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|Fantasy in Couples Therapy|
Fantasy in Couples Therapy
Is encouraging sexual fantasies playing with fire?
By Tammy Nelson
Couples who are satisfied with their sex lives are happier than those who aren't, and are likelier to stay together. They describe their relationships as connected, intimate, safe, fun, and affectionate. Conversely, as I've found over 20 years of practice, partners who aren't having good sex are usually more dissatisfied with their relationships overall—more frustrated with each other, more discouraged about their joint future, and likelier to split.
Many therapists assume that if they help couples improve their relationships, the improvement will naturally lead to a rewarding erotic life. But what if helping couples create a satisfying erotic life is the key to increasing their feelings of companionship and mutual connection, not the other way around?
The age-old question is: how can couples maintain a strong, vital sex life over many years without having boredom undermine eroticism? Sexual boredom often results from the assumption by each partner that there's no longer anything new to discover about the other, or about their sex life together. I've found that a therapist can alleviate such sexual ennui by helping each partner reveal previously undisclosed erotic fantasies. This apparently simple step can lead to new ways of seeing and experiencing the partner and the self. In a short time, it can have an invigorating erotic impact.
Sheila and Johan were both in their early fifties. They were physically active, with no psychiatric histories, and had been in therapy for three months. Johan reported that he felt bored in the marriage and was thinking of straying. "I crave adventure," he said. "I've been thinking of having an affair, just to do something different."
Sheila reported that she felt distant from Johan and that they'd drifted apart. They rarely shared meals anymore, often worked late into the night in their separate home offices, and sometimes didn't even spend much time together on weekends. Sheila complained that she no longer felt Johan was interested in her, and wondered whether he still found her attractive. They hadn't been physically affectionate for many months, rarely holding hands or touching casually, and seemed to be living parallel lives. She feared they were on the verge of separating.
In addition to hearing about their general marital unhappiness, I took a history of their sex life together, asking if they enjoyed their sex, whether each had orgasms, and if they knew their partner's sexual fantasies. Johan thought he knew exactly what Sheila liked and didn't like in bed. This was comforting to him and helped him feel confident that he could please her, yet it led to a high level of sexual boredom. He felt her needs were predictable and that they didn't venture far from the things that had been "working" over the years.
Sheila longed for the times when Johan had been excited and turned on by her, describing what they had now as "maintenance" sex. They each knew how to touch each other, but they'd been doing it the same way for so long that it felt as though they were stuck in a rut. Neither Johan nor Sheila said anything about feeling an intimate connection during sex.
At this point, many therapists might focus on helping the couple get along better in their day-to-day connection by teaching them what might be called "companionship skills," including better ways of communicating, resolving conflicts, changing behaviors, and, when appropriate, becoming more effective parents. Clearly, these skills determine how well we coexist with our partner, and, theoretically, once the nonsexual relationship is back on track, the sexual connection should follow.
But I thought we should focus on how Sheila and Johan could create connection and add adventure and excitement to their sex life while keeping their relationship safe. It's been my experience that unless couples are satisfied with feeling like nonsexual roommates (and I have yet to see such a couple), they won't connect in a deeply intimate and meaningful way unless their erotic relationship improves. As I've suggested, sexuality is the fuel that fires feelings of connection and intimacy.
The erotic aspect of a relationship includes all the partners' needs for intimacy, erotic release, sensual contact, touch, affection, attention, and physical and emotional connection. When the erotic side works, couples feel less conflict, negotiate their needs more fluidly, and feel deeper connection and commitment to each other. By contrast, sexual dissatisfaction can itself cause conflict, tension, and stress. Desire discrepancy, sexual dysfunction, affairs, sex addiction, and other sex-related issues may be underlying many of the "companionship" issues that present for treatment in a couple.
Deciding which couples are appropriate for this fantasy-evoking approach is determined by assessing their capacity for empathy in the early sessions. Part of this determination comes from seeing how the couple presents in the initial stages of therapy, and how they respond to questions about their sex life. Some couples visibly relax in the session when the topic of their sexual relationship is raised. They sink into their chairs, move closer to each other, making more eye contact, and engage each other more. Other couples seem to freeze up.
Simple assessment questions can include "How is your sex life currently? How many times per month are you having sex? When you do have sex, how satisfying is the experience? Do you both have orgasms? What's your vision of how your erotic life might look differently if you could make changes together?" Such questions will trigger a response in the couple ranging from resentment and conflict to a more in-depth exploration of a shared passionate relationship.
To help clients feel more connected within their relationships, therapists must become more comfortable talking about sex in their sessions, providing a model for their clients to follow in engaging in more open and frank discussions, in the office or at home. Even more important, clients need to be encouraged to explore and discuss fantasies as a way of opening a dialogue and focusing on the erotic.
Before having a couple share their fantasies, it's important to explain how they can validate each other's experience. When one partner talks about his or her vision of an ideal erotic sex life, the listener should simply mirror back what the experience sounds like, and acknowledge that this is their partner's experience, even if he or she doesn't understand it, or experiences it differently. When a partner can see that the other can have his own personal response to the erotic experience, and listen without judgment or defensiveness, the couple is ready to move into a dialogue about erotic fantasies.