When Does Fantasizing About Someone Else Become Unhealthy?

Woman sitting crisscross on a couch leaning on her hand and daydreaming

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Have you ever drifted into a Fifty Shades of Grey-style sexual fantasy starring someone who is definitely not your partner? If you're wondering whether fantasizing about someone else is standard behavior (and when doing so becomes unhealthy), ponder no more. The results are in: Most fantasies about sex are normal.

As psychotherapist Jennifer Freed, Ph.D. explains with sex coach Gigi Engle in Bustle, "Our imagination is polyamorous, and is the only part of our lives that is truly free.” When we fantasize, we're able to explore our desires and attractions without acting on them in real life and potentially hurting our partners. In fact, psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. says that those of us who imagine ourselves in bed with someone else have a personality trait called "openness to experience," and are just more likely to think about sex in general. For obvious reasons, this quality can actually benefit your relationship.

Meet the Expert

  • Jennifer Freed, Ph.D. is a psychological astrologer and a social and emotional education trainer with more than 30 years of experience. She is the bestselling author of "Use Your Planets Wisely."
  • Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is a professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Gerontology as well as a faculty fellow in the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Below, relationship experts explain how fantasizing about other people (yes, even someone you know) might actually be a good thing—along with a few signs that indicate when it's quite the opposite.

Why We Fantasize

A reference article on fantasies in Psychology Today teaches us that "the human mind is sexual, creative, and exploratory, and fantasizing is one way [we] satisfy [our] sexual needs and wants." Sexual fantasies are natural thoughts that allow us to enjoy total control and freedom—and there are many reasons why our thoughts might be filled with someone other than our S.O.

Even further, our minds are protected spaces where we can openly loosen and detach ourselves from social norms. It's okay to get creative. "In our imagination[s], we are liberated from responsibility and constraint, and we have an outlet for the many parts of ourselves that cannot be safely expressed in real life," says Freed.

Our imagination is polyamorous, and is the only part of our lives that is truly free.

Benefits of Fantasizing

Fantasizing is a healthy, instinctive byproduct of long-term couplings. While you may be wondering if your fantasies are a form of cheating, there's likely no cause for concern. Daydreaming is nature's way of adding sexual variety to monogamous relationships; it lets us imagine ourselves in roles we wouldn't normally play. It also boosts sex drive, passion, and arousal.

A study on the topic found even more encouraging results: fantasies are good for sex. They positively relate to people's urge to have intercourse—something many married couples say decreases as time goes on. Particularly for women, "The more sexual fantasies they have, the more sexual desire they experience," the study noted in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

If you find yourself fantasizing about someone else during sex with your partner, it doesn't necessarily mean you're bored with them or ready to call it quits. Per Psychology Today, "Having a sexual fantasy does not always, or even usually, mean that someone is planning to, or destined to, pursue it in real life." Imagining a partner different from your usual sexual attraction, too, is no big deal.

Types of Fantasies

Psychologists maintain that there's really no "normal" or "abnormal" behavior when it comes to the type of sexual fantasies we imagine. Rather, it's whether these thoughts are commonly or rarely experienced. As it turns out, the thoughts and sex acts you might think were questionable—like extreme submission and domination, for example—aren't considered rare or cause for alarm. Some fantasies are more typical for women than men, and vice versa.

"It should not be alarming, for example, for a lesbian to fantasize about sex with a man," notes Psychology Today, "or for a dedicated monogamous partner to dream of group sex." Asexual people also fantasize about sex, the publication adds.

It's only the "pathological," or sexually deviant fantasies, in particular, that send up red flags—and could be indicative of a serious mental disorder. Sex researcher Christian Joyal, Ph.D., clarifies that deviant fantasies "involve non-consenting partners, they include pain, or they are absolutely necessary in deriving satisfaction."

Freed also points out that although dreaming about other people is natural, it can also happen as an outlet. It's sometimes a sign that your current relationship is faltering. If you're thinking about others when you're feeling disconnected from your partner, it could signal that your romance is lacking something. "If you find yourself avoiding sexual vulnerability with your partner by consistently checking out with fantasies, it is time to get some help for your intimacy issues,” she suggests.

What Your Fantasies Mean

We know that sexual fantasies are usually just offshoots of our wandering minds. But why must we imagine ourselves in sexual situations with strangers, friends, acquaintances, movie stars—and just about everyone else under the sun—except our loving partners?

Back to that "openness to experience" concept: Instead of defining our sexual thoughts by the people we've imagined, it's more important to consider what we're fantasizing about. How does the subject matter relate, and what does that represent in a relationship? If you bring your imagination to bed, you may eventually replace fantasies of cheating with new ones that "enhance how you and your romantic partner experience shared moments of intimacy," Krauss Whitbourne explains.

Being a good sexual partner means trying to understand the needs, wants, and feelings of the people we're intimate with.

Krauss Whitbourne also believes that it's most productive to reflect on the acts that prompt these fantasies. Allow yourself to explore them instead of fighting them off. Doing so can give you some new insight—and even share them with your partner to experience as a reality together.

It might seem embarrassing, but voicing our vulnerabilities and inner thoughts about sex can help foster a healthy relationship. As Engle notes, it's important to let your S.O. feel they can express theirs, too. "Being a good sexual partner means trying to understand the needs, wants, and feelings of the people we're intimate with. That calls for a lot of empathy flowing both ways."

These thoughts aren't unusual. And if we share them with our partners, we might even get to experience them in real life—so don't stop daydreaming.

Article Sources
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  1. Engle G. Why We Fantasize About Others When We’re Attached. Bustle. March 9, 2017.

  2. American Association for the Advancement of Science. A study confirms the importance of sexual fantasies in the experience of sexual desire. June 27, 2007.

  3. Joyal CC, Cossette A, Lapierre V. What Exactly is an an Unusual Sexual Fantasy?. J Sex Med. 2015;12(2):328-40. doi:10.1111/jsm.12734

  4. Engle G. Actually Realistic Advice for How to Share Your Sexual Fantasies. Self. August 23, 2019.

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