Fantasizing about your spouse can benefit your marriage far beyond the bedroom, new research reveals. Committed couples who make an effort to intentionally have sexual fantasies about one another are more likely to want to have sex with and spend quality time with their partners, new research reveals. While fantasies about other people do not help or hurt the intimacy, the four-part study shows that when people stop fantasizing about their long-term partners, they may also stop engaging in other behaviors that benefit the relationship.
“Sexual fantasies exist in a private world of one’s own making, where they are habitually used for increasing sexual arousal and gratification,” study authors write. “These fantasies are not isolated in the bubble of the mind, though. Rather, they are an integral part of relationship dynamics.”
Although the quality of real-life romantic relationships can inform what kind of fantasies people experience privately, whether or not fantasies are a response to something missing in a relationship is a matter of scientific debate. There’s some evidence that people fantasize, not to make up for what they’re lacking in their relationships, but to feel empowered when they feel powerless. It is possible that when individuals fantasize about people other than their partners, this may be more a result of general stress in romantic relationships than of sexual dissatisfaction. Conversely, fantasizes centered around your partner can increase both sexual and relationship satisfaction, research shows.
The researchers set out to determine whether fantasies helped a relationship, or if thinking about having sex with other people hurt it, through four separate experiments. The first one instructed 40 men and 40 women in relationships to fantasize about either their partners or someone else, and then describe that fantasy in written form. Then participants rated how much they wanted to have sex with their partner, as well as how much they wanted to do something to make them happy. Results revealed that when people pictured their partners in sexual scenarios, they felt a greater desire to both have sex with their partners and do other things that make them happy, like participating in an activity they enjoy, compared to committed couples who fantasized about people other than their partners.
Then, researchers introduced nonsexual scenarios into the same process — a conversation about a recent concern with their partners or other people, for instance. Researchers found that fantasies about other people did not have a negative impact, but even nonsexual fantasies about romantic partners increased the desire to have sex.
To see how this worked outside of the lab, study authors had 48 couples maintain a diary for three weeks, where they recorded their sexual fantasies, along with positive and negative interactions with their partners that day. Diary data suggested that people were more likely to engage in “relationship-promoting” behaviors, such as complimenting their partners or acting considerately, following a fantasy about them. And yet when people fantasized about someone else, it did not have positive or negative effects on relationship behaviors, consistent with the previous experiment.
Finally, researchers asked 100 couples to keep more detailed diaries for 6 weeks. This time, participants regularly recorded every time they fantasized about their partners, as well as their desire to engage in sex with them, their positive and negative perceptions about the relationship, and their relationship promoting behaviors. The diaries confirmed that, when people fantasize about their partners, it enhances the appeal of that person as well as the relationship as a whole, thereby reducing negative feelings. Increasing the appeal of the overall relationship helped participants to see their relationships as more valuable, and they invested in them further as a result.
Researchers concluded that fantasies about current romantic partners may be the most beneficial when couples are the least likely to have them — when they’ve been together for a long time. Still, the takeaway for long-term love is to make more of a conscious effort to have these sexual fantasies, and maybe even tell each other about them.
“Our findings indicate that in this later stage of relationship development, when couples typically experience habituation of sexual response, deliberately fantasizing about sex with current partners may increase partners’ sexual appeal and the probability of acting positively toward them.”