We spend much of our inner lives daydreaming, research shows. Given how central sexual fantasies are to fiction (can you say Fifty Shades of Grey?) it might surprise you to learn that very little of this research focuses on sexual fantasies. This may change in the wake of a fascinating investigation by Israeli psychologist Gurit E. Birnbaum and collaborators, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Birnbaum and her team surveyed 48 cohabitating couples to find out how their sexual fantasies related to their feelings about each other but, more importantly, to their personalities regarding relationships in general. These personality qualities, called attachment styles, reflect the mental models we have of ourselves in relation to other people.
Attachment style theory says that infants develop these mental models based on how caregivers treat them. If they feel safe and cared for, they will carry forward into adult relationships a “secure” attachment style. However, if they feel that the caregiver may abandon them, they can become “anxiously” attached. This can lead to fears, as an adult, that they can’t count on anyone in a close relationship, and they may seem needy and dependent. Alternatively, they may also develop an “avoidant” attachment style if fear about being abandoned leads them to stay away from close relationships altogether.
When it comes to sex, Birnbaum and her collaborators proposed that anxiously attached people would use sex to meet their needs to feel safe and secure and to feel emotional intimacy. If they feel the relationship is threatened, they use sex as a way to calm their fears. People who are avoidantly attached separate sex from intimacy. They are more likely to have casual sex, to regard sex as a way to bolster their self-esteem, and distance themselves emotionally during sexual encounters.
Data were collected from the couples in the study over a three-week period. Each day, the participants reported which of 19 specific relationship-enhancing and relationship-damaging behaviors they and their partners experienced. Relationship-enhancing behaviors included statements such as “I told my partner I loved him/her—My partner told me he/she loved me.” The relationship-damaging behaviors included “My partner criticized me—I criticized my partner.” To obtain information on sexual fantasies, the researchers asked participants to write about each sexual fantasy as soon as it came to mind, including “the specific scene, series of events, the figures, wishes, sensations, feelings, and thoughts that were experienced by you and the other figures in your fantasy.” Participants also completed a 36-item questionnaire assessing their attachment anxiety and avoidance.
Across the three-week study, participants on average reported that they fantasized on 13 of the days (59%). Men and women reported equal amounts of fantasizing, with two-thirds fantasizing about their partner. Men reported less of a tendency to fantasize about their partner (50%) compared to women (83%). However, the content of their fantasies did differ.
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Six categories of sexual fantasies emerged, which were grouped into expressions of attachment anxiety or avoidance. The three types of anxiety-related fantasies were a desire for intimacy, the self as humiliated and helpless, and others as affectionate and pleasing toward them. The three types of avoidance-related fantasies were a desire to escape from reality, the self as aggressive and alienated, and others as aggressive and alienated.
Read more: Susan Krause Whitborne, Psychology Today