Fantasies can be thriving part of marital bond

My husband and I are in our later 30s and we have been married for 12 years. We have two beautiful children. I would say my marriage is in a good place. I love my husband very much. But I have a question about sex. Our sex life has always been good to us. We have a strong chemistry. But lately we’ve been talking about making our sex life more playful. We’ve experimented with sharing fantasies. But I have two feelings: It’s fun, but it’s also uneasy for me. Trashy magazines are always talking about sexual fantasies in marriage, but I wonder sometimes. Do you think it’s healthy to include fantasies in marriage? Or is that the sign of a problem?

— U.B., Seattle


Without evidence to the contrary, my first thoughts are quite positive. Marriage is a journey of growth and development, and sexual courtship is one arena where growth and development can and should be happening. I’m saying that, after 12 years, the appearance of these conversations between you is likely right on schedule. These sorts of conversations could well be evidence of the increasing intimacy the two of you have grown. Good for you!

Quite the opposite of common, cynical views to the contrary, sex can, does and should get better over the years of a thriving, growing marriage. Not worse.

I want to contrast two very different uses of the word "fantasy." Fantasy can mean "the free and joyous playfulness of a healthy imagination." But, it also can mean "compulsive, intruding images which emerge as a consequence of psychological malaise, crisis or impeded development."

The first is "free and joyous." And, because it’s free, we can decide when, where and how to deploy it, like a child decides whether today he’ll build Legos or dress up as a pirate. The second is "compulsive." And, by definition, it’s not free. These fantasies intrude unbidden and usually have their own agenda.

I teach a couples workshop called "Erotic Adventures in Couplehood." And I pound on exactly this point. The first thing I would say to a couple wishing to explore and share fantasies is this places a responsibility on the participants to distinguish between "free and joyous" and "compulsive."

When one partner’s fantasies are compulsive, the tendency is to conscript the other partner into behaviors that don’t engender the marriage bond; rather, it grooms the partner in service to an exercise in narcissism.

But, if it’s free and joyous, sharing fantasies can be a delightful intimacy. Trusting another human being with the sexual playground of our imagination is in some ways a greater risk of vulnerability than other, more routine items on the sexual courtship menu.

So, here are some "rules," as it were, that I recommend in the workshop:

* It’s about Us. A healthy sharing of fantasies in marriage is healthy precisely because those fantasies are shared in service to evoke joy for us. Not for me. For us. If you’re not having fun, speak up. Because if you’re not having fun, then we are not having fun, so then we’re not doing it. Break this rule at your own peril.

* Fantasies do not dominate our sex life. Earlier, I mention the "more routine items" on the menu. This is not to criticize what is routine. Routine is not a bad thing. It is utterly normal and healthy. All couples who thrive in sexual courtship have a core of expressions that are the foundation of their courtship. In our culture, the default expression is usually face-to-face intercourse. Including fantasies should never replace or subordinate the essential nurture of good ol’ fashioned "making love." Enjoying fantasies together is only possible when founded on a couple’s regular ability to be together in "real time" with each other.

* Fantasies realized versus fantasies never realized. Enjoying fantasies together is only possible in the context of radical trust. It’s vital, then, that couples talk explicitly about fantasies that, together, they’d like to experience in "real time" (say, the exhibitionist risk of making love on a hotel balcony) versus fantasies that should never happen in real time (say, a threesome). A mate can’t enjoy a fantasy if he/she is anxious that doing so will be granting tacit approval for behavior that violates values or is destructive to the marriage bond.

Thriving in love, trust and joy, and protected by healthy boundaries, many couples enjoy talking through erotic fantasies and in some cases play-acting roles and scenarios together. It can be a delightful part of a thriving sexual courtship.

Originally published in View News, Sept. 28, 2010.

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