If you’re in a monogamous relationship, then you’ve already agreed not to wander into bed with someone else. Going there in your mind, however, is something else entirely. Fantasies are fair game. And they’re also almost impossible to police. Though our partners may want to assume themselves the only erotic muse around, the reality is some understudy has probably graduated to the lead role in our mental movies on far more than one occasion. But at what point does fantasizing about someone else during sex become a problem?
“Having sexual fantasies of someone other than your long-term partner is completely natural,” says Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford, a marriage and family therapist. “Erotic fantasies are often pleasant daydreams that can be used to explore one’s creative side, act upon sexual desires we have difficulty acting out in ‘real life.’”
Despite how natural such fantasies are, this can’t stop them from inspiring real guilt. “Too often, we feel like we are betraying our partner when we fantasize about someone else sexually,” says Bates-Duford. It’s no wonder, then, that this oh-so-common-phenomenon isn’t typically addressed among couples who exist in the real world and not some nineties sitcom: No one wants their partner to think that they no longer desire them sexually or – even worse – that they’ve stepped outside the bounds of the relationship. Of course, keeping quiet doesn’t stop certain thoughts from rolling in
In a study conducted by the Journal of Sex Research, 80 percent of women and 98 percent of men admitted to fantasizing about someone other than their partner. A separate study found that having sex with someone with someone else remains a top fantasy among both men and women involved in committed relationships. In a survey conducted by online sex toy retailer, LoveHoney, 46 percent of women admitted to fantasizing about having sex with another person while getting it on with their partner.
“Sometimes we fantasize about others during sex because our own sex lives have become pretty routine, we would like to add some spice to our sex life without damaging our relationship,” explains Bates-Duford. “When we fantasize, we use the creative part of our brain to compose images that promote the fantasy while the logical part of our brain reminds us if we act on our fantasies, we will jeopardize our relationship.” Throw in the ubiquity of social media, image sharing, and all the other tantalizing subject matter we may find online and its no wonder we may find ourselves thinking about someone else every now and then.
Fantasies, Bates-Duford adds, liberate us from the guilt of acting upon our impulses. Though, she warns, problems are bound to pop up when those infidelities fantasies become a bedroom staple.
“The danger of overly fantasizing about someone else during sex with your partner does not allow you to properly build upon your intimacy or sustain it,” she says. There’s also the danger of wanting to act on these urges. “Fantasizing excessively can become gateway for actual infidelities, says Bates-Duford. “This is particularly true if you’re preoccupied with sexual images of someone else and can’t enjoy intimacy or become sexually aroused with your partner unless you are fantasizing about someone else.”
Maybe now would be a good time to remind readers that almost even problem has a solution. If couples are having a hard time getting to the bottom of the issue, counseling is always an option. A third party can bring awareness to buried feelings and help us release them in healthy ways. And sometimes, it doesn’t even get to that point. Often, fears about overactive fantasies can be laid to rest with some simple communication.
“Couples should openly discuss their sexual and intimate needs with their partner,” says Bates-Duford. Remember, interests change and curiosities can set in at any time. Bates-Duford suggests couples make a continued effort to check in with one another. Ask questions, and demand feedback. Sometimes, resolution doesn’t come in the form of killing the problem, but rather, finding productive ways to pepper it in.
Correction: An earlier version of this article originally misattributed quotes by Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford to family therapist Katie Ziskind.