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Why People Fantasize About Former Lovers

The psychology of "sexual nostalgia."

Key points

  • Sexual nostalgia is a type of sexual fantasy in which we reminisce about erotic acts with a former lover.
  • People experience sexual nostalgia in response to unmet sexual and relationship needs.
  • Occasional sexual nostalgia can boost mood and self-confidence, but chronic sexual nostalgia suggests serious problems in the relationship.
Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

We enter into romantic relationships in order to meet our psychological needs for emotional and sexual intimacy. To the extent that these needs are met, we feel relationally and sexually satisfied. But there are going to be times when our partner is unwilling or unable to meet our needs, and our satisfaction with our sex life and relationship will plummet.

Since we generally view romantic relationships as long-term commitments, we rarely leave just because the going gets rough. Instead, we stick it out with a determination to work things out with our partner in the hope that the relationship will get better.

In the meantime, we often try to console ourselves with memories of a happier time—sometimes remembering ourselves with our partner in the early, heady days of the romance. Other times, we think back to a former lover. York University (Canada) psychologist Amy Muise and colleagues refer to sexual fantasies about past partners as sexual nostalgia.

Why do people engage in sexual nostalgia?

Plenty of previous research shows that people engage in nostalgia when they’re feeling down. Memories of previous happy times boost our mood, even if but momentarily. Nostalgia also boosts our self-esteem—“I was happy before, so I’m sure I can be happy again in the future.” Muise and colleagues wondered if people engage in sexual nostalgia for similar reasons: that is, as a way of boosting their mood and self-confidence when they’re currently dissatisfied with their relationship and sex life.

It’s also well-known that people frequently engage in sexual fantasies that sometimes include their partner but more frequently involve other people they know or even strangers. So Muise and colleagues asked if sexual nostalgia was just a form of sexual fantasy, or if the two could be distinguished in terms of the circumstances in which people engage in them.

Finally, the researchers wondered if attachment style might influence the use of sexual nostalgia. Attachment is the deep emotional bond we create with our romantic partner. Most people develop a secure attachment with their spouse, whom they trust to be there for them when they need them.

Some people, however, develop an insecure attachment, and this comes in two styles. On the one hand, people with anxious attachment fear their lover will leave them, and so they become very demanding and clingy. Nevertheless, they’re still strongly committed to their partner, just as securely attached people are.

On the other hand, those with an avoidant attachment style are reluctant to become too close in any relationship, valuing their independence instead. These people do enter into romantic relations, but they avoid getting too close to their partner, and in general they don’t trust their lover to meet their needs. When their relationship hits a rough patch, they tend to withdraw rather than engaging with their partner and trying to resolve the issue.

These observations about attachment styles led Muise and colleagues to speculate that those with an avoidant attachment style would engage in sexual nostalgia differently from those who were either securely or anxiously attached. Specifically, they predicted that most people would only indulge in sexual nostalgia when they were dissatisfied sexually or relationally. In contrast, those with an avoidant attachment style would likely engage in high levels of sexual nostalgia, regardless of how satisfied they currently were with their relationship.

When do people engage in sexual nostalgia?

To recap, Muise and colleagues had two research questions:

  1. Is sexual nostalgia qualitatively different from other kinds of sexual fantasy?
  2. Are there differences in the experience of sexual nostalgia between those with and those without an avoidant attachment style?

The researchers explored these questions in a series of three studies. In the first two studies, they recruited individuals who had been in a previous committed relationship that had ended. These participants first indicated whether they were currently in a new romantic relationship or still single. They then responded to surveys that assessed the kinds of sexual fantasies, including sexual nostalgia, they engaged in. Additionally, the respondents reported on their attachment style, relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction.

An analysis of the sexual fantasies that people reported showed that these fell into four categories: romantic sexual encounters, submissive sex acts, group or emotionless sex (generally with strangers), and fantasies about a past partner. The last one, sexual nostalgia, stood out from the other three types of sexual fantasy.

Specifically, people reported engaging in sexual fantasies whether they were currently in a relationship or single and whether they were satisfied with their relationship and sex life or not. In contrast, people mostly engaged in sexual nostalgia only when they were either single or dissatisfied with their relationship or sex life. In other words, sexual nostalgia seems to play a different psychological role from other types of sexual fantasy.

How does sexual nostalgia affect relationships?

To see how sexual nostalgia plays out in real life, Muise and colleagues conducted a third study in which they recruited 98 cohabiting couples to take part in a longitudinal study. Each day for 28 days, the partners individually responded to a brief version of the survey used in the first two studies. The results confirmed the finding that people are more likely to engage in sexual nostalgia on days when their relationship or sexual satisfaction is low.

Furthermore, those who reported sexual nostalgia on a regular basis were also less satisfied overall with their relationships. It’s possible, as the researchers point out, that habitual use of sexual nostalgia may have damaging effects on the relationship. But it’s also important to keep in mind that these data are correlational, meaning that relationship dissatisfaction could be the cause of sexual nostalgia instead.

In either case, the data from these three studies show a consistent pattern, namely that people engage in sexual nostalgia as a response to unmet relationship and sexual needs. Fantasizing about a former lover is also clearly different from other forms of sexual fantasy, in that people engage in these regardless of their relationship status or satisfaction. Furthermore, people with an avoidant attachment style, who try to maintain emotional distance from their sex partners, experience high levels of sexual nostalgia even when they’re generally satisfied with their relationship and sex life.

Sexual nostalgia, like other forms of nostalgia, is a psychological coping mechanism we engage in when we’re currently dissatisfied with our situation. Nostalgia reminds us that we were once happy, and it reassures us we can be happy again. In the case of sexual nostalgia, we remember an exciting sexual adventure from our past, giving us hope that we can reach similar erotic heights again in the future.

Facebook image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

References

Muise, A., Kim, J. J., Debrot, A., Impett, E. A., & MacDonald, G. (2020). Sexual nostalgia as a response to unmet sexual and relationship needs: The role of attachment avoidance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46, 1538-1552.

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