The other day a client asked, “Isn’t it normal to fantasize about having sex with people besides your spouse?”
Rather than argue about what’s common or typical, I’d rather talk about what’s healthy and helpful.
My mentor Craig Berthold often told clients, “Anyone can have an affair. It’s easy. All you have to do is mentally practice having an affair first thing in the morning when you wake up for two minutes while you’re still lying in bed. Then fantasize about it again when you’re lying in bed at night before you fall asleep. Before long you’ll be having sex with someone besides your spouse in real life.”
This brings up a great question: Why would we permit our brain to repeatedly practice imagining behavior that we never want it to carry out in real life?
Fantasizing amounts to mental practice. We may justify our fantasies with the argument that, “It’s only imaginary.” But that minimizes just how powerful our imaginations are.
Those research subjects who spent half their practice time actually shooting free throws and half their practice time “only” imagining shooting free throws in the end shot a higher percentage of free throws than those who spent all their time shooting real free throws.
Whenever you practice something mentally, you’re training yourself. Mental training is powerful; it enables us to better pull off the actual behavior in real life.
I once saw an interview with a police officer who was asked how he was able to handle an intense situation in a calm, cool, and effective way. He saved an untold number of lives because in the middle of a night out with his wife he was able to quickly get back into “cop mode” and take down an armed maniac. He said, in essence, “I didn’t have to figure out how to handle the situation. My training kicked in. That’s what we train for: so that in situations like this we can do what we need to do instantaneously and automatically.”
I was so impressed, but then I was also spooked. His words reminded me of so many of my clients whose porn use escalated into real-life sexual acting out. They didn’t one day wake up and choose, “Today is the day I’ll cross the line from fantasy to reality.” So often, looking back, they felt like it “just happened.” But it didn’t just happen. Their brain had been practicing how to be unfaithful over and over again for years.
Then, the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong person presented themselves. Sometimes the act of sexual betrayal is described as feeling “almost surreal” when it actually happens, or “as though I was having an out of body experience” or “in a dream-like trance.” That fascinates and troubles me: Sexual fantasies are compelling only to the degree that a part of the brain is convinced we’re having the actual experience. And then the actual experience becomes easier because it feels like nothing more than fantasyland. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?
Call me a prude. Accuse me of setting an unrealistically high standard. All I know is what I see every day: how hard it is to rein back the power of fantasy once it’s been given free reign. I see the price couples and their families pay. My clients go through too many boxes of Kleenex in my office for me to take fantasy lightly. I’ll encourage the higher bar; the stricter, safer standard on this one.