In popular music, a common refrain is something to the effect of I can’t think of anyone but you. In romance fiction, the leading man becomes so overwhelmed by the heroine’s erotic charisma that he declares, You, and only you—forever. And in wedding vows, couples typically declare, You’re my one and only till death do us part.
But as clothing falls, breathing deepens, and hands roam, many if not most lovers forget that business about one and only—at least in their minds. They routinely fantasize about other lovers, everyone from ex-lovers, to colleagues, to the person who sat next to them in fifth grade. Sex researchers call these thoughts “extra-dyadic” reveries. And how people react to them says a good deal about their sexual comfort and satisfaction.
Here’s a small sample of studies that show the near-universality of extra-dyadic fantasies:
• University of Vermont researchers surveyed 349 coupled university students and employees. Over a period of two months, 87 percent reported fantasies of other lovers (98 percent of the men, 80 percent of the women). Their erotic reveries were independent of demographics, number of previous lovers, number of extra-relationship affairs, if any, and duration of their current relationship.
• Canadian researcher surveyed 87 community college students. More than 80 percent said they fantasized about lovers other than or in addition to the person with were involved with. The men’s fantasies tended to be more elaborate and vivid that the women’s.
• Finally, for his book Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head? The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies, London psychotherapist Brett Kahr used an Internet survey to collect anonymous fantasies from 23,000 English and American adults. Among his findings: Virtually everyone in a relationship has regular fantasizes of other lovers.
What Do Extra-Dyadic Fantasies Mean?
There are three typical reactions to fantasies of others: guilt, acceptance, and celebration.
Those who feel guilt generally believe that relationships are sacred bonds, that commitment means not only actual monogamy but banishment of all thoughts of other lovers. Anyone can feel guilt about sexual fantasies, but those who experience it disproportionately come from fundamentalist religious backgrounds. The religion itself is inconsequential. Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim—it doesn’t matter. What counts is fundamentalism, strict adherence to orthodox thinking. Orthodoxy insists that it’s wrong to fantasize about others, so when they do, fundamentalists feel guilty
People who accept fantasies of others usually believe that they have no responsibility for their fantasies, therefore whatever thoughts they have during sex are fine and have no implications for their relationships.
Those who celebrate their erotic fantasies are typically sexual explorers. They believe that fantasies are a harmless way to sample all sorts of erotic variations, including those they would never actually try.
You’re free to feel however you wish about fantasies of other lovers. But guilt is a sex-killer, and these and other studies show that as sexual guilt feelings increase, sexual satisfaction decreases.
Fantasies As Meditation
If you fantasize an orgy with your favorite movie stars, do you really want them between your sheets? Authorities on sexual fantasies generally agree that no matter what their content, fantasies don’t mean anything. They urge lovers to accept their fantasies without judging them, even if the reveries concern activities that fantasizers consider wrong, immoral, or disgusting.
Fantasies, they explain, are a form of meditation. In meditation, all sorts of random, unpredictable thoughts course through the mind. Meditation teachers say that meditators are not responsible for the thoughts that flit in and out of consciousness during meditation. They urge students to notice their thoughts without dwelling on them, and then gently push them out of mind.
Sex is similar. Both sex and meditation involve time-outs from everyday activities. Both require quiet, comfortable surroundings. And both focus the mind—in meditation on the mantra, and in lovemaking, on sensual pleasure. If thoughts during meditation don’t mean anything, then the same is true for the random, unpredictable thoughts that pop up while making love. Sex therapists say that in fantasy, everything is permitted and nothing is wrong.
Sharing Fantasies? Acting Them Out?
Sexual fantasies can feel so vivid and compelling that many people want to act them out. There’s some research support for this. A University of Kansas researcher asked 370 volunteers to write down their favorite or most recurring sexual fantasies. Then participants declared if they’d ever discussed it/them with their partners, and if so, how those conversations affected their relationships and sexual satisfaction. As sharing and acting out of sexual fantasies increased, so did reported sexual satisfaction.
Okay, a declaration that you dream of sex on a tropical beach just might lead to doing it and loving it. But if you frequently fantasize sex with your lover’s best friend or with your most recent ex, your partner might feel just a wee bit threatened. Use your judgment and your knowledge of who you’re dealing with. Revealing fantasies may, indeed, deepen intimacy. But it might also precipitate relationship turmoil. Fantasies may ultimately mean nothing, but sometimes they’re better left in your head.
Do you share your fantasies with your lover? If so, what, if anything, has happened?
Anderson M. “Sexual Communication in Romantic Relationships: An Investigation Into the Disclosure of Sexual Fantasies,” Dissertation Abstracts. ProQuest Information & Learning (2012) AA13489846.
Follingstad, D.R. and C.D. Kimbrell. “Sex Fantasies Revisited: An Expansion and Further Clalrification of Variables Affecting Sex Fantasy Production,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (1986) 15:475.
Hicks, T.V. and H. Leitenberg. “Sexual Fantasies About One’s Partner Versus Someone Else: Gender Differences and Incidence in Frequency,” Journal of Sex Research (2001) 38:43.
Kahr, B. Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head? The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies. Basic Books, NY, 2008
Rokach, A. “Content Analysis of Sexual Fantasies of Males and Females,” Journal of Psychology (1990) 124:427.