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|Fantasy in Couples Therapy - Page 2|
Sexual Fantasy Research
Why focus on fantasy rather than sexual skills? There's good evidence that sexual fantasy plays a vital, though often underestimated and underground, role in people's daily activities and has a powerful impact on their sex lives. One study, released by UCLA, reported that 64 percent of women had ravishment fantasies. These fantasies weren't rape images, but erotic scenarios in which the women took a submissive role to a dominant male partner (think Pirates of the Caribbean). More research is needed to determine how this or many other fantasies affect women's sexual expression.
In my psychotherapy practice, women report a wide range of sexual fantasies, including sex with strangers, friends, neighbors, and other women. For a comprehensive study of women's fantasies, see Nancy Friday's book The Secret Garden. Women's fantasy images of men include many body types, from well-built muscular physiques to physically unattractive ones and sometimes "repulsive" strangers, the repulsion being the erotic turn-on.
Research shows that men are aroused by fantasies and internal imagery before they become physically aroused. An article in New Scientist in June 2008 by Alison Motluk reports a study in which researchers tested male brains by measuring erection response to visual erotic stimuli, including photos of naked women and couples having intercourse. The researchers found that the men's mirror neurons for sexual intercourse were activated by the images before the penis became erect. In other words, the men's brains got "turned on" before their bodies.
Both men and women respond to auditory sexual stimulation. Erotically charged sounds and words might include descriptions of sex acts, words describing body parts, sounds made during lovemaking—sighs, groans, and whispers—sexual talk, and sexual sounds. A study by J. M. Dabbs measuring sexual response through pupil dilation found that men and women alike become aroused when exposed to auditory sexual stimulation.
Beyond arousing sexual feelings, sharing sexual fantasies can increase intimacy and connection. Through imagination, we connect to our desires. By sharing images of desire with our partners, we can spark attention, interest, affection, and excitement. In short, sexual fantasies can play a vital role in improving couples' sex lives.
The Need for Honesty
To help Johan and Sheila create more sexually rewarding experiences for themselves, I suggested a structured dialogue approach. Using a worksheet I'd developed, consisting of four questions intended to provoke thoughts and statements about sexual fantasy, one would answer each question aloud in session while the other would mirror back what had been heard, without discussion. This structure encourages empathic listening and offers a sense of safety for the listener, who's relieved of the pressure to respond in a positive or negative way to each fantasy and doesn't have to agree or disagree to "living out" the partner's vision.
The worksheet questions start with appreciation and move into sexual appreciation, desire, and finally fantasy. This progression gives the listener time and space to comprehend the fantasy. The four questions are as follows:
"One thing I really appreciate about you is . . . . ."
"One thing I really appreciate about sex with you is. . . . ."
"One thing I really like and want more if is. . . . ."
"One thing I would like to try is. . . . ."
Because the partner hearing the fantasy responds by repeating what's been said, there's no room for discussion about whether the fantasy will be acted upon. This process gives the couple time to talk and listen without judging or planning.
This worksheet format slows down the stimulation process and provides time for sexual arousal. Researchers Skyler Hawk, Ryan Tolman, and Charles Mueller report that arousal must occur more slowly than with visual stimulation for auditory erotic fantasy to be stimulating.
Sheila used the worksheet to tell Johan that she'd always fantasized about having sex in the shower. As she shared these images with him, he described a rush of hope and possibility; he felt that she was participating in the erotic aspect of their life together. Afterward, he realized that they didn't actually have to act on the fantasy: it was the telling of the fantasy, the verbalization and empathic listening, that excited him. In this new way of talking about sex, they both discovered a new surge of desire.