What Sexual Fantasies Can Do for a Relationship

August 21, 2018

Sexual desire is among the strongest forces in human nature, one that can induce ecstatic pleasure and a profound connection between partners. Unfortunately, desire tends to diminish gradually over time when the novelty and mystery that fuel it fade away.

A decrease in frequency of sexual fantasies about existing partners (“dyadic fantasies”) and an increase of frequency of fantasies about other people (“extradyadic fantasies”) are typical manifestations of this process, as partners seek other sources of novelty and variety, at least in the fantasy realm. These fantasies may satisfy the need for novelty and variety without threatening the relationship. Still, some of them may make relationship deficiencies more salient, leading to further relationship dissatisfaction.

Research addressing the functions of sexual fantasies has mainly focused on variables associated with frequency and content of sexual fantasy. For example, it was found that people tend to represent themselves in their fantasies as more helpless following negative couple interactions1. Relatively less is known about how sexual fantasizing affects the relationship.

Scholars did acknowledge that the use of fantasies might act as an aphrodisiac that increases sexual desire. However, the relevant literature has been largely based on clinical impressions rather than systematic research and has offered conflicting views about whether and why “fantasies training” (i.e., guiding partners to generate arousing sexual imagery) promotes relationship well-being2. Research3 published recently in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin investigated whether and why sexual fantasies affect the relational atmosphere.

In four studies, my colleagues and I examined the relational consequences of dyadic and extradyadic sexual fantasies. In Study 1, romantically involved participants were instructed to fantasize sexually about either their partner (a dyadic fantasy condition) or someone else (an extradyadic fantasy condition) and then to describe this fantasy in narrative form. Following this procedure, participants indicated their desire to have sex with their partner as well as their desire to do something that would make their partner happy.

Participants in the dyadic fantasy condition expressed greater desire to engage in sex with their partners and to do something that would make them happy compared to participants in the extradyadic fantasy condition.

Study 2 sought to clarify whether the difference in the expressed desires between dyadic and extradyadic fantasy conditions reflects the positive influence of dyadic fantasizing or the negative influence of extradyadic fantasizing. To do so, we added two non-sexual conditions in which participants imagined that they discussed a recent concern either with their partner or with someone else.

The inclusion of these control conditions also allowed us to rule out the possibility that merely thinking about one’s partner increases the desire for engaging in sex and other relationship-promoting behaviors regardless of context (i.e., sexual vs. non-sexual).

Specifically, romantically involved participants imagined one of four scenarios that involved engaging in sexual or non-sexual activity with either their partner or someone who was not their romantic partner. Then, they described this scenario in narrative form and rated their desire to have sex and to engage in positive non-sexual activities with their partner (e.g., an intimate, non-sexual conversation).

The results showed that extradyadic fantasizing did not decrease the desire to engage in sex with one’s partner and other relationship-promoting behaviors. Rather, dyadic fantasizing increased these desires. The findings also demonstrated that the beneficial effects of dyadic fantasizing were unique to the sexual realm.

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