Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Can Daydreams Help Your Sex Life?

Can incompatible sexual fantasies save a marriage?

Darlene* and Nate* were in their thirties when they realized that their marriage was collapsing. “We don’t have anything in common anymore,” Nate said, “except for the kids.” Although they were both professionals, they had agreed that Darlene should stop working when their second child was born. Nate, on the other hand, had to spend long hours at a very demanding job. When Darlene complained that he did not spend enough time with her or with the children, he replied that he had to work to keep up the mortgage payments on the house they had bought.

Neither of them had expected life to be easy once they married and had children. But they had not expected it to be so hard.

One of the places that their marriage has suffered the most has been in the bedroom. “We don’t have time or energy for sex anymore,” says Darlene.

“She doesn’t seem interested anymore,” says Nate.

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My PT colleagues Charlie Bloom and Linda Bloom wrote in one post that “it's the lack of imagination that is the source of this problem.”   I would add that sometimes it’s the contrast between what we imagine and what we do that leads to sexual difficulties. In other words, we can get so caught up in daydreams about what our sex life with our partner should be like that we have troubles putting these ideas together with the reality of our lives. For example, during a hard day at work, Nate daydreams about a little sex play to unwind physically, to get close to his wife, and even to feel more masculine and desirable. He imagines coming home to a sexy Darlene who is eager to respond to these desires. But Darlene, surrounded by toddlers and playgroups, messy meals and dirty laundry, doesn’t exactly feel sexy by the time he gets home. What would really turn her on would be for Nate to put the kids to bed while she takes a long, hot bubble bath and sips a glass of wine. And then she would be ready for anything.

Unfortunately, they don’t ever talk about these daydreams with each other. They just feel misunderstood and criticize each other for not responding to their needs. And secretly they each feel sad, ashamed, and unhappy that they no longer seem able to turn one another on.

Their daydreams could help their sex life.  

As I have said many times before, daydreams are not only part of everyone’s daily life, but they serve an important purpose. Research has shown that they help us adapt to difficult situations. We use daydreams to escape momentarily from boring, frightening or overwhelming experiences. They help us plan for the future and, surprisingly enough, they help us make sense of and manage the past. But they also give us an opportunity to know things about ourselves, things that we cannot always put into words. And when we can communicate them clearly and without underlying criticalness towards our partners, they can help us get some of our needs met.

Couples often try to push aside daydreams once they are married, because they are so frequently so different from reality that they seem to make trouble rather than do anything constructive. But daydreams can be useful tools. Instead of either trying to make your dreams come true or pushing them aside completely, you can turn your daydreams into a different kind of reality.

One of the most important things to do is to recognize that although we all daydream, men and women often have different fantasies about the same thing. So talking about your daydreams may tell you some of the ways that you are different. But this does not mean that you can’t both get your needs met.

For example, my PT colleague Jay Dixit writes of the fleeting fantasies that are sexual daydreams. Studies have shown men tend to have action fantasies, often of having something done to them, while women tend to have more abstract and often more romantic and less graphic sexual fantasies.

Researchers at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, School of Psychology in Israel found that sexual fantasies can reveal something about an individual’s personality. For example, a man fantasizing about sex with an unknown woman may be afraid of intimacy and may tend to avoid true closeness with his wife. But they can also reveal what he wants from his wife and cannot ask for.

This of course holds true for both men and women. It’s not always easy to express our needs directly. Many of us turn a request into a criticism, for example, especially when we feel uncomfortable about asking for it. And surprisingly, even couples who have been together for many years have difficulties putting sexual wishes into words.

Linda Bloom and Charlie Bloom offer some terrific ideas about breaking old, comfortable and not very exciting sexual habits without having to turn into somebody you’re not or asking your partner to be someone they’re not.

One of the best ways to start may be, surprisingly enough, indirectly.

For example, Nate started one discussion by suggesting that he and Darlene go away for a romantic weekend; but she could not imagine enjoying herself without their small children. I asked if she could imagine going away at all. “Oh yes,” she said. “I’d love to go to a resort where we could have the children in daycare part of the day, but I could also spend some time with them, and spend the nights with them.” Her husband looked at her in horror. “We can’t afford something like that,” he said. She quickly replied that they couldn’t afford to go away for a weekend, either. “We’d have to pay for a hotel, and for babysitting.” He nodded. They both looked defeated.

I reminded them that we were speaking of daydreams, not facts. I explained that daydreams could be useful jumping off points, places to start problem-solving, but that they had to start by thinking of them as ideas, not reality. For example, I said that they had both described daydreams about time away from their usual life, and they were both imagining that it could be nice to have some relaxed time together. They both nodded. I asked if they ever had time alone together these days.

They each listed all of the work they had to do, the problems with finding someone to babysit for the children, the family demands and all of the other things that interfered with their being able to even have a regular “date night.” I said that they were describing a common problem for couples with young children, and that their daydreams told me that they both would like to have some time with one another. I suggested that they start trying to find a way to do so.

Nate said, “You know, my mother has been asking to spend more time with the children. How about if I ask her to have them overnight at her house this Saturday?”

Darlene started to talk about some of the problems with her mother-in-law – again, not an unusual problem for a couple, but not always an easy one to deal with. I asked if there was any way to imagine – starting with a daydream – that she could leave her children with their grandmother, and she said, “What if we tried it for the day on Saturday instead of overnight? We could have the day together, and then pick them up before bedtime?”

Nate grinned and said, “Could we go back to bed when we get home?” and Darlene, after a slight hesitation, said, “Can I have a bubble bath and a glass of wine first?”

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy and confidentiality

Teaser image source:http://www.sheknows.com/beauty-and-style/articles/825537/how-to-create-a-diy-spa-experience-at-home

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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