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|Fantasy in Couples Therapy - Page 3|
I led Laura through the fantasy dialogue, which began with an appreciation and moved into more of what she wanted in bed. She shared with Paul that she had a secret desire to dress up in leather. He listened, obviously trying to be empathetic. But as I watched his face, I saw him struggling to hold in some strong emotion and becoming more and more agitated as she went into greater detail about the sexy outfit she wanted to wear for him. Finally, unable to contain his thoughts, he stood up and yelled at her, "Well where are we going to get the money for that kind of outfit!?"
Laura was shocked, hurt, and angry. At that moment, I realized that, for them to share sexual intimacy, they needed first to be able to feel empathy. Sharing one's fantasies and desires creates transparency and an opportunity to discover the other; however, hearing a partner's fantasy can trigger fear and uncertainty when a difference of viewpoint between the self and other becomes apparent. This reaction in turn can create the unpleasant experience of feeling separated and not totally merged with the partner, which can be hard to handle. My mistake in their therapy was that I'd brought them into the fantasy dialogue without giving them the skills to process the emotions connected to their sexual shutdown. This experience is what made me realize that I needed to change my approach to this work and determine whether a couple had the skills to empathize with each other before having them share their fantasies.
Talking about Sex Honestly
The beginning of this journey to increased erotic pleasure and connection starts with learning how to talk about sex. Most couples are less than honest with their partners about it. For example, almost 70 percent of women fake orgasms, according to studies. More and more men are faking it, too, or are perhaps being more open about admitting that they do.
It's sometimes difficult for partners to talk about their deepest, hidden fantasies, usually from fear of how the other partner will respond. We're afraid our partner will judge us, or challenge us about not having mentioned this desire before, or wonder where we "learned" the newly revealed information. We're also afraid that our partner will actually want to act out our fantasy—a thought that can be quite threatening.
Studies have found that 33 percent of men and 10 percent of women have fantasized about a threesome, but sharing this fantasy with a partner can bring up insecurity and tension. For some couples, it may create arousal and connection; for others, it may trigger suspicion and jealousy. To reduce anxiety, the divulging partner needs to clarify the extent to which an unexpected fantasy amounts to a proposal for action.
To help reduce anxiety, I describe fantasy as falling on an "erotic curiosity spectrum." Erotic curiosity arises from things a partner has read or seen or wondered about, but perhaps doesn't need to act out. In the lower ranges of the erotic curiosity spectrum are the thoughts and images that make up a person's internal fantasy life—ideas and experiences that have some erotic impact on the imagination. At the far end of the spectrum are the fantasies that he or she may want to act on. Perhaps a catalyst is needed to make this happen, but these fantasies are ones the person would like to experience with his or her partner. When we encourage couples to describe their fantasies, it's important to ask them to be clear about whether they're talking about a curiosity, a fantasy, or something they'd like to act on, as a means of reducing the anxiety level.
The Role of Psychotherapy
Making questions about sex part of the intake of a couples session, or simply asking "When was the last time you had sex, and how was it?" may give the couple permission to respond openly, knowing that the therapist is comfortable talking about sex. Openly and directly expressing desires and fantasies doesn't have to lead to specific actions, but can be a means of growing closer and more intimate.
Couples describe the experience of sharing fantasies as being able to be more "themselves" with their partner, bringing more of who they are to the relationship, and being truly "seen," giving them a greater sense of connection with their partner. Fantasy talk can provide clear ways to meet each other's needs, creating a deeper level of communication and adding excitement to a union.
Most couples say they want passion in their relationship. If they already have it, they want to keep it; if they don't have it, they want to create it. But couples have to work at it, just
I applaud Tammy Nelson's concern with the importance of sexual fantasy. Her intervention was effective for Sheila and Johan, and, I'm sure, with many others. She's concluded that when couples believe there's nothing new to experience in their sex life together, the relationship is likely to sink into a state of mutual boredom and dissatisfaction, and that the way out is for the couple to relieve the boredom through sharing their fantasies. Many of her examples of fantasy are really statements about what one partner feels is either absent or insufficient in their connection with the other, and very much wanted or desired. Of course, as Nelson mentions, fantasy may also be much darker, not so much representing a want, but a picture of a dark and exciting inner adventure without any need for it to be translated into action.