In this sixth instalment of the Marital Labyrinth series, published simultaneously at Psychology Today, Dr Tobin asks whether it is cheating to fantasize about another person. You can view all articles in the series at this page.
The mind is the most powerful sexual organ in the body. Through creative imagination and fantasy a couple can bring excitement and drama to their lovemaking. It takes courage to shatter the predictable and leap into the unknown—to a place where possibility and novelty exist. It is only through imagination—that ability to visualize what we could be if we would only dare to say yes to abandonment, yes to passion, yes to intimacy—that a couple will reach sexual union.
To my surprise, that’s exactly what Kate did.
But not with Julian.
The sensual evening at the restaurant didn’t culminate in a night of lovemaking. At this point, it was still a premature leap for Kate. Most affairs don’t begin with a sudden burst of passion. A subtle dance of intimacy and daring builds slowly, chipping away at the natural resistance against infidelity that even the most open-minded among us tend to honor. The lovers need time to adjust their moral compass from true north to a new destination called Why Not? I deserve to feel love and desired.
The time was still not ripe for Kate and Julian, but the desire lingered. The evening with Julian ignited Kate’s need for intimacy and sensuality. When she left the restaurant, feeling more disappointed than relieved, she thought to herself that maybe this was a sign that she should take the lead with Dan, to initiate a stronger sexual connection with him.
That evening she seduced Dan. Or did she?
As she and Dan made love, she imagined Julian’s hands sensually stroking her body, his legs pressing against hers, their lips passionately caressing each other. She felt sexually alive and responsive to her husband. Did it matter that it was her vivid fantasizing about cheating with Julian that drove her to such total abandonment with Dan?
Let’s say that the affair never happened, and Dan remained clueless about Kate’s imaginary “deception.” He would have always remembered this as an exquisite night of pleasure. Together, they reached that illusive state of sexual unity or so he would have assumed.
Was Kate cheating when she was fantasizing about Julian?
Imagine being in Dan’s position. Your relationship with your partner has been cold and distant for some time. The moments of intimacy have grown further apart until you’re at a place where you expect very little. You’re in bed and perhaps out of habit you begin one of your perfunctory sexual encounters. Suddenly something changes. He touches you gently and lovingly. You respond, perhaps somewhat reticently at first, but then with greater spontaneity, as you sense him anticipating your needs and giving fully to you. With every passing moment, your feeling of trust grows, and you allow yourself to feel and give pleasure. At the end of making love, you lie in your partner’s arms feeling warm and safe. It didn’t seem possible, but you’re in love again.
And then you discover that it was make believe. He wasn’t making love to you. He was using your body to act out his fantasies for another woman.
How do you react? What do you say? Do you rage at him for cheating on you? Do you call him deceitful and dishonest? Does his fantasy destroy your trust?
Did Kate Cheat on Dan?
Is this adultery?
How do we define adultery? Is it the actual sexual act itself? If so, what about the man who at 2:00 AM, while his wife is asleep, goes on-line to meet his virtual lover? Is that adultery? They don’t touch each other physically. Yet, written correspondence can be far more erotic and emotionally addicting than a physical affair. While making love with their minds, they bring their bodies to heights of exquisite pleasure. If you caught him in the act, how would you react? Would you be pleased that he had discovered a “safe” outlet for his sexual fantasies? Or would you scream in horror for cheating on you?
You and I know the answer to those questions. We know that we would react with hurt and anger at the discovery of our partner’s virtual love affair. My mailbox is filled with hundreds of e-mails from husbands and wives whose partners have “run off” with their virtual lovers. They cry out to me for help, confused about how to react to their partner’s infidelity. “My husband tells me it’s nothing, but I don’t believe him. His heart is with her. I have this horrible feeling that when he’s making love to me, he’s really with her.”
Whether it’s physical, virtual, or imaginary, there is one thing that all these affairs of the heart have in common—the element of deception. No lover wants his spouse to discover the truth. Part of the excitement of an affair is its secrecy. The lover becomes the perfect imaginary friend and sexual partner, flawless in his ability to bring her to the heights of sexual passion and unparalleled in her capacity to anticipate his emotional needs.
With whom did Kate make love?
In Kate’s mind, Julian has been transformed into an enormously talented lover. In fact, his skill, in her fantasy, was so formidable that while she was making love with Dan, “Julian” was able to bring Kate to full orgasm. Do you think Kate would want to reveal her secret to Dan?
So, I ask you: With whom did Kate make love? Did she, in fact, cheat on Dan? It’s not as if Kate planned this fantasy. It just happened. Would it have been better for her to have stopped making love with Dan, and instead, told him that “as long as my heart and mind are with another man, I can’t make love to you”?
Maybe it would have been best to speak the truth. For sure, Dan would have been broken, but at least it would have been honest suffering, not like the rage and hurt that he might feel if he were to discover the deception. Perhaps Kate’s honesty would have been the beginning of a real attempt to heal their marriage.
There are times and situations in a marriage where it might be dangerous to destroy trust at the expense of radical honesty. Confessing every illicit fantasy is hardly the path to marital intimacy. Perhaps the same logic might hold with Kate. Remember, at this point, she hadn’t said yes to an affair with Julian. Fantasizing about cheating might have been exactly what she and Dan needed to revive their marriage.
Or, as it turned out, her night of disingenuous passion convinced her that it was worse to deceive Dan and herself with her imagination—even if he didn’t know it—than to be with the man her mind and heart desired.