What people think about during sexual activity is vastly diverse. Mind wandering and inattention is common and is not in itself indicative of an inherent problem. Instead it may reveal more about the person than their actual behavior. Sharing mental thoughts with a lover can enhance or dampen intimacy, depending on a partner’s level of differentiation or ability to maintain autonomy while engaging with another person. The mental states that partners may enter during sexual activity can be categorized into three types of experiences: sexual trance, partner engagement and role-play.

1.     Individuals may experience sexual trance when body sensations are the selective focus of their intimacy. Attention is directed inward on bodily stimulation to avoid having outside distractions negatively impact their altered state of being. At low levels of trance, thoughts and feelings interfere with a sexual encounter and at high levels the zoning out from the external environment takes away from partner connectedness. Because of the inherent nature of this style, it generally involves taking turns. Sexual trance works well when both partners are able to connect at this level and one isn’t left feeling excluded.  

2.     Mutuality is the emphasis of the partner engagement frame of mind. The goal is to unify with your lover in the sharing of pleasure and affection. What is noteworthy of mention is that partner engagement does not necessarily equate to a strong sense of internal stability. The emotional connection can be lost in partner engagement if your partner’s fulfillment is the determinant of your own self worth.

3.     Using one’s imagination and acting on those sexual desires is the defining element of role-play. Coordination is an important factor for this mind-set and requires for partners to be in sync in order to take on their respective roles. The more their behavior matches the set out expectations of a role, the better partners are able to enact and play out a fantasy or sexual script.  

An experience that sometimes takes place between lovers is the revelation that a partner is fantasizing about someone other than their significant other during sexual activity. When partners are poorly differentiated (meaning they need their partners affirmation to feel inner peace), such disclosure leads to emotional injury. This is because their sense of adequacy and sexual prowess is dependent on their lover. Couples who struggle with this issue are less likely to experiment and add variety to their sexual relationship. The only realistic alternative is to shift intimacy from being validated by the other to being validated by the self, since you cannot alter the fantasies of your partner.

Increasing differentiation is possible in each of the mental states listed above. In sexual trance, this involves paying attention to one’s own body while consciously observing your partner. In partner engagement, it necessitates looking into one’s partner as a separate individual and appreciating their being in itself instead of as a mirroring reflection. In role-play, increasing differentiation involves developing comfort with who you are so that you can maintain the flexibility of taking on a persona to feel confident playing a role.

Balancing separateness while maintaining togetherness deepens the connection between partners because it allows for emotional independence between engaged individuals. The less rigid partners are about their sexual expression the more diversity they can bring to what they think about and how they experience their encounters.

Source: Schnarch, D. (2009). Where’s Your Head during Sex? Mental Dimensions of Sexual Experience. In Schnarch, D. Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships  (pp.240-260). New York: Norton.