In the 1995 smash hit “Fantasy,” a daydreaming Mariah Carey sings, “images of rapture/creep into me slowly/as you’re going to my head.” According to new research, the pleasure induced from a sexy fantasy like Carey’s isn’t just the stuff of R&B poetry. It’s also a scientifically sound way to spice up your love life. In the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists show that fantasizing about one’s partner induces relationship-improving behaviors and inspires general “I’m feeling this” vibes. Sweet, sweet fantasy indeed.
In the paper, released Saturday, a team of Israeli researchers acknowledge that when an individual in a relationship with someone starts fantasizing about someone else, the demise of a relationship is often on the horizon. But when that person fantasizes about their partner, it could actually make the relationship stronger. Thinking about sexy time with a romantic partner is called “dyadic fantasizing,” and the study reveals that involving a romantic partner in those fantasies not only increases their perceived appeal but also motivates the fantasizer to invest more in the relationship.
“Daydreams have been found to increase feelings of love and connection that presumably foster pleasant future interactions,” explains Baruch Ivcher school of psychology professor and study co-author Gurit Birnbaum, Ph.D. to Inverse. “The rewarding aspects of fantasizing might become associated with the partner and the relationship, coloring them in a more appealing light.”
Birnbaum and her team evaluated the effect of sexual fantasies on relationships over the course of four studies. In the first two, study participants either fantasized about their partner or someone else and then rated their desire to have sex or participate in “relationship-promoting activities” with their partner. In the third and fourth studies, partners kept diaries to record how often they fantasized about their special someone and how their real-life relationship was going.
Fantasies that involved only a person’s partner increased the daydreamer’s desires to show emotion and physical love to their partner — none of that “I’m reading 50 Shades to help us” nonsense. On the days when people found themselves stuck in a sexy daydream, they were also more likely to follow up with an act of romantic kindness, like giving compliments to their partner. To make sure that this all came back to sexy thoughts, the researchers also asked the people to imagine having a conversation about life concerns with their partner and then asked whether that made them want to have sex. It did not.
Birnbaum says she observed a particularly marked increase in feelings of love and connection among the individuals who had scored low on those feelings before, suggesting that engaging in constructive, sexual fantasies can help a relationship. Reflecting on how other people think, feel, and behave during daydreaming, she theorizes, could enhance one’s empathy for another person.
“Indeed, therapists often use fantasy training in the treatment of couples with sexual dysfunctions, claiming that fantasies can promote couple intimacy and improve sexual functioning,” says Birnbaum. “Our findings suggest that the implementation of fantasy training in the treatment of couples with relationship and sexual difficulties should be further encouraged.”
Discovering that imagination can help a real-life relationship is consistent with what already scientists know about the established benefits of daydreaming. Previous studies have shown that daydreaming about what you want — such as getting over a phobia or performing better at work — can help you actually achieve that goal. Nostalgia, a form of daydreaming, works in the same way: When people feel a sentimental longing for their past, they actually experience the sense that they are socially connected.
Sexual fantasies, says Birnbaum, seem to act in the same way. If you can dream it, you really can do it.