I have been having nightmares lately. Not the “being chased” kind of nightmare, or the nightmare where you’re falling and wake up before hitting the ground. Rather, there is a recurring theme in these dreams that involve The Consultant (a man I have been dating for many months now) and me. Each dream starts with us doing something mundane, such as going grocery shopping together. Then, suddenly, The Consultant turns into one of my ex-boyfriends and things fall apart like they did in my past relationships. For example, my dream last night involved The Consultant and I having lunch, during which he ordered the Italian wedding soup special and then proceeded to tell me that he was marrying someone else. I looked up from my menu only to see that The Consultant had turned into The Question Mark, a man I have struggled to “get over” for many years.
When I wake up from these dreams, I am relieved that they are not real. Oftentimes, The Consultant is sharing my bed, so I am comforted by snuggling closer to him. But I keep wondering, what do these dreams mean?
I turned to the research to try and see if I could answer my question. Most theories about dream interpretation take a psychoanalytic approach (i.e., Freud), such that the dreams themselves are presumed to be projections of unresolved conflicts and/or the wish fulfillment of the dreamer.1 In other words, the dream just represents what the dreamer wishes to happen or work out issues from his or her childhood. Although I have no desire to get back together with my exes, I can accept the unresolved conflict idea, given that some of my relationships ended with things left unsaid or wishing things had worked out differently. Other theorists have argued that dreams serve an evolutionary function such that they help us contextualize our emotional issues.2 In other words, our dreams focus on emotionally challenging issues (like grief or loss) and give them more context (e.g., put more people in the story, more dialogue, more possible responses) so that when you wake up, you can better tackle such challenging things in the future. This makes sense as well, given that my growing intimacy with The Consultant does bring out fears of what would happen if I were to lose the relationship. Both of these theories are very subjective and have not been empirically tested, so it is unclear whether their predictions would be supported with actual data.
Some researchers have proposed that dreaming activates areas of the brain involved with emotional regulation. For example, in a laboratory study, Fisher and colleagues3 found that nightmares actually involved less autonomic activity (e.g., heart rate, eye movement, respiration) than expected. So, if I had been hooked up to physiological recording devices during my dream last night, they would not have reflected the anger and shock I was experiencing in the dream itself. The researchers propose that dreams may function as a way to separate our physiological responses to traumatic events represented in our dreams and promote mastery, as we can then better regulate our emotions in a waking state. Therefore, if a guy in the future were to share that he is marrying someone other than me over lunch, I would hypothetically be able to regulate my anger and shock better because my dreams helped to separate out the physical/emotional response from my past experience.
SofR’s own Dr. Dylan Selterman has studied the content of dreams and found that when people have a secure attachment style (they are comfortable being close and intimate with others), their dreams reflect a “secure script,” such that their dream content reflected a healthy and secure attachment with a romantic partner. Those with more insecure styles (e.g., avoidant of relationships, or are anxious when in them) had more negative content.4 My past break-ups were pretty traumatic, and I know I have been avoidant of relationships over the years due to the desire to avoid the pain of seemingly inevitable loss, so this attachment theory perspective seems pretty spot on for me.
After reflecting on these theories and research for a while, and after considering the fact that I am very satisfied and fulfilled with my relationship with The Consultant, I feel confident that my nightmares are just lingering feelings of unresolved grief. So how might I use this new knowledge about dreams to my advantage? Many therapists use dream work to help clients make sense of recurrent nightmares, and this entails discussing dreams in detail and making connections with real life events and behavioral patterns. Although research on the effectiveness of this approach is limited, one recent study found that using such dream work reduced clients’ anxieties about being in relationships.4 Thinking and writing about my recent string of nightmares has helped me get some perspective on how I have been processing my past relationships in the context of my new relationship with The Consultant. I think I will start a dream diary and discuss really bothersome nightmares with close friends to gain meaning from them from now on.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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1Dreams dreams dreams dreams The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 92(2), 270-272.
2Hartmann, E. (1998). Dreams and nightmares: The new theory on the origin and meaning of dreams. Plenum, New York.
3Fisher, C., Byrne, J., Edwards, A. et al. (1970) A psychophysiological study of nightmares. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 18, 747–782.
Apetroaia, A., & Waters, E. (2012). Attachment & Human Development, 14, 501-515.
Hill, C. E., Gelso, C. J., Gerstenblith, J., Chui, H., Pudasaini, S., Burgard, J., Baumann, E., & Huang, T. (2013). Dreams dream Dreaming, 23(1), 1-45.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.