You've been sharing a bed with the same partner for years. By now you know each other's sleeping habits inside and out, right down to the exact room temperature and sleeping position preferred. But how well do you know what it takes to turn on your partner? There's one way to find out -- by sharing your most intimate sex fantasies. An open exchange of erotic fantasies can help rekindle the flames -- or can they? Here's what sex experts say on the subject.
Many sex experts advise couples to use caution when revealing private sex fantasies. "It often backfires," says Wendy Maltz, MSW, sex therapist and co-author of the book Private Thoughts: The Power of Women's Fantasies. That's because too often, says Maltz, there's a lack of understanding about what it means to share them.
To minimize misunderstandings, Maltz suggests setting some guidelines before agreeing to reveal erotic fantasies. "Make sure you have a mutual understanding of each other's objectives. Are you doing it simply to learn about what each other's private sexual thoughts are, or are you creating a menu of the type of sexual activities you want to try?" she says.
Other experts agree that it's best not to plunge head-first into a completely candid revelation of your deepest erotic fantasies. "First, test the waters. Float the idea in a general way," suggests Barbara Bartlik, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. "You could say, 'What did you think about that scene in the movie?'"
Even when both partners willingly reveal their sex fantasies to one another, says Maltz, there's no guarantee that the outcome will be a positive meeting of the minds, or bodies. "It's shaky ground for a relationship. It can really enhance the sexual experience, or destroy it. It can make people very uptight and anxious," Maltz says.
That's particularly true if either you or your partner finds the content of a particular fantasy off-putting. "What about the person who likes to be sexually sadistic? The other person may take great offense to that," Bartlik says. Oftentimes, explains Bartlik, it takes a lot of courage to reveal a less conventional fantasy such as one that includes sadomasochism. Further, it takes a very loving and loyal partner to listen and accept fantasies that may be outside the mainstream of sexual experience. The inability to accept an edgy fantasy may cause a rift in the relationship.
But even if you find your partner's sex fantasies a bit unnerving, there's hope for moving forward.
Maltz offers some advice to prevent emotionally jarring fallout from the revelation of sex fantasies. The first thing is not to assume that your partner wants to actually do everything he or she fantasizes about. "It's important not to take these desires literally, unless they're intended that way," she says.
Not everyone truly desires to act on their sexual fantasies, Maltz explains. "They're more likely to be symbolic," she says. But that doesn't mean they should be dismissed. Instead, take your cue from the mood or feeling the fantasy suggests. "Erotic fantasiescan help you learn about your partner's sensuality," Maltz says. For instance, a woman may fantasize that her lover, atop a galloping horse, sweeps her off her feet and onto the horse, then the two of them ride off into the sunset together. She may not really want or expect this to happen, but the takeaway message is significant. "She's thinking, 'I want my husband to romanticize me more,'" Maltz says.
The bottom line in sharing sex fantasies is this: "How the information in the fantasy is shared is critical to whether or not it ends up being productive for the couple," says Maltz.
Getting in Touch With Your Sex Fantasies
In spite of recent research that tells us it's perfectly normal, healthy even, to engage in sexual fantasies, many people bury or ignore what makes them feel good. The result, they say, can be an unfulfilling sex life.
"Your partner loves to see you turned on, and fantasies are what take you there," says Cheryl McClary, PhD, JD, professor of women's health at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. What's more, she says, "If you're not turned on, your partner is going to know it."
She suggests ways to bring yourself to a heightened sense of arousal, before sharing that experience with your partner. "Seduce yourself first. Go where your fantasies are. Buy erotic undergarments. Rent movies with sex scenes that turn you on," McClary says.
But by all means, she says, don't keep your erotic fantasies to yourself. "Call your partner at work and share your fantasies. You'll be doing yourself and your partner a disservice if you don't," McClary says.
An Argument Against Revealing Erotic Fantasies
Even sex experts who believe that revealing erotic fantasies to your partner can strengthen the relationship acknowledge that this tell-all scenario isn't for everyone. "A lot of happily married people with good sex lives never share their fantasies. They keep them private," Bartlik says.
One good reason to remain mum, says Bartlik, is that the majority of people in long-term, fulfilling sexual relationships do not necessarily think about their partner when they're at the height of sexual passion. But even though both partners might routinely think of something other than each other, revealing this may result in hurt feelings.
Sometimes, the best solution may be to edit your revelation so it's more reassuring to your partner. Fantasies about other people, for example, might be best kept to ourselves. "Common sense tells us what we don't need to reveal," says McClary.
Bringing Your Partner Into the Loop With Sexual Fantasies
But when it's only inhibition, not guilt, that's keeping you from sharing your fantasies from your partner, it might be mutually beneficial to let those feelings surface, say experts.
"Don't expect your partner to figure out what turns you on. Tell your partner. That's all part of the fantasy," McClary says. "Life's too short to wait for your partner to figure it out."
For many couples, sharing erotic fantasies may be a matter of remembering how things used to be when your relationship was new. "Ask yourself, 'What's going to make us start giggling again? What used to be sexy and fun?'" McClary says.