When Their Turn-On is Your Turn-Off, by Esther Perel
“My husband and I started talking about our sexual fantasies the other day and I was shocked and disgusted. What do I do now?” – Stephanie, Milwaukee, MI
Stephanie’s question resonates with many couples because very frequently one person’s turn on is what turns the other off.
One of the great mysteries of fantasy is that we don’t know why certain things are a turn off 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, like Stephanie. But what if 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 play-act that they are in jail. But if they were in jail, they wouldn’t be playing as a prisoner. The first thing that I would say to Stephanie is that fantasy is play, it is not reality, and it is not what her husband wants in the cold hard light of day.
Stephanie may also be asking why her husband has these fantasies? 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 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 to the shame game
Stephanie has asked her husband what his private turn on is. And in turn, he has invited her into his secret garden. If she is openly disgusted, she is 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. Stephanie’s husband 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 open up but only on my terms”. Which becomes 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 Stephanie to remain curious.
Stephanie can reopen the conversation and ask her husband: 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 her partner’s fantasy of being seduced in a clothing store change 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 there was pleasure to be had in playing out the fantasy. She could bring her own imagination to it so that they both owned the game. Taste, like our palette as we grow from children to adults, can evolve and change. Be open to trying new flavors, you may find something you like.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel is recognized as one of the world's most original and insightful voices on modern relationships. Esther helms a therapy practice in New York City, she is a licensed marriage and family therapist, an AASECT certified sex therapist and a member of the American Family Therapy Academy. Esther is the New York Times best selling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Learn more about Esther at EstherPerel.com or by following @EstherPerelOfficial on Instagram.