If you fantasize during sex, you’re in good company. In a 2015 survey by the sex toy retailer Lovehoney, 46% of women and 42% of men admitted to thinking about someone else during sex with their partner.
Is this a problem or is it a way to make sex more exciting for you both? As it turns out, it could be either. Here are some of the most common reasons people fantasize during sex and what they mean, according to experts.
It Enhances the Experience
Fantasizing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “People fantasize during sex because it feels good,” says Dr. Jill McDevitt, CalExotics’ resident sexologist.
“The brain is not good at differentiating between fantasy and reality,” she explains. “This is why watching a scary movie makes you jump, or thinking about a stressful deadline gives you anxiety - literally, the fight-or-flight response, as if your life was in danger - over a work project. And so, fantasy can make your body sexually respond as if fantasy scenarios were actually happening, even if they really aren't.”
If this isn’t causing you any problems and you’re maintaining your connection with your partner, don’t worry about it. The more excited you are, the better sex will be for them too, especially if you share your fantasies with them.
You Can’t Turn Off Your Mind
Fantasizing can become a problem “when thoughts are racing and you aren't able to just be present, in the moment,” says McDevitt. “If your thoughts turn to the grocery list during sex or you’re calling your partner by the wrong name, I'd say it's time to get out of your head space.”
Often, people who can’t turn their minds off during sex have this problem outside the bedroom as well, says Marissa Nelson, marriage and family therapist, sex therapist, and founder of Intimacy Moons.
“You adopt the same practices inside the bedroom as outside,” she says. “If you have an anxious mind, you will have that during sex too.” People who fantasize during sex for this reason will also often engage in “spectatoring,” or narrating their sexual experiences, Nelson explains. The mind of someone who’s spectatoring during sex may sound something like, “I have to have the lights off for me to be comfortable” or “I don’t like when he fingers me like this.”
To get better at staying in the present moment, Nelson recommends getting in touch with your body the next time you take a shower. Feel the soap on your skin and the temperature of the water and note what sensations they’re making you feel.
You can also try a breathing technique to quell anxiety in the bedroom: breathe in for a count of four and then breathe out for a count of four, feeling the air move deep within your belly.
Sometimes, people have trouble focusing on the situation at hand because they’re dissociating, or disconnecting from their bodies, says Nelson. This can stem from a fear of vulnerability or past trauma that gets triggered by sexual situations. You may be dissociating to avoid the pain of the trauma or maintain emotional distance from your partner. As with n inability to turn off your mind, dissociation probably happens in more areas of your life than just sex.
Since dissociation is typically a coping mechanism, it could benefit you to explore why you’re doing it with a therapist. The same mindfulness techniques mentioned above can also help combat dissociative tendencies.
Read More: Can Mindfulness Improve Your Sex Life?
You Want to Try Something New
You may find yourself relying on fantasy to get aroused during sex because the acts taking place in real life aren’t totally doing it for you. If you can figure out what about the fantasy is turning you on and get that in your sex life, this is easily solvable, says Nelson.
For example, Nelson had a client who fantasized about the erotica she read. When they talked about it, she realized most of this erotica involved women being submissive. Once she could incorporate submission into her sex life, she no longer felt the need to fantasize. If you’re able to talk about your fantasies with your partner, they could become a reality as well.
There’s a Side of Yourself That Wants to Come Out
It’s true what they say: people often behave the opposite way in their sexual fantasies from how they do in real life. If someone’s very aggressive and take-charge at work, for example, they may fantasize about being submissive in bed, says dating and relationship expert and author April Masini.
"Women fantasize about being their alter egos during sex,” she explains. “If they’re demure in real life, they have sexual fantasies about being take-charge in bed. And women who rule the boardroom often fantasize about being the maid, or some more subservient character, during sex. Real life can create pressure, and someone who’s politically correct all day at job will be having sex fantasies where she’s the cheerleader or even the stripper or escort during sex.”
Some people will act out their alter egos in the bedroom, while others will continue being their real-life selves and keep their alter egos within their fantasies. If you’d like to have a deeper connection with your partner, you can try acting these fantasies out with them, knowing they have no bearing on who you are outside the bedroom.
In short, whether or not fantasizing in bed is a problem depends on where it comes from and what the effects are. “I have seen how fantasies can make people dissociate,” says Nelson.
On the other hand, “you can incorporate fantasies in healthy ways,” she adds. “If you incorporate fantasies to heighten your arousal and connection to your partner, it doesn’t take anything away from a partner but can add eroticism to a sexual moment.”