Monday, August 27, 2012

Hope Springs and Male Shame

If you like psychological drama, the new movie “Hope Springs” may be for you.  I found it painful to watch at times (a bit of a busman’s holiday for me), but it brings some things to light about how marriage can go from being good and satisfying to almost completely dead.  If you are in couples therapy (or need to be) it is a must see. 

It is a movie about a couple, Kay (played by Meryl Streep) and Arnold (played by Tommy Lee Jones) who have been married 31 years.  As the movie opens we can feel the pain, fear and discouragement as Kay makes an unsuccessful bid to reinitiate having a sexual relationship with her husband.

How could this happen?  Is Arnold impotent?  Is he having an affair?  Is he addicted to porn?  Did she betray him in some way?   Everyone knows that some (okay, many) men shut down emotionally when they do not know how to deal with their psychological pain.  And Arnold certainly shows us what this can look like.  But what happened to his sex drive?

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that it wasn’t always like this.  The couple was apparently very much in love when they were first married.  They successfully raised two kids and then found themselves, as so many couples do, alone together in their well-worn roles - except Kay, as the stay at home mom of the family, finds herself, after the children leave home, wondering if it is worth it to stay in the marriage with Arnold.

The portrayal of Arnold by Tommy Lee Jones gives us an uncomfortable glimpse into the nose-to-the-grindstone sacrificial nature of the male psyche.  Here is a man that is stable as stable can be.  He works.  He provides a good home for his family.  And he is shut down.  Studying the game of golf seems to be his one distraction.  But even this tends to put him to sleep.  And we begin to suspect that he doesn’t actually play, but more watches it on T.V.

It all too easy to sympathize with Kay as Arnold refuses every move for intimacy that she offers.  No sex.  No talking about it.  No time together.  No nothing.

A brief scene in the therapist’s office later in the movie gives us a glimpse into the past of the couple.  It seems that Arnold used to be interested in sex.  But after being rejected and shut down sexually, over and over, he gave it up.  He made the sacrifice.  He didn’t blow up and rage.  He didn’t have an affair.  He didn’t abandon his family.  He shut down and did what men do.  He put his body on the line to make sure everyone was provided for.  “If she is happy, I am happy.”

This demonstrates an element of the male psyche that is important — how shutting down emotionally is, at its core, often driven by a desire to do what is right for the whole.  We have always done it.  Gone to war.  Gone down into the mine.  Gone out into the fields.  No matter how tired, scared and hopeless we might be, we will do what has to be done.  Often, to our own detriment.

This is not in any way to minimize the pain that women suffer in relationship and for the good of the whole.   We all know that women are basically good and that they sacrifice for their families.  They have been dominated unfairly and have been used and abused throughout history.

That is actually part of the problem.  It is shameful to be a man today because we now understand how much we have taken advantage of our superior physical strength to the detriment of others.  And shame shuts down the emotional system.  The movement of shame is to look down and away.  It is nature’s way of showing us that we are doing something that is outside of what is culturally (familially) acceptable.

So when we assert ourselves there is always a little voice inside that says, “are you being a bully?”  Now some men override this internal sense of shame by being twice as demanding or even mean.  But many of us try to be the best men we can be.  So when we say “I want sex” and she refuses, we feel overwhelmed by shame.  In the back of our mind we know that we are controlling and selfish.  And this proves it. There must be something wrong with me.  Why am I so preoccupied with sex?  Maybe I am just not attractive any more.  

Shame builds on shame.  And after awhile even the thought of initiating sexual contact makes us sick to our stomach.  When we have been rejected and felt shame over and over, the resistance to stepping back into a situation that has that possibility is palpable.  It feels like someone pulled the plug and every bit of motivation is draining out.

In fact, while women, generally speaking, are more emotionally resilient than men, this pattern of being a burned out pursuer happens to both men and women.  

In another blog I will discuss what we do about these patterns of shame.  How do we assert our needs and desires and roll with potential rejection?  How do we set our boundaries and still not shame the other?  How do we work through toxic shame that has built up from feeling shame way too much?   


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