Renowned couples therapist and TED speaker Esther Perel is the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity and the host of top Audible original series Where Should We Begin? Her newest book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, publishes in October 2017. Her exclusive mbg class, The Essential Guide to Sparking Your Erotic Intelligence, will help you create the relationship you’ve always wanted and take your sex life to a whole new level. (This piece originally appeared on EstherPerel.com.)
One of the great mysteries of fantasy is that we don’t know why certain things are a turnoff and others are the opposite. We don’t understand the preferences of others or ourselves. Sure, we can examine the biography of a person, but fundamentally we are in the dark.
So let’s say you want to know what your partner’s fantasies are, but when you find out, they leave you feeling inadequate, disgusted, or just plain turned off? Here are some things to consider and try out as you open up the fantasy conversation:
Fantasy is not reality.
Children may playact that they are in jail. But if they were in jail, they wouldn’t be playing as a prisoner. Fantasy is play; it is not reality, and it is not what we want in the cold light of day.
So, why do we have fantasies that aren't in alignment with what we want in reality? My colleague Michael Bader aptly said that a good fantasy states the problem and offers the solution. In other words, whatever cultural obstacles or prohibitions you encounter in life you are allowed to explore in the realm of your imagination.
The imagination, of course, is not always politically correct. For instance, a rape fantasy is just that: a fantasy of forced seduction. In a rape fantasy you never experience the dread that accompanies violence; instead, you are subverting the idea and transforming the meaning of that experience into a source of pleasure and excitement.
Don't play the shame game.
If you ask someone their private turn-on and they open up, they're inviting you into their secret garden. If you are openly disgusted, you are effectively slamming the gate and running off into the wilderness. By closing off the conversation or reacting with disgust, we induce shame and guilt in the other.
The erotic mind is very sensitive to censorship, and it knows when it needs to go into hiding. Someone may promise never to have these thoughts or voice them again, but you can’t eradicate someone’s preferences because you don’t like them.
So, if your partner reveals himself or herself to you, don’t shut them down. By shutting down the conversation, you are in effect saying, "I want you to open up but only on my terms." That creates a power dynamic that is far removed from the inner erotic sanctum.
I have a friend who doesn’t understand why people like to eat pickled octopus. Like taste, fantasy can induce the ick factor for others. But instead of turning away with revulsion and worrying about the implications of a partner’s fantasy, I encourage you to remain curious.
Ask your partner about their particular fantasy. What is it about it your fantasy that is pleasurable? Is it that you get to be passive? Ruthless? Give over power? By remaining curious and open, we are asking the other: Who are you? We don’t have to understand them; we can simply find out more about who they are, which creates space, acceptance, and room for play.
Try something new.
A woman once told me about her partner’s fantasy of being seduced in a clothing store changing room by the attendant. His fantasy made her feel inadequate and cuckolded: Why did he have to imagine another woman? But when they tried playing out the fantasy at home, with her playing the attendant, she found that there was pleasure to be had in playing out fantasy. She could bring her own imagination to it so that they both owned the game. Taste, like our palate as we grow from children to adults, can evolve and change. Be open to trying new flavors—you may find something you like.
Want more insight into your sexuality? Find out the two types of passion (and which one is good for your sex life), then learn what the number of sexual partners you've had actually says about you.