Have you ever drifted into a Fifty Shades of Grey-style sexual fantasy starring someone who is most definitely not your partner? If you're wondering whether fantasizing about someone you know is standard behavior (and when doing so becomes unhealthy), ponder no more. Here, relationship experts explain how fantasizing about other people (and yes, even someone you know) might actually be a good thing—along with a few signs that indicate when it's quite the opposite.
A reference article on fantasies published by Psychology Today teaches us that "The human mind is sexual, creative, and exploratory, and fantasizing is one way [we] satisfy [our] sexual needs and wants." Sexual fantasies are natural occurrences wherein one enjoys total control and freedom—and there are many reasons why our thoughts might be filled with someone other than our S.O. As the psychotherapist Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., explains in sex coach Gigi Engle's 2017 article in Bustle, "Our imagination is polyamorous and is the only part of our lives that is truly free.” Free, indeed.
Our imagination is polyamorous and is the only part of our lives that is truly free.
Further, our psyches are protected spaces in which we can openly loosen and detach ourselves from social morés and other ties that bind: "In our imagination[s], we are liberated from responsibility and constraint and we have an outlet for the many parts of ourselves that cannot be safely expressed in real life." (Okay, whew.)
Fantasizing is a healthy, instinctive byproduct of longer-term couplings: It's nature's way of adding sexual variety to monogamous relationships by enabling us to imagine ourselves in roles we wouldn't normally play, thereby boosting sex drive, passion, and arousal. (Several studies have shown that fantasizing about sexual scenarios actually jump-starts the libido.) And a 2007 study on sexual desire concluded that sexual fantasies positively relate to one's urge to have intercourse—something many married couples say decreases as time goes on. And for women, particularly, "the more sexual fantasies they have, the more sexual desire they experience," reads the study's press release, via the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Additionally, finding yourself fantasizing about someone else while you're having sex with your partner doesn't necessarily mean you're bored with them or ready to call it quits. Per Psychology Today, "Having a sexual fantasy does not always, or even usually, mean that someone is planning to, or destined to, pursue it in real life." (Which is great news.) Imagining a same-sex partner, too, is no big deal—but more on that in a bit.
Typical Vs. Atypical Fantasies
Psychologists maintain there's really no "normal" or "abnormal" labeling when it comes to the type of sexual fantasies we engage in—rather, it's whether they're commonly or rarely experienced. Turns out, even fantasies (and even sex acts) you might think were questionable (such as thoughts of extreme submission and domination, for example) aren't considered rare and/or cause for alarm. So take heart: After poring over countless studies and articles, we've learned that many sexual fantasies are actually pretty "vanilla," and that nearly every type of sexual fantasy is common—although some are more so for women than men, and vice versa. Once again, Psychology Today puts it into perspective: "It should not be alarming, for example, for a lesbian to fantasize about sex with a man, or for a dedicated monogamous partner to dream of group sex." Even asexual people fantasize about sex, adds the publication.
It's only the "pathological," or sexually deviant, fantasies, in particular, that send up red flags, and could be indicative of a serious mental disorder. The sex researcher Christian Joyal, Ph.D., the co-author of a 2014 Canadian survey on the subject, clarifies that deviant fantasies, "involve non-consenting partners, they include pain, or they are absolutely necessary in deriving satisfaction."
Freed also points out that although sexual fantasizing is quite natural, and “happens as an outlet" and/or "a compensation," it can sometimes be a sign your current relationship is faltering. Meaning: Obsessively fantasizing about others when you're already feeling disconnected from your S.O. could signal that something's awry or lacking. "If you find yourself avoiding sexual vulnerability with your partner by consistently checking out with fantasies, it is time to get some help for your intimacy issues,” she suggests.
Fantasizing, In Context
We know that sexual fantasies are, most of the time, innocuous offshoots of our wandering minds. But why, oh why, must we imagine ourselves in sexual situations with strangers, friends, acquaintances, movie stars, and just about everyone else under the sun—except our loving partners?
In a 2014 article for Psychology Today, psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., posits that those of us who imagine ourselves in bed with Tom, Dick, and Harry have a personality trait dubbed "openness to experience" and are also more likely to fantasize about sex in general.
Rather than defining sexual fantasies as right versus wrong based on whom we've imagined ourselves with, it's much more therapeutic to consider their content. (That is, how their subject matter relates to and what it represents in our monogamous relationships.) "Bringing your imagination to bed with you may eventually lead those infidelity fantasies to be replaced by ones that enhance how you and your romantic partner experience shared moments of intimacy," Krauss Whitbourne explains.
Understand Your Needs
Krauss Whitbourne goes on to say that it's most productive to reflect on whatever is prompting these fantasies, too, and to allow yourself to explore them with an objective eye rather than trying to fight them off. Doing so could give you some amazing insights you can then share with your partner—and quite possibly, turn that fantasy into a reality you experience together.
Voicing our vulnerabilities and innermost thoughts concerning our sexual desires may seem embarrassing and downright terrifying, but, as Engle writes in a 2019 article for Self Magazine, it's important to make your S.O. feel they can do so, too, and it's absolutely essential to fostering a healthy relationship. "Being a good sexual partner means trying to understand the needs, wants, and feelings of the people we’re intimate with. That calls for a lot of empathy flowing both ways."
Fantasies. Psychology Today.
Engle G. Why We Fantasize About Others When We’re Attached. Bustle. March 9, 2017.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. A study confirms the importance of sexual fantasies in the experience of sexual desire. June 27, 2007.
Joyal CC, Cossette A, Lapierre V. What Exactly is an an Unusual Sexual Fantasy?. J Sex Med. 2015;12(2):328-40. doi:10.1111/jsm.12734
Whitbourne SK. Why We Fantasize About Other Partners. Psychology Today. November 1, 2014.
Engle G. Actually Realistic Advice for How to Share Your Sexual Fantasies. Self. August 23, 2019.