This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
From politicians to porn stars, all kinds of people can unexpectedly pop up in our sexual fantasies. Interestingly, studies have shown that when it comes to the realm of the sexual imagination, cis women are more likely than cis men to conjure up thoughts of ex-lovers.
These fantasies might be about a particularly memorable one-night stand you had years ago. Sometimes, though, they feature someone you were once with in a longer-lasting relationship. This is where things can get complicated: Where do you draw the line between innocently taboo sexy thoughts and rediscovering lingering feelings about your ex?
Stefano Verza, a psychologist and expert in ethical non-monogamy, told me that attraction comes in many forms. First, there’s sensual attraction, “which is all about touch and physicality but doesn’t necessarily have an erotic component”, as he puts it. Then there’s platonic attraction, which is tied to friendship, and romantic attraction, rooted in “feelings and emotional ties,” Verza explains. Finally, there’s sexual attraction, which is connected to feelings of eroticism and intimacy.
The sex-with-an-ex dreams many of us have experienced are potentially nothing more than a harmless manifestation of the longing we have for the lost sexual component of a now-dormant relationship. But, as Verza adds, “We might not be able to immediately distinguish – and separate – those feelings from the romantic attraction there once was.”
Needless to say, this can leave you feeling pretty strange. Verza argues that our inability to demarcate clearly between these feelings stem from the sociocultural context we’ve grown up in: “It taught us a normative view of relationships where all the different kinds of attraction are mixed up in a big melting pot.”
A series of studies led in 2020 by Amy Muise, a behavioural science researcher based at York University, examined why we fixate on positive past sexual experience. Describing it as “sexual nostalgia”, her research found that – surprise, surprise – we’re more likely to fantasise about our exes when we’re single or dissatisfied with our current relationship. It also showed that single and unfulfilled people who are comfortable with emotional closeness experience more sexual nostalgia than people with a similar relationship status who are more emotionally detached.
Verza is keen to point out that there is no single way to interpret what sexual fantasies about ex-partners could mean. “As individuals, fantasies can take on different meanings in different times of our lives,” he says. Depending on who we are and what we are going through, "we might miss the sexual experience we had with that person, the person themselves, or just what they represented to us”.
Often, Verza points out, we tend to over-analyse our sexual thoughts and think that they mean there’s something wrong with us. But “fantasies dictated by memories are natural,” he says. “They are just a part of our endless stream of thoughts. It is normal to dwell on moments that are significant to us.”
For instance, finding yourself thinking about an ex while actually in the middle of having sex with someone else might make you feel pretty bad about yourself. But Verza reminded us we usually have little control over who suddenly pops up in our heads during sex. “It is normal brain activity and there’s no reason to feel guilty about it,” Verza said.
But sometimes, these fantasies might actually raise a red flag signalling your current relationship has become less fulfilling. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to dump your partner, but it might indicate that some of your needs and priorities have changed or aren’t being met.
In this case, you should ask yourself two questions: Are these fantasies stray, random thoughts or are you actively turning them into more considered, fleshed-out fantasies? And, maybe most pressingly, should you tell the person you’re seeing about them?
Verza is of the opinion that fantasies should always be shared and discussed amongst romantic partners, however complicated or difficult that may seem. “From the get-go, you need to forge a style of communication that allows you to talk freely about those things. Both those we want to make real and those that we are happy to keep as just fantasies.”
If the relationship is solid, he says, “there’s no fear of losing the other person, no jealousy”. The key to making this conversation a success, as opposed to an awkward ordeal, is to reassure your partner that an erotic fantasy is just that: a fantasy. It doesn’t necessarily follow that there is an emotional component to it. Even if one does exist, you have chosen to be with your partner, not the person in your fantasy. “If you’re honest about these things, your partner’s reaction to the discussion will say a lot more about them than it does you.”
Regardless of your current relationship status, fantasies often tend to idealise both people and situations, recreating intense experiences without the flaws and fumbles that are a part of everyday sexual life. “We modify these images to our advantage,” Verza says. “When I go back in my head to a previous sexual experience, it is hard for me to recall the smells, sounds, or specific moments that I didn’t like.”
So if you’re tempted to actually get back with an ex just based on your fantasies, take a minute to think about it and proceed with caution. And remember: they’re your ex for a reason.