The Power of Fantasy in a Relationship

Sexual fantasies can improve a relationship, new studies show, if you fantasize about your partner

By Elizabeth Bernstein

     Research shows that 95% to 98% of the population has sexual fantasies. Photo: Getty Images

When relationship researchers gathered recently for their big international conference, one presentation drew a lot of attention because it offered an answer to a question often asked but rarely examined: Can sexual fantasies improve your relationship?

The answer: Yes—as long as you are fantasizing about your partner.

Previous research shows that just about everyone—between 95% to 98% of the population—has sexual fantasies. Not everyone, of course, wants to act on them. In general, men’s fantasies are more sexually explicit. They are more likely to fantasize about multiple partners, some studies found. Women’s fantasies contain more romantic and emotional content.

“Fantasies reflect how we cope with our insecurities and whether we want to promote intimacy or escape from it,” says Gurit Birnbaum, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center, a private university in Herzliya, Israel, who is the lead researcher on the new studies. “Tell me your fantasies and I will tell you what your personality is and what you want out of your relationship.”

A study published in the January, 2015, issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine found typical types of fantasies for both men and women include feeling romantic emotions during sex, imagining a particular atmosphere and location, receiving oral sex and (particularly for men) having sexual intercourse with two women.

What people fantasize about is determined by a number of factors, experts say, including hormones, age, past sexual experiences, relationship length and satisfaction level, personality and even emotional attachment style. People who avoid emotional attachment—psychologists call this having a highly avoidant attachment style—typically fantasize about casual, nonemotional sex. People with a highly anxious attachment style, who crave emotional attachment and worry they will lose the person they love, are more likely to fantasize about pleasing their partner. People with a secure attachment style are most likely to fantasize about romantic, loving sex.

Past research has looked at who and what people fantasize about, but generally not the impact these fantasies have on relationships. The vast majority of people in exclusive relationships fantasize about someone other than their partner, research shows, and people who are in an unhappy relationship do this more than others. A study of 349 people in heterosexual romantic relationships, published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2001, found that 98% of men and 80% of women fantasized about someone other than their partner at least occasionally. Most of the fantasies about someone else were about a person the participants had never been with sexually, yet a fifth of men and a third of women reported fantasizing about previous sexual partners.

The study also showed that fantasizing about someone else isn’t necessarily harmful for your relationship. The men’s fantasies about sex with someone else didn’t lead them to cheat, which is in keeping with the anecdotal evidence, experts say. “If fantasizing about other people was harmful, not many relationships would survive because almost all of us do it,” says Justin Lehmiller, the director of the social psychology graduate program at Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind., who is a sex researcher.

Fantasizing about one’s partner increases desire for him or her and leads to more supportive, affectionate and loving behavior, new research shows. Fantasies about someone else may not hurt a relationship, but they don’t help it, either. Illustration: Jason Schneider

Now, three new studies presented at the biennial conference of the International Association of Relationship Researchers, held recently in Toronto, show that fantasizing about your partner will help your relationship. It increases your desire for the person you are with and leads you to show them more love, affection and support. Fantasizing about someone else won’t hurt your relationship, the studies show, but it won’t help it, either. The studies haven’t yet been published in a scientific journal.

In the first study, 102 individuals who were in a heterosexual, monogamous relationship were brought into a laboratory and asked to fantasize about their partner or someone else. One-quarter of the people were told to fantasize sexually about their partner; one-quarter were told to fantasize about solving a problem with their partner; one-quarter were told to fantasize sexually about someone other than their partner; and one-quarter were told to fantasize about solving a problem with someone other than their partner.

The participants were then asked to describe the scenario they imagined in detail, including how they felt afterward. The study found that the people who had sexual fantasies about someone other than their partner felt guilty. And the people who had sexual fantasies about their partner had more interest in their partner.

“All they had to do is fantasize sexually about their partner and—boom!—their sexual desire increased,” says Dr. Birnbaum, the lead researcher.

In the second study, the researchers followed 100 heterosexual, monogamous couples for six weeks.

Participants were asked to independently record their perceptions of their relationship in a diary each day, without showing their partner, rating how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “I feel committed to the relationship;” “I feel doubts about my compatibility with my partner;” and “I feel my partner is highly valued by other people.”

The participants also reported on whether or not they fantasized about their partner that day.

This study found that on days when people said they had fantasies about their partner, they were more likely the next day to say they felt more committed in the relationship and more trusting of and affectionate to their partner. People also had fewer doubts about their relationship on days after they had fantasized about their partner.

In the third study, 48 heterosexual, monogamous couples were asked to keep diaries for three weeks, with each partner recording in detail every fantasy they had about their partner or someone else. They also recorded their relationship interactions each day, such as whether they expressed love, did something nice for their partner or were supportive or critical.

When the participants fantasized about their partner, they were more likely to act positively the next day. When they fantasized about someone else, they weren’t mean to their partner the next day, but they didn’t behave better toward them either.

The takeaway? “Even if you are not satisfied with your relationship, fantasizing about your partner boosts your relationship perception and satisfaction,” Dr. Birnbaum says.

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