Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped one reader who was struggling to commit to their partner due to communication and intimacy issues. Today, we hear from someone who fantasizes about people other than their partner during sex and isn't so sure if they should feel guilty about it or not.
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I’m in a loving relationship with my partner and everything is great — we love one another, we support one another, and we have a pretty good sex life, if I do say so myself. There’s one particular thing about our sex life, though, that I need a bit of advice on.
Almost every time we have sex, I fantasize about someone else. I’m usually thinking about someone I know that I’m attracted to, someone I’ve had sex with before, or porn that I’ve watched. I also fantasize about people other than my partner when I masturbate. To be honest, I’ve never felt guilty about it but sometimes, in the moment, I’ll think, what is wrong with me? I know that if my partner knew I was thinking about someone else when we were intimate, she’d be devastated.
Is this something I should feel guilty about? Does fantasizing about a former sexual experience count as cheating? I’m torn.
Let’s get this out of the way first: You are not cheating. Our thoughts will always be our own, regardless of how satisfying, long, and trusting a relationship may be. Intimacy involves getting to know yourself and intentionally opening up your inner world to your partner — allowing them to access your deeper thoughts may involve sharing your fantasies, but it doesn't have to.
This is less about cheating and more about feeling a deep sense of trust to share as much of yourself as you desire. Part of understanding whether you are crossing a boundary in your relationship is considering how your behavior impacts not just your partner, but the relationship as a whole. When I get questions about whether someone's actions are bad or wrong, what it tells me is less about the boundaries of the current relationship and more about showing me a deeper vulnerable part of you. A younger, wounded you is here reaching out for some comfort. It’s so important to shift away from thinking in absolutes when it comes to relationships and focus more on what helps you be in relationships with others.
I don't want you to feel like you can't share openly with your partner, but at the same time, intimacy is not a place to be unkindly honest. Since you’re feeling unsettled about this, let's explore shame, shadow work, and healthy vulnerability — together.
Your relationship with desire and sex does not have to perfectly match with that of your partner's. It is possible to be deeply satisfied and happy in your relationship while still exploring your own intimate identity in regard to pleasure, sexuality, desire, and fantasy. In fact, I strongly encourage it. Relationships require growth — whether that’s together or alone. Our intimate relationships are some of the most important parts of our lives, and they are precious to us. Any relationship that lasts has experienced seasons of growing pains, and the relationship that blossoms out of those seasons is much more connected than before.
So, I ask you, are there any aspects of your fantasies that you crave to explore with your partner? There is nothing wrong with exploring your own relationship to pleasure, nor should you feel ashamed or embarrassed for leaning into the experiences you want. But it is possible that you may feel like you are crossing a relationship boundary because you believe your partner does not share these fantasies, at least that you know of.
I understand that you have concerns about potentially hurting your partner with your fantasies. It's important to remember that you know your partner best, so I trust your judgment. It's common for partners to feel hurt if they are kept in the dark about something that is deep, routine, or regular for you. I also want to take a moment to acknowledge your partner. If their ability to trust you is already a concern in the relationship then your worry about feeling bad or doing something wrong, such as fantasizing about someone else, may be connected to a tension point about trust and commitment.
While you're not doing anything inherently wrong by having these fantasies, you may want to look into whether or not your daydreaming is causing strain in your intimate life. Do you get distracted by performance anxiety, pressure to orgasm faster or slower, or even ignoring a request that you feel too shy to verbalize? I'm curious if your partner feels you pulling away during moments of pleasure in a way that is distracting. It's important to consider whether the discomfort comes from the details of the fantasy or from the fact that you haven't felt comfortable sharing your longing with your partner. Are you feeling disconnected during sex because your mind is wandering? Your shame could be manifesting as a block to connection. On the outside, this could mean you're shutting down, turning away, or even being so wrapped up in the moment that your partner can feel that you’re miles away.
Opening this conversation with your partner can feel less scary if you are doing regular relationship check-ins. Many couples do them once a month for money and it’s a great practice around sex and intimacy as well. Start by thinking about what you want to share with her, then get even more honest with yourself about whether or not the feeling that you’re doing something wrong shows up as a block to intimacy during sex. Once you get clarity on that, you can start the conversation with your partner like this: “I am feeling really good about our relationship and would love to do some regular check-ins to give us a place to discuss things so we stay on the same page. I am curious how you are feeling about our sex life and if you are feeling connected to me during sex?” You can then open up about your feelings about being emotionally present during sex.
For you to really work through this, I would like you to journal or do a voice note on your phone to the prompts below. These are meant to help you to interrupt the self-critical behavior, to bring awareness to the stories you carry around from your wounded inner child. This journaling will also slip into shadow work, which is when we’re able to work on the parts of ourselves that we struggle to accept, the parts of ourselves that when we welcome them and stop judging that part of who we are, we reset our course to deeper self-compassion and understanding of ourself.
Start this exercise by bringing mindfulness into what is happening before we think about shifting behaviors, and write down the following prompts:
1. What feelings and emotions come up for you when you say, “I have experienced pleasure, and thinking about those moments of pleasure is normal."
2. A memory from childhood that you experienced joy and it was cut short or stopped.
3. What feelings and emotions come up for you when you say, “I get to have pleasure and joy in my life?”
4. A quality within you that you have the most trouble accepting.
Tapping into a deeper understanding of what brings you pleasure or blocks can have a profound impact on your relationship. This is not a one-and-done experience: you take little insights and bring them back into your relationship by either directly sharing or in your actions. Sharing from a place of brave vulnerability can open up deep conversations.
Finally, ask yourself if you are deeply bothered by the fact that you are fantasizing about someone else. If you are, it does not matter that you are not doing anything inherently wrong — we need to simply acknowledge that it is not how you want to be in the world. That alone matters a lot. Have you tried redirecting your focus to the present moment, especially during sex compared to masturbating alone? What would it be like to concentrate on the sensations in your body, your breathing, and the feeling of air filling your lungs during sex? Next time you are intimate, try being present and truly experiencing the pleasure that comes with the experience. Perhaps the bravest vulnerability is not turning to fantasy, but in fighting through the challenges of being fully present in the moment with your partner.
The journey towards deep intimacy and understanding is not always the easiest path to choose, but it is always worth it. I encourage you to normalize your fantasies and worry less about whether you are doing something wrong. Instead, focus on finding a balance between getting lost in another world and getting lost in connection with someone you actively choose every day, and who chooses you in return. The work of love and relationships is not just about arguments or grand romantic gestures. It can also be found in the simplicity of being present with someone and experiencing the loving pleasure of that connection.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specializes in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.