What Talking About Fantasy Can Do for Couples Therapy

...And Four Questions to Get the Conversation Started

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.

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.

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. More research is needed to determine how this or many other fantasies affect women's sexual expression.

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.

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.

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. . . . ."

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.

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.

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 as they do other parts of a relationship. One way to begin is by learning intimate, erotic communication. Counseling can help couples create this type of rewarding and passionate partnership by providing a safe space and structured way of sharing their deepest fantasies.


This blog is excerpted from "Fantasy in Couples Therapy" by Tammy Nelson. The full version is available in the November/December 2008 issue, Now What?: Putting Therapy Skills to Work in Our Post-Election World.

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Topic: Sex & Sexuality

Tags: Couples & Family | couples conflict | couples counseling | couples therapist | happiness | healthy relationships | love | love and relationships | play | role-playing | sex | Sex & Sexuality | sex life | sex therapist | sex therapy | sexual fantasies | sexual therapy | sexuality | Tammy Nelson

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1 Comment

Sunday, April 2, 2017 1:24:31 PM | posted by xy
There are things about this article that bother me. While I like some of the it, and some of her questions, I really dislike her way of asking them. The article also has a "too pat" feeling about it. I think the article is naive in that she is assuming that the generalists out there are going to be comfortable enough to enter this arena, with lack of information about sexuality, and filled with morality and politics.