When Dylan Selterman was in college, he dated a woman who had vivid dreams of him. They weren’t REM fantasies of Caribbean sunset yacht cruise ships and 50 Shades of Gray-style fun. Rather, the dreams featured him being, as he says, “a big asshole.” In his girlfriend’s dreams, Selterman says he was “cheating on her, abandoning her, and saying very cruel things,” he recalls via email.
The odd thing was that Selterman, now a researcher at the Dreams, Relationships, Emotions, Attraction, and Morality (DREAM) Lab at the University of Maryland, wasn’t cheating, abandoning, or uttering terrible things to his girlfriend in real life. They had a fine relationship in the real world. But when she dreamt these things, she’d wake up and argue with him about what a jerk his dream self had been. It was as though the fights actually happened.
“The fact that she had these dreams caused her to be mad at me during the day, even when I did nothing wrong [in reality],” Selterman says. “I think many of those conflicts we had in our relationship were caused in part by the bad dreams she had about me.”
Selterman’s experience is not unique. A lot of people feel themselves being held accountable for the wrongs someone dreamt they committed. Why does what happens in the dreamscape play out so vividly in the real world?
Selterman was so gripped by how dreams inform relationship conflicts that he ended up writing his dissertation on this very topic. It’s a tricky space, to be sure: Our understanding of dreams and how they work/what they mean is fuzzy at best; figuring out what causes them and their resulting conflict is scientifically messier. Selterman’s dissertation theorized that attachment theory — the idea that deep-seated childhood experiences shape our very core of being and influence us for the rest of our lives, no matter how our environment changes — were influential in dreams. Dreamers have also self-reported that it’s not strangers that make an appearance in their REM movies but rather people they know and with whom they have spent a significant amount of time.
When a couple feels secure in their relationship and each person can trust their partner, dreams tend to reflect that. But when couples are on the rocks, their dreams tend to be as well.
It makes sense then that romantic partners are more likely to make frequent appearances in our nighttime visions compared to the dude that gives you your coffee every morning. Selterman, however, emphasizes that dreams do not influence or cause conflict; rather, there is a correlation of your partner having a dream in which you cheat on them and them waking up the next morning feeling royally pissed off.
That said, Selterman’s research does show that dreams definitely affect your day-to-day experience. And while he and his team didn’t find any correlation between behavior and emotions during the day affecting dreams at night, they found the reverse to be true: Dreams were either mood boosters or killers for the next day.
The content of those dreams was extremely dependent on the nature of a couple’s relationship. There’s evidence, Selterman says, that when a couple feels secure in their relationship and each person can trust their partner, dreams tend to reflect that. But when couples are on the rocks, their dreams tend to be as well. It’s also important to realize that the disruptive/destructive nature of your nighttime adventures is not a function of the length of your relationships — you might be married to your high school sweetheart but you can still have a disturbing dream about them doing something you find otherwise unsavory and lash out. “Couples can be involved for a long time [and] can still have insecurities,” says Selterman.
The thing about our dreams is that there’s very little that we can do to control them and how they make us feel — we think. The uncertainty stems from the fact that we still don’t know how dreams work, what makes our unconscious, snoozing brain think that a specific storyline might make for a good wee-hour escapist film and what doesn’t, and what role our psychology and lives play into developing the screenplay of a dream.
Selterman has found that mindfulness might affect how people dream. “People who are more mindful during the day (e.g., who meditate more) are more likely to remember their dreams and to experience lucid dreaming, which may impact the content,” he says.
While useful, this makes it tricky to prescribe how we should handle the aftermath of a shitty dream, whether you are the dreamer or the dreamee. Selterman says that there are currently no studies that address how to deal with dream-induced conflict, but that effective argumentation might help smooth things over after a dream-conflict.
Sure, it might seem Freudian, but therapists often consider dreams to be truthtellers, and the limited number of dream studies out there point to the fact that they hint at the base-level concerns a couple might be experiencing.
“It’s probably not all that much different from resolution of other types of conflict (that don’t stem from dreams),” Selterman says. So listen to the partner who dreamed this bizarro weird vision, and understand where they’re coming from and why seeing you in a compromising position in their dreams upsets them.
If you’re the one flipping out, try to analyze why you’re upset rather than why the dream happened. Is your partner blissfully ignoring something about you that you wish they’d pay attention to? Is their past haunting you in a way that is starting to deeply affect the way you think to the point of your dreams?
Selterman says these issues, not the actual dream itself, are what a couple should consider. “There are no studies on how to effectively regulate dream-based conflict.”
A 2010 study by Canadian psychologists exploring sexual imagery in dreams found that what we popularly term as sex dreams are most often connected to previous relationships that seep into current ones, no matter how long you’ve been in your happy twosome. Importantly, the study found that those who were jealous already or suspected their partner of cheating were going to dream of it. While the Canadian study focused exclusively on females, it’s probably not false that the same pattern applies to men as well.
The limited number of dream studies out there point to the fact that they hint at the base-level concerns a couple might be experiencing.
Of course, with both Selterman’s research and other sex dream studies, the caveats are many. Dreams are a difficult thing to study, not only because they rely on self-reports but also because, by nature, they are very difficult to remember when a person wakes up. The fact that dreams affect humans in different ways and aren’t reduced to predictable patterns doesn’t help.
That said, when a person feels annoyed after having a dream that’s upsetting, it’s important to remember that it’s normal to feel that way. It’s also important to consider it fodder for understanding your real-life relationship. Sure, it might seem Freudian, but therapists often consider dreams to be truthtellers, and the limited number of dream studies out there point to the fact that they hint at the base-level concerns a couple might be experiencing.
All of this is to say: If you’re waking up from a dream that suggests your partner is cheating, don’t take it out on them. Remember that it’s a dream and that it’s saying something about the nature of your relationship. Whatever the content, it’s worth a calm sit-down with your partner and potentially a therapist. It’s fine to feel upset, and it’s fine to express your concerns to your partner. As Selterman points out, the fact that it’s a dream means that there’s room to discuss your fears — and talking about your worries and frights in real life away from the bizarre dream world is always good for a relationship.