cynical statement featuring professional malpractice, or a sweet movie ending in unexpected tragedy. What is depicted is a realistic up-and-down process of the hard work a couple might take on, albeit reluctantly, to see things differently and putting in the effort.
The partners’ dynamic going in is very common in my own couples therapy practice: They aren't fighting openly, but their tension and avoidance is palpable, and both partners’ inner turmoil becomes more and more apparent as the film progresses. Meryl Streep’s and Tommy Lee Jones’ performances are stellar as usual, and if the relationship does not remind you of your own, then it probably reminds you of somebody else's you know. As a couples therapist I appreciated the depiction of the setbacks and failures of couples work, and especially the partners’ willingness to "get back on the saddle" the next day and try again. Most importantly I can align myself with the film’s message: Change is possible, especially if both partners are willing to take a hard look at their own issues and step into the uncertainty of changing course.
You can't control what your partner does, but you can start with yourself. The risk is high – marriage counseling can be a scary process with no guarantee that you will get the outcome you desire. On the other hand, not trying new approaches is risky, too – it is pretty much a guarantee for things staying the same, and for many couples the status quo is not sustainable. When change needs to come quickly, the therapist needs a lot of commitment from each partner to make individual adjustments on their end. It's not an easy process, but rediscovering the trust and joy your relationship once had is worth fighting for!
By Julia Flood, LCSW