Accurate or not, nightmares about your partner can be bad for your relationship.
Almost all dreams contain social situations, and most of these dreamed interactions involve friends, family, and frequently, our romantic partners. Some dream researchers believe that dreaming of a friend or partner acts as a simulation of a real-life relationship, and these dreamed simulations are a way for us to practice interacting with others and build relationships while we sleep. But could dreams also be detrimental to relationships?
A recent study published in The Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science assessed how dreaming of a significant other may influence the way we act toward that partner the following day: Does a dreamed argument predict a conflict the next day? Does dreamed intimacy make you more affectionate the next day?
For the study, 61 undergraduate students at Stony Brook University who had been in a relationship for at least six months were selected to participate. The students kept both a daily dream diary and a daily record of their interactions with their partner for 14 days. For their dream reports, they were asked to write down their dreams immediately upon awakening and to include as much detail as possible. They were asked to specify the characters involved in the dreams, along with any thoughts or feelings they had concerning the interactions in the dream. Following the written report, subjects responded to a questionnaire about the dream’s emotion. They rated the amounts of negative emotion (anger, anxiety, stress, frustration, sadness); positive emotion (joy, affection, eroticism, calmness); jealousy (jealousy or betrayal); and guilt (guilt or embarrassment) in their dreams.
At the end of the day, subjects also recorded all of their waking interactions with their partner. They reported a daily measure of love/intimacy (e.g., How much love did you feel for/from your partner today?). They also assessed general interactions (How much interaction did you have with your partner? How much effort did you put towards your partner?). Finally, they reported any daily conflicts.
After the daily logs and dream reports were collected by the researchers, the dreams themselves were rated by judges. Judges scored the written dream reports first for the presence or absence of any content involving partners. Finally, the dreams were scored for specific content, such as the presence or absence of arguments, conflict, or infidelity.
A total of 842 dreams were collected; 53 of the 61 participants had had at least one dream of their partner. In general, the frequency of dreaming about a partner was associated with more interaction with them the following day. However, the researchers found that two dream variables predicted conflict on the next day:
Jealous dream emotion was related to more conflict on the following day.
Conflict in dreams was related to more conflict on the following day.
Besides conflict, the authors also found that dreamed infidelity predicted less love/intimacy the next day. It’s important to note that these correlations were unidirectional: It was the dreamed emotion that predicted the next days’ interactions, and not vice versa.
Overall, the results suggest that negative dream content regarding a partner—specifically jealousy, conflict, and infidelity—have detrimental effects on the next day’s interactions with a partner. On the other hand, more general emotions such as dreamed sadness were not related to the next day’s interactions.
It’s likely that dreamed infidelity and its accompanying jealousy are difficult to brush away upon awakening. Instead, these emotions may linger beneath the surface following a dream and act as a trigger for arguments during the day, or at the very least, get in the way of intimacy. Perhaps the best solution is to be aware that these emotions linger and remember to attribute them to the proper culprit—your dream, not your partner.
Dreamed infidelity may reflect underlying insecurities about a relationship that then manifest in the dream. In other words, if you are worried or afraid of losing someone, you will be more likely to have a negative dream about that person in which they leave you or are unfaithful. This only further exacerbates anxiety and insecurity in your waking life. It’s important to remember that the characters in your dreams are products of your own mind. Dreaming that your partner cheated on you does not make your partner guilty. It only says that you are worried or insecure about the relationship.
Being aware of and discussing dream content and emotions can be a valuable way to work through problems or insecurities in a relationship together. Ideally, with time, after discussing and confronting some of these insecurities, your dreams will also become more intimate and positive.