“You’ve got to see these photos of Lori!
Rob sidled over to a group of neighbors at the party, flipping open the pocket album even as he spoke. Lori, his wife of ten years, trailed behind, smiling gamely. But her eyes looked unsure.
“Great. Let’s see.”
Rob must have captured some interesting shots on their recent dive trip to Bermuda, I thought. Maybe he snapped Lori riding a rickety tourist bike along the beautiful beach. Or got an underwater shot of her swimming near the reefs alongside brilliant, tropical fish.
Curious, I looked at the open pages.
For a moment, I was confused. Who was that? The woman staring back at me from photo after photo, as Rob turned the pages, had smoky eyes, tousled hair, and wore more feathers than clothes.
“Hey, hey, look at that one. She looks great, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, that’s Lori.” He raved. “Stunning, isn’t she?” By “she,” he meant “glamour shot Lori.” The very real Lori standing next to him, fairly pretty but ignored, drew no compliments–at least not while the illusory, fantasized-about “Lori” was on proud display.
Actually, I thought Rob was stunning. Stunningly insensitive. Demeaning, too.
They divorced eighteen months later. No kids, just scuba gear to divvy up.
I wasn’t surprised, really. But I wondered if they’d gotten some bum advice along the way.
These days, the go-to resources on relationships and marriage sound a common theme: married couples should freely indulge in sexual fantasies about “someone else,” even while making love with their spouse.
Some therapists go further, saying it’s “unhealthy … to not have sexual fantasies.” These marriage “experts” argue that mental movies—of an airbrushed, made-over spouse (like Lori), an imagined, seductive stranger, or a memorable past lover–harm no one. As long as the fantasy stays in the head, why not?
Besides, they say, fantasies spice up a couple’s love life: mental “action” with the fantasy partner stimulates creativity and physical energy with the real person between the sheets. It’s passion refueled by the imagined responses of a wished-for lover.
The problem with this “fantastic” advice is that it’s all wrong.
For starters, passion rekindled by a fantasy lover is passion for a substitute, real or imagined—it’s not passion for the spouse at all. The spouse in bed functions as a placeholder, an understudy to the real drama occurring in the other’s mind.
Sooner or later it becomes obvious.
Have you ever tried to have an important conversation with someone whose mind was elsewhere? It doesn’t work. Most people can tell if the other person’s not really “there.” The conversation is unsatisfying; the lack of engagement insulting.
But if it happens during one of the most naturally intimate moments a couple can share, the damage is sure to be even greater. Fantasizing about a desired lover—and disengaging from the real spouse–has the potential to inflict deep wounds on the spouse who is displaced. Even therapists who encourage fantasizing warn that fantasies should be revealed cautiously, if at all, to a spouse, because the non-fantasizing partner naturally feels offended, hurt, or cheated upon. It’s human nature.
Fantasies hurt more than feelings, however. They destroy love.
And that’s the real flaw in the sexperts’ advice: they worry more about maximizing individual pleasure than expressing mutual love. In their world, sex is merely a physical dance always in search of more imagination, better choreography, or even a new, inspirational partner. The dancer aims to please him or herself—dancing in sync with another is only a means to exquisite personal pleasure.
Love—and lovemaking between spouses—can’t be reduced to a solo performance or expanded to a mental audition, open to all.
Sexual love is an intimate, person-to-person encounter. It has deep meaning precisely because of who the two people are: a married couple who have given themselves to each other, with a promise of exclusive, committed love.
Pretending that a spouse is really someone else is just as contradictory as smuggling a third person in under the covers—even an imaginary person.
And as a practical matter, fantasizing quite literally makes the “unthinkable” thinkable. The heart and mind are halfway out the door once permission’s granted to mentally pursue someone else. So it was for Rob and Lori, anyway.
So forget the “experts.”
Put your energy into real love. You just might discover it’s way more satisfying than any fantasy trip ever could be.
(c) 2010 Mary Rice Hasson
More of Mary’s columns can be read at Catholic News Agency