Why we fantasize about other partners
In a close long-term relationship, is it inevitable that one or both partners will occasionally be tempted to deviate? You may find yourself inexplicably fantasizing about having an affair with the server at the sandwich shop in your neighborhood. You know you would never act in fantasy, then, where is the harm?
But maybe this scenario makes you feel uncomfortable. You deeply love your partner and feel that the solid confidence you have built will fracture even with the mental indulgence of a fantasy of infidelity. And what causes anxiety is the idea that your partner has such ideas.
Having a fantasy and acting on it are, the rational mind knows it, nothing like it. You are an adult and, unlike your adolescent self, you have learned to control (most of) your impulsive tendencies. It is good to imagine having sex with that stranger because you know that you will never continue with the illicit action. The irrational part of your mind, on the other hand, fears that you are opening a floodgate of desires that you can not control.
For the concept of infidelity to exist in a couple, both must define the relationship as monogamous. In an open marriage, or among people who practice polyamory, theoretically, there could be no infidelity. However, in the relationships of two committed people, the idea of infidelity is very relevant.
Infidelity in fantasy can take many forms. In addition to the dreams over which you have no control, there are traps on Facebook, where you can stalk an ex or allow your imagination to run through scenarios with high school sweethearts. You may also be surprised by daydreaming with a partner or coworker during a boring meeting or class, or by watching a stranger on the street for the second time. And then there are the Hollywood celebrities, the objects of thousands if not millions of fantasies, sexual and otherwise ... Do these behaviors constitute infidelity or simply represent innocent mental adventures?
You can also participate in a more direct form of fantasy infidelity with someone who may pose a real threat to your loyalty to your partner. People who have "a spouse in the workplace" may find themselves struggling daily to rid their minds of images in which what has been platonic becomes romantic.
Fantasy infidelity can attack at an inconvenient time. Maybe you're sharing a real romantic moment with your partner when that fantasy couple appears in your mind. Fighting it only makes the problem worse and could ruin the moment.
A 2003 study by Spanish psychologists María Lameiras Fernández and Yolanda Lameiras Fernández showed that, at least among university students, those with higher levels of personality openness and lower levels of consciousness also had more favorable attitudes towards sexuality in general. By looking at the dark side of sexual fantasies, psychologist at the University of North Texas Jenny Bivona and colleagues (2012) reported that college students who had "fantasies of rape" also had a greater openness to sexual experiences in general.
It is possible, then, that the people most likely to fantasize about someone other than their partner are simply more likely to fantasize about sex in general. They may also have fewer inhibitions and feel less limited by the bonds of commitment in a long-term relationship. Even if they never act according to fantasies, they are not punished for having them.
Whether it is part of your personality or not, when you have these fantasies, does it mean that your relationship is doomed? Are you looking, as the real infidels usually do, to compensate for a relationship that no longer satisfies your needs? Here again, there is little to guide us in the literature on couples, most of which focuses on real infidelity.
We know that relationships evolve long-term and what was once a passionate love story with your partner may well have moderated in a warm and mutually rewarding form of companion intimacy. Instead of finding a new partner in reality, you use your fantasy infidelities to add some flavor to the mix. It is even possible for you and your partner to find it exciting to exchange fantasies, including those of other people. In any of these cases, fantasy infidelities are not a sign that something is missing deeply in their relationship.
However, there is a danger that fantasies of infidelity may become entry-level drugs for real infidelities. This is particularly true if you are concerned with these images and can not enjoy intimacy with your partner unless your mind is free to go there. In this case, instead of simply trying to reject these thoughts, it might be worth trying to examine what might be driving them.
Is there anything about the appearance, gestures, or behavior of your spouse in the bedroom (or elsewhere) that is moving you mentally away? If you constantly fantasize about the same person, what qualities does that other person have that you feel your partner does not have? By allowing yourself to explore your fantasies instead of fighting against them, you can get ideas that you can share with your partner. It is not necessary that you mention the fantasies, but you can analyze what they could represent.
Finally, there can be a great disadvantage in this too: people with low sexual desire, either with their partners or with any other person, can benefit from being encouraged to entertain sexual fantasies.
A team of Italian sexuality researchers, led by Vieri Boncinelli (2013), classified the fantasies of 308 clinical cases of women diagnosed with hypoactive sexual desire disorder. These fantasies were not characterized according to the identity of the partner, but to the content of the fantasy itself. Then, the researchers explored the use of these fantasies as part of the treatment, encouraging the participants to fantasize about their partners. In all but 9 of the 48 cases that tried this "fantasy" treatment, the women returned to normal sexual functioning.
If you label your sexual fantasies by their content and not by whom they imply, then it is possible to see them in a more positive and potentially therapeutic way. You do not have to succumb to the urge to act on fantasy with its original purpose. If you take your imagination to bed, it can eventually lead to those fantasies of infidelity being replaced by others that improve the way you and your romantic partner shared moments of intimacy.