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Sex Lives of Savages

Emotional Cheating or Harmless Fantasy?

A Slate reader says he can only climax by picturing someone other than his wife. Lizzie Crocker investigates these so-called partner-replacement fantasies to find out how common they really are.

Ben Smith* has been with the same woman for 13 years. Every third or fourth time he has sex with her, another woman is present in the bedroom. For all he knows, his partner has no idea.

They’ve never discussed fantasizing about other people during the act, and Smith rarely did in the early years of their relationship. But ever since they hit the five-year mark, imagining he’s having sex with other women mid-climax has become a “semi-regular occurrence,” whether it’s a porn star splayed out naked on the edge of the bed or that woman he interviewed for a job last week.

Smith, 37, is hardly a sexual aardvark. In this week’s version of Slate’s widely read “Dear Prudence” advice column, one man wrote in to say that, while he and his wife of seven years have an “amazing life together,” whenever they’re having sex he thinks of “everyone and anyone but her.” In fact, he “never” thinks of her and is “pretty sure I wouldn’t climax if I did.” He wonders if this is “normal or a problem,” if he doesn’t “love her enough” and whether he is “destined to cheat at some point?”

These open-book fantasies are bound to ruffle a few feathers. For some, they might bring back feelings reminiscent of learning Santa Claus wasn’t real. What happened to the magic? asks the despondent romantic, as the puritan furrows his brow and mutters something about sexual peccadilloes. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering just how common this kind of mind-f*cking is and what it says about these fellows’ relationships. Do their partners—and women in general—have equally vivid sex with other people in their heads? Isn’t this called “emotional cheating” or something?

For starters, it’s not “emotional cheating”—it’s worse, technically speaking—and yes, women fantasize about other people just as often as their male partners do.

“Partner-replacement fantasy is one of the most common forms of fantasy,” says David Schnarch, a renowned sex therapist who helps long-term couples work through waning desires. But some nuances in the realm of fantasy are more indicative of healthy relationships than others.

Isn't this called ‘emotional cheating’ or something?

So-called emotional cheating, for instance—i.e. fantasizing about someone other than your partner while masturbating—is a completely healthy sexual behavior, says Schnarch. “Most mature couples accept that their partner isn’t only going to think about them when they’re having sex with themselves.” The only time it really becomes an issue of emotional infidelity, Schnarch says, is when one partner deprives the other of sex and then goes into the bathroom to watch that YouPorn “Jugf*cker” video for the umpteenth time, or to masturbate to an elaborate fantasy of their partner’s best friend.

If one or both partners closes their eyes during sex and pictures Scarlett Johanssen or Robert Redford circa 1975 or Robert Redford circa 2005 wielding a whip and ball gag, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that they aren’t attracted to their partner anymore. Plus, it allows couples to experience a little variety without violating the grounds of monogamy. But the more we rely on our fantasies, the less present we are during sex, and the less fulfilling sex is going to be for one if not both partners, says Schnarch.

Which brings us to our friend from Slate, who admits he can’t function sexually if he’s present with his supposedly loving and beloved wife. Prudie didn’t think this was a big deal, telling the letter-writer to “be happy you’ve found a way to be a great lover and keep things fresh”—a response that shocked readers. One commenter “had to check and make sure this isn’t The Onion,” while another said she and her husband were “totally taken aback by [Prudie] assuring this guy that his relationship is totally healthy.”

It doesn’t take a sex therapist to recognize that this man might have intimacy issues. Freud would have a field day with what appears to be a classic Madonna-Whore complex. We don’t know all the ins and outs of his sex life, like whether his wife knows he’s using her body like a blow-up doll while getting off on the pictures in his head (or whether she’s doing the same). But it’s clear that this man’s fantasy dependency is a sign of truncated development, says Schnarch. “The issue is not whether it’s right or wrong to do what he’s doing, but whether it’s an impediment rather than a supposed freedom.”

The irony, of course, is that if his wife found out and confronted him, and he then left her for that coworker he fantasizes about, he’ll end up fantasizing about his wife a few years down the road.

“Boring sex is built into emotionally committed relationships from the very foundation of the way that normal sexual relationships develop,” says Schnarch. At the beginning, our brains are swamped with that anxious-excited feeling associated with novelty and unfamiliar territory. But habituation and familiarity tend to tame those volts. “Boredom in the bedroom isn’t a sign that you’re not sexually compatible; it’s a sign that you need to take another growth step that will make the two of you nervous.”

If pushing your partner outside of his comfort zone is the key to preserving your sex life’s shelf life, that might explain why one woman who practices BDSM never fantasizes about other people in the heat of the moment with her longtime partner.

“It’s hard not to be present when you are bound/gagged and at someone’s mercy and hard for them to be distracted when they are responsible for you,” says Amanda*, 57.

That’s one way to keep things exciting. If you’re not ready to fully embrace kink, you might at least think about getting involved in your partner’s fantasies instead of neurotically obsessing over them.

Schnarch says he’s seeing more and more couples who discuss their masturbatory material in front of each other during therapy. “At this point, they’re no longer competing with their partner’s fantasies. They’re working with them.”

*Some names have been changed in this article to protect privacy.

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