Sex File: I said my ex-boyfriend’s name in bed

Calling out your ex’s name during sex is an awkward but common and forgivable offence

Sex File: I said my ex-boyfriend’s name in bed

I accidentally called my husband by an old boyfriend’s name during sex and now I’m anxious I’ll do it again. I’ve been happily married for five years and genuinely never think about this man any more. My husband didn’t comment on it at the timeb — I’m not sure if he let it pass or didn’t hear — but it has left me feeling tense about our sex life.

Getting your partner’s name wrong is awkward at any time, but in a sexual context, it feels particularly transgressive. However, it is certainly not uncommon. Sexual arousal affects the regions of the brain that are responsible for attention, information retrieval, and working memory, so misnaming is more likely to happen when your genitals are doing the thinking.

Although no one has researched the specific relationship between sexual arousal and misnaming, the psychologist Samantha Deffler at Duke University in the United States has carried out a number of different studies to explore the phenomenon of misnaming and one of them explored its relationship to mood.

Her research found that participants were more likely to use the wrong name when they were drunk, angry, frustrated, or tired. Deffler’s primary finding, though, was that misnaming is largely a semantic mistake. We bucket the people in our lives into different groups — spouse, lover, child, friend, relative, mother-in-law, dog etc. Over time many people in your life will occupy the same category, and sometimes you will get their names muddled up.

Even when you have been married to someone for donkey’s years and are staring them straight in the face, your brain can fish around in the right semantic bucket (sexual partner) and occasionally, instead of lovingly uttering your husband’s name, you blurt out your old boyfriend’s name instead. To put “occasionally” into context, more than half of the 1,544 participants in Deffler’s study had either used the wrong name or been called the wrong name by someone close to them.

One of Deffler’s other findings was that misnaming is much more likely to happen when names are phonetically similar. For example, I routinely trip through the names of my four daughters before arriving at the correct child and name combination. They are all grouped in the semantic category of “daughter”, but all four happen to have names that begin with a consonant and have two syllables. Now no one bats an eyelid when I confuse my kids, but on the rare occasions when I have accidentally misnamed my husband, there has definitely been a nanosecond of awkwardness. However, it turns out that my husband and most of my exes happen to have phonetically similar names.

Understanding the mechanism of misnaming should reassure you that it was an innocent mistake, despite the concept of the “Freudian” slip being deeply ingrained. Remember Friends? The “I, Ross, take thee, Rachel” episode (in which Ross was actually marrying English woman, Emily) was watched by 20m people, many of whom bought Freud’s theory that slips of the tongue are a key to the unconscious mind. In contrast, psychologists such as Daniel Wegner would argue that Ross said Rachel’s name because he was actively trying not to think of her, and that thought suppression ensured that she intruded into his thoughts at precisely the wrong time.

Having explored the research, I think you can relax. There seems to be consensus among psychologists, neuroscientists, and linguists that calling out your ex’s name during sex is an awkward but common and ultimately forgivable offence. Unless you have found yourself secretly stalking this man on social media every night, in which case Freud and Wegner were absolutely right.

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