You already know this: Say one dark and stormy night, you have a weird/bad dream where your partner is not only doing something insanely shitty, like having sex with your best friend right in front of you, but is also laughing maniacally as you weep tears of shock/deep devastation. The next morning you look over at the jackal who so enthusiastically wounded you the night before, and think, the fuck if I'm getting him a coffee this morning. In other words, weird/bad dreams make you feel weird/bad. So you act weird/bad, too. But now science has your back.
“People’s activity changes as a function of the dream they had the night before – specifically within the realm of their close relationships.”
That validating gem comes courtesy of lead researcher Dylan Selterman at the University of Maryland, who conducted a study of 61 people's relationships between their dreams and their, well, relationships. He had them keep dream journals for a few weeks, and log their activities, and measure the quality of their relationships. The folks in the study were 17 to 42 in age, and were all in committed relationships that had gone on at least six months.
He found that dreams have a "predictive value" in terms of their impact on the relationship. So what's coming out of your brain while you sleep isn't just always a benign release — sometimes, it can leak over into the next day and leave your partner with some serious 'splainin' to do.
For example, after a dream involving a high degree of jealousy, the dreamer was more likely to report conflict with their partner during the day. Similarly, arguing in dreams was associated with next-day relationship conflict, while dreamer infidelity was linked with reduced feelings of love or intimacy afterward.
Selterman believes these correlations are the result of “priming,” the process by which a stimulus evokes a related response. For instance, previous research has shown that placing someone on a wobbly chair triggers a desire for stable relationship partners.
This mechanism, of course, operates on a largely unconscious level.
Perhaps by dreaming these heinous acts in the first place, your brain is merely responding to the unrest/fear/distrust that already exists in your relationship by pushing it out in your dream state, thereby giving you a reason to discuss it or bring it into the cold, harsh light of day.
Or maybe your brain is purposely wobbling the chair of your relationship to make you consider whether it's time to move on. If that's true, it's just one more reason to love brains. Also worth loving is this: If bad dreams are just worries that may or may not have a basis in reality, the better the relationship, the better the ability to withstand these terrible dream interlopers and not let them disrupt things all that much.
The good news is that being in a healthy relationship appears to buffer people against the negative effects of dreams involving jealousy. And when it comes to sex dreams, those in good couplings spend the following days with a heightened sense of love and intimacy. By contrast, sex dreams had by people with poorer relationship health see the opposite effect.
This rings true to me: I've had far more upsetting dreams about the behavior of a partner in relationships that weren't going well. As for sex dreams, though, they seem more connected to the sexual activity of the relationship, or the rhythms of your own sex drive.
Over at Nerve, they explore the impact of sex dreams on a relationship further.
Taking a look at our most common sex dreams, a lot of us find ourselves in reveries with bosses, strangers, celebrities, same-sex or opposite-sex partners, and forbidden acquaintances. Some sex dreams might really be about true erotic fixations or primal impulses, as Freud suggested, but today’s psychologists say most are quite narcissistic and built upon underlying desires to absorb personality traits and attributes of those we seduce in our nighttime imaginations. These current interpretations of sex dreams complicate the notion that they could be impacting our relationships, negatively or positively. Are sex-based dreams that aren’t derived from libidinous impulses still impacting a fight or tension with our girlfriend or boyfriend? Probably.
Most of us have always figured that real events reflect dreams, but the idea that dreams, particularly sex dreams, could affect real life events challenges the consequence-free and boundless quality to our dreams. A lot of us experience instances when we feel our dreams have predicted certain events in our lives, but the new finding that we are being primed and influenced by dreams adds more to the story. Dreams, much like sex, come with unmoderated variability. As Selterman puts it, "Sex can be good or bad in a dream in the same way that it can be good or bad in real life."
And Selterman would know: The study was apparently inspired by the conflicts caused in his own college relationship, when a girlfriend got ticked off at him over his bad dream behavior.
So if our dreams can be a kind of litmus test for our worries about the health of our relationships, what is one to do about them?
At the very least, take note, and don't be too nonchalant when your partner has a disturbing dream and wants to talk about it. Give reassurance that you aren't a terrible two-headed hydra, even if it feels silly to do that for a dream.
We may be grown adults, but we can still have nightmares. For adults, that can be as simple as finding out that our relationships are not as stable as we hoped. The trick here is determining whether the source of the worry the dream depicts is real, or all in your head. And if nothing else, perhaps this study helps us finally acknowledge that our dreams just might be trying to tell us something. Even if we don't like what it is.
Image via Jana Guothova/Shutterstock.