Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

The Myth of True Love

A movie asks: is it unrealistic to expect life-long marital bliss?

The new movie Hope Springs starring Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones is making America face a very uncomfortable fact: Why are so many long term marriages so miserable?

Meryl Streep plays Kay, a woman who is romantically estranged from her husband of three decades.  We recommend this movie highly for  all those interested in seeing the ultimate outcome of dishonest courtship. Like desperate king salmon leaving the freedom of the open ocean to swim upstream to the Alaskan spawning ground, American men are often seeking heterosexual partners with little regard to compatibility. These men are single-minded in their goal of mating with no regard to the long-term cost, both to themselves and the women they cohabit with and/or marry. Like a salmon after the inevitable spawning, actor Tommy Lee Jones portrays the emotionally and physically spent husband, Arnold. He has long since resigned himself to a lifetime bound to someone he would never otherwise seek out for friendship. Tragically, Kay sense this and seeks help from a marriage counselor played by Steve Carrell.

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Today we see many middle-aged and elderly men and women bound together in marriages and cohabitations who wouldn't otherwise be friends. As in the case of Kay and Arnold, all they share in common is a name, address and children. Saddest of all, many women have come to accept that these shallow relationships are the best that can be expected of men. Typical of these jaded mates is Chicago Tribune writer Cheryl Jarvis, who proudly proclaimed her marriage a "winner", even though she and her husband share little in common besides the same zip code. According to Cheryl, attending weekend social events escortless while her husband stays home is normal married life. She has conversed with many other long-time married women and has found that marriages like hers are "not uncommon." She states that the secret to her twenty-five year marriage is "we don't see each other too much." Tragically, women all over America are buying into Cheryl Jarvis' standard of marriage as an extremely low level of happiness.

Many critics ask what is wrong with the dishonest courtship and marriage of  what we call Mirage Man Syndrome that provides companionship, however mismatched, with consenting adults like Kay and Arnold in the movie. Courtship and marriage had evolved in the early twentieth century from the enslaving patriarchal marriage model to the enlightened companionate model so that men and women could both become personally fulfilled within a heterosexual relationship. This is what Kay is yearning for in the movie.

Tragically, with this contemporary mutation of the companionate relationship sweeping America, women like our fictional Kay are just as bad off, if not worse, than they were in the restrictive patriarchal system. Today women are often ending up with strangers for mates in unions that have no permanence. At least with the patriarchal system the woman had a steady if unspectacular mate for life who would financially provide for her family and provide guidance to their children as an important male role model.

We salute the film Hope Springs for vividly showing the awful final "Resigned Compliance" stage of a mirage relationship based on the shallow values of physical attraction, charm and approval seeking. It's unrealistic to expect to enjoy a fulfilling heterosexual relationship that will last a lifetime when it has such a weak foundation. Fortunately there is a better way.

J.R. Bruns, M.D., is co-author of The Tiger Woods Syndrome, a book about repairing relationships.

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