Recently, I wrote that dreaming about close people in your life can reveal aspects of your personality (specifically, attachment style). Highly insecure folks often have terrible dreams about their partners, because they expect their partners to behave badly and those expectations surface in dream content. But do people’s dreams predict their behavior after waking up? I’ll cut to the chase—the answer is yes.
In a newly-published study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, my colleagues and I asked participants who were in committed relationships to keep a diary for 2 weeks and keep track of all their dreams as well as their daily activities. We found that having dreams with relational content was associated with changes in people’s self-reported behavior and feelings the next day.1 Below are some examples of the dreams we collected (the underlined parts reveal the key content in the dreams that we coded):
1) Jealousy and conflict:
“In this dream I was friends with my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. We were hanging out at my house. We were having fun. Singing karaoke…Then my boyfriend wanted to take a picture with her. Then I got all jealous and pulled him aside to ask him if he thought she was prettier than me…I was giving him a lot of attitude and I knew it but I didn’t care because of the position we were in. I had every right to be jealous and bitchy. He ignored my question and ignored me for the night. Then when I confronted him again he told me he was very turned off by my attitude and behavior. I was left questioning my behavior and wondering if maybe I overreacted.”
After having conflict dreams or dreams with lots of jealousy, people reported greater conflict with their partners the next day.
2) Dreamer infidelity:
‘‘I was at a party with my fraternity brothers, with a bunch of sorority girls I know from school. I remember being called constantly from my girlfriend checking up on me. It got to the point where we got into a fight because I told her she didn’t trust me. I ended up getting beyond drunk and hooking up with some random girl. I brought her back to my house where we had sex. I remember feeling guilty before it went down, but satisfied after.’’
After having infidelity (cheating) dreams, people reported less love/intimacy with their partners the next day (measured using the overlapping circles “inclusion of other in the self” scale).
“My husband and I drove to a hotel to check in, because later in the evening we were going to a rock concert. We got ready, he took a shower and washed a mask (acne) off his face and I put on a red dress. We got to the concert hall, and when we went inside we discovered that it was a ballet show and not a rock concert. After watching the first half I went backstage to congratulate the dancers and an old friend. I returned to my seat and my husband wanted to go and “get it on,” so we drove back to the hotel. He began ripping my clothes off before we got into the room and we began to have sex…Then we went to sleep.”
After having sex dreams, people reported more love/intimacy the next day—but only if the relationship was going well (e.g., high satisfaction). If the relationship wasn’t going well, then sex dreams predicted less love/intimacy the next day.
I mentioned in my previous post that my ex-girlfriend’s insecurities often caused conflict in our relationship—often after she woke up from bad dreams about me. Apparently I am not alone in making this observation—others have had similar experiences. It appears that my research has resonated with people.
You might be wondering why our dreams are associated with our behaviors the next day. In truth, there may not be anything “magical” about dreams. A simple explanation is that dreams “prime” us to think or feel something related to the dream content (see examples of priming here and here). Once a thought or emotion is active, it then influences our behavior with others. In this case, a dream is simply a trigger that can put us in a good or bad mood the next day, and in the case of dreams with romantic content, they may influence behavior with our partners.
So the take home message is this: pay attention to your dreams and your partners’ dreams! They may affect your relationship behaviors. If you have a fight, ask yourself if you or your partner misbehaved in a dream the night before. If you have sex in your dream, don’t hesitate to capitalize on the love and cuddles in the morning. If you don’t feel very intimate with your partner after having a sex dream about him/her, it might be because the relationship isn’t going that well…or because in your dream, you were canoodling with someone else! And although it might be really frustrating if your partner is mad at you for stuff you did in his/her dream, at least you can take comfort that many others are in a similar position, though if your partner is chronically having really bad dreams about you, it might be a sign that he/she is insecurely attached.
1 Selterman, D., Apetroaia, A., Riela, S. & Aron, A. (in press). Dreaming of you: Romantic behavior and emotion in dreams of significant others predict subsequent relational behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.
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