Monday, December 12, 2011

Guilty Fantasies

Originally published April, 2003

Q: I am seriously involved with someone, however, I keep having these fantasies about someone else who is much younger than I am. I think in another lifetime we would have made a scorching couple, but definitely not now. How do I reconcile my guilt over having these seemingly uncontrollable feelings? I would never leave my partner - but I can't seem to stop thinking about the "Could of" aspect of the other person. Or should I feel guilty?

A: Extra-relational attraction, fantasies, and guilt are all very common experiences that most of us (some more than others) are quite familiar with. All are very normal, and are part of what it means to be an emotional, sexual, and rational being.

We make a lot of decisions in our lives, like last night it took me ten minutes to decide between the salmon or the pasta. Both were equally appealing and cost the same, but I went with the fish. As I was eating, someone at the table next to me ordered the pasta and it looked damn good. Unlike picking items from a menu, choosing a partner is one of the most important decisions we can make. It's a semi-rational choice based on emotions and/or sexual attraction, involves another person, and can have long-term results. We have a lot more invested and more at stake when choosing a partner and we tend to do so with caution. I wasn't emotionally bound to my dinner choice (hell, I could have just flipped a coin), the salmon's feelings weren't going to be hurt if it didn't work out, I knew that picking salmon didn't mean that I could never eat pasta, and I damn sure didn't feel guilty for thinking about the pasta after I had made my decision.

Did you make a good choice? It's hard to tell from your e-mail, but whether you are happy with your relationship or not, you will likely find yourself attracted to other people. Choosing one person does not make you blind to the charms of the rest of us (inspiring such bumper-sticker wisdom as "I may be married, but I ain't dead"), especially when there are others out there with similar qualities that you find attractive (we really aren't as unique as we think and neither are our partners). You haven't acted on these feelings and even said you would never leave your partner. Assuming that your relationship is secure: don't sweat it. Acknowledge the attraction, even fantasize a bit, and after a while, it will probably fade. If you think your partner can handle it, you may even want to "confess" your desire to lessen your feelings of guilt (be careful though, I've known several relationships where this caused problems). Regardless, your attraction is normal and fantasies can be healthy. In fact, it really isn't worth worrying about unless you are unhappy with your partner. In this case, your attraction to someone else may be cause for you to re-evaluate your choice. Might be time to order the pasta.
As for the guilt, that's an issue for clergy and philosophers. Personally, I feel that only actions should cause guilt (a statement that is much easier to type than to live by). Simply thinking about something, even repeatedly, isn't amoral. We all have unintentional "evil" thoughts, sexual or other, that pop into our heads on occasion, and I think it is a testament to our moral character that we do not act on them. Then again, maybe I'm just going to hell.