Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Case Studies, Fantasy in Couples Therapy: Is Encouraging Sexual Fantasies Playing with Fire?

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Case Studies, Fantasy in Couples Therapy: Is Encouraging Sexual Fantasies Playing with Fire?

Article excerpt


By Tammy Nelson

Fantasy in Couples TherapyIs encouraging sexual fantasies playing with fire?

Couples who are satisfied with their sex lives are happier than those who aren't, and are likelier to stay together. They describe their relationships as connected, intimate, safe, fun, and affectionate. Conversely, as I've found over 20 years of practice, partners who aren't having good sex are usually more dissatisfied with their relationships overall--more frustrated with each other, more discouraged about their joint future, and likelier to split.

Many therapists assume that if they help couples improve their relationships, the improvement will naturally lead to a rewarding erotic life. But what if helping couples create a satisfying erotic life is the key to increasing their feelings of companionship and mutual connection, not the other way around?

The age-old question is: how can couples maintain a strong, vital sex life over many years without having boredom undermine eroticism? Sexual boredom often results from the assumption by each partner that there's no longer anything new to discover about the other, or about their sex life together. I've found that a therapist can alleviate such sexual ennui by helping each partner reveal previously undisclosed erotic fantasies. This apparently simple step can lead to new ways of seeing and experiencing the partner and the self. In a short time, it can have an invigorating erotic impact.

Sheila and Johan were both in their early fifties. They were physically active, with no psychiatric histories, and had been in therapy for three months. Johan reported that he felt bored in the marriage and was thinking of straying. "I crave adventure," he said. "I've been thinking of having an affair, just to do something different."

Sheila reported that she felt distant from Johan and that they'd drifted apart. They rarely shared meals anymore, often worked late into the night in their separate home offices, and sometimes didn't even spend much time together on weekends. Sheila complained that she no longer felt Johan was interested in her, and wondered whether he still found her attractive. They hadn't been physically affectionate for many months, rarely holding hands or touching casually, and seemed to be living parallel lives. She feared they were on the verge of separating.

In addition to hearing about their general marital unhappiness, I took a history of their sex life together, asking if they enjoyed their sex, whether each had orgasms, and if they knew their partner's sexual fantasies. Johan thought he knew exactly what Sheila liked and didn't like in bed. This was comforting to him and helped him feel confident that he could please her, yet it led to a high level of sexual boredom. He felt her needs were predictable and that they didn't venture far from the things that had been "working" over the years.

Sheila longed for the times when Johan had been excited and turned on by her, describing what they had now as "maintenance" sex. They each knew how to touch each other, but they'd been doing it the same way for so long that it felt as though they were stuck in a rut. Neither Johan nor Sheila said anything about feeling an intimate connection during sex.

At this point, many therapists might focus on helping the couple get along better in their day-to-day connection by teaching them what might be called "companionship skills," including better ways of communicating, resolving conflicts, changing behaviors, and, when appropriate, becoming more effective parents. Clearly, these skills determine how well we coexist with our partner, and, theoretically, once the nonsexual relationship is back on track, the sexual connection should follow.

But I thought we should focus on how Sheila and Johan could create connection and add adventure and excitement to their sex life while keeping their relationship safe. …

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