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Can Fantasizing About Other People Ruin a Relationship?

How current partners fare against idealized others.

Key points

  • Sexual fantasies are normal and common, even when we’re in an intimate relationship.
  • A study explored whether having fantasies about strangers and past partners affects how we feel toward our current partner.
  • Idealizing other partners had a positive affect for those with lower sex satisfaction, but a negative one for those with higher sex satisfaction.

Whether it’s the cute stranger who caught your eye at the grocery store, the sexy heartthrob in the TV show you’re watching, or a past sexual partner, fantasizing about other people is common and normal—even when you’re in a committed relationship.

So while the question isn’t whether fantasies are normal (they most certainly are), fantasizing about other people can bring up questions about what it may mean for your relationship. That is, is fantasizing about other people a sign we are less satisfied with our current relationship? Or is it a private way to experience pleasure that has a neutral or maybe even positive spill-over effect into our romantic relationships?

The study

In a study published in the latest issue of Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Dr. Rainville explored whether fantasies about strangers and past partners affected how participants felt about their current partner.

The sample included 1,109 individuals between the ages of 21 and 68 years old who lived in the United States and who reported being in committed relationships. The author conducted online interviews in which participants were asked about their feelings for their partner, their sexual satisfaction, their experience of sexual fantasies, and various other demographic questions.

The study used the term “partner regard” to measure participants’ feelings towards their partners. This was measured by using six desirable partner characteristics, including whether a partner was perceived as “exciting,” “attractive,” “sensitive,” “romantic,” “imaginative about sex,” and “sexually skillful.” The traits were measured on a three-point scale with 0 indicating “does not apply at all,” 1 indicating “applies somewhat,” and 2 indicating “applies.”

Participants were then asked whether they fantasized about: a) a boss or coworker, 2) an older partner, 3) a friend, 4) a younger partner, 5) a former partner, and 6) a stranger. For the purpose of this study, the author just focused on former partner and stranger fantasies.

Finally, sexual satisfaction was measured with the following question—“How satisfied are you with your sex life currently?”—with responses ranging from 1 indicating “extremely dissatisfied” to 5 indicating “extremely satisfied.”

Study findings

The findings suggest that participants who experienced idealized extra-dyadic fantasies and reported higher sexual satisfaction in their current relationship had lower partner regard than those without idealized sexual fantasies about strangers and past partners.

Further, participants who were low in sexual satisfaction and who reported idealized extra-dyadic fantasies had higher partner regard than those without fantasies of partners with idealized attributes.

While the findings may be counterintuitive, the author suggests that fantasies may act as a buffer for those in less satisfying sexual relationships as a way of contributing to their overall sexual satisfaction. Whereas, for those higher in sexual satisfaction, fantasizing about someone who may have only slightly more ideal attributes than their current partner could, in contrast, feel like a real possible option and may make them feel less positively towards their current partner.


Sexual fantasies about other people are common whether we’re in a committed relationship or not. The findings from this study suggest that our sexual fantasies about idealized other partners may affect how we feel about our partner, depending on how sexually satisfied we are in our relationships.

The author suggests that therapists should consider these findings when determining how and whether they broach discussions of sexual fantasies with couples, and highlights that focusing on attributes about one’s fantasies (i.e., I felt desirable, they took charge, they knew just how to touch me) versus the specific person in the fantasy may be helpful for some couples.

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G. Rainville (2019): Extra-dyadic sexual fantasies involving idealized figures and regard for current partners, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, doi: 10.1080/14681994.2019.1659950