Debates about the causes of dreaming may never be settled, but researchers now agree that dreams can shape at least some components of your waking life. We’ve all had the experience of being put in a bad mood for the day by—as they say—waking up on the wrong side of the bed. You may have even been stirred from your sleep by a particularly unnerving nighttime escapade that took you through one mishap after another. Try as you might, when you wake, you can’t shake off that feeling of something terribly wrong having happened even though it only “happened” in your unconscious meanderings.
Dreams in which the events that go horribly wrong with your romantic relationship are particularly unsettling. According to University of Maryland psychologist Dylan Selterman and fellow researchers (2014), such dreams can sensitize you to certain issues or concerns in your waking life. In this way, dreams may be very much like the process of priming, in which you are exposed to stimuli below your level of conscious awareness that subsequently influence your behavior. With the vague memory traces of that bad dream lingering in the back of your mind, if something actually does go wrong with your loved one, you’ll react more strongly than you otherwise might.
To investigate the role of dreams in shaping relationship experiences, Selterman and his team asked 61 Stony Brook University undergraduates (47 of them women, all of them in relationships lasting 6 months or more) to spend two weeks recording their dreams, along with their daily emotions and records of interactions with their partners. The study’s basic premise was that bad dreams would play out in bad relationship days. However, the researchers also expected that some people would react more badly to their bad dreams than would others. Specifically, the team wondered if people whose attachment styles made them more prone to anxiety over relationships (the so-called anxiously attached), and those who tried to steer clear of closeness altogether (avoidantly attached), would have different reactions to nightmares involving their romantic partners.
People who cling anxiously to their partner might, you would expect, be particularly undone by a dream in which their loved one cheats on them or hurts them. Conversely, people who are high on avoidance attachment might be sensitized by a similar nightmare to be more ready to call things off should they suspect their lover is up to no good.
Attachment style tells you about a person’s individual predisposition to being clingy or dismissive in a relationship, but to find out whether bad dreams led to bad outcomes, the researchers believed they also needed to know each subject's sense of how interdependent their relationship seemed to be. (It might have been ideal to observe the couple interacting together, but logistical constraints forced the team to rely on the participants' self-reports alone.)
The subjects assessed their daily relationship outcomes on several scales: the extent to which they expressed love and intimacy; how much they interacted; and the degree (if any) of conflict they experienced. To assess their dreams, participants rated the quality of emotions they recalled from the dream (positive or negative) as well as any feelings of jealousy or guilt.
We’d expect anxiously attached subjects, especially those who felt their relationship was important to them, to be most distressed by dreams in which they recalled feeling sad, angry, or jealous. In fact, according to earlier research cited by Salterman's team, people high in anxious avoidance actually experience more negative emotions in their dreams. It’s also just possible that people whose relationships are healthier have fewer negatively-tinged relationship dreams—if your relationship is on solid ground, you probably sleep more solidly as well.
These complexities aside, the main finding to emerge from the study supports the idea that the fewer bad dreams people have about their partner, the fewer relationship problems they have on subsequent days. But it wasn’t just any negative emotions that affected people’s waking relationship—effects were found specifically for dreams about jealousy (infidelity) or conflict (arguments). People who dreamt about infidelity in their partners felt more jealous on the following day; those who dreamt about arguments had more conflict. People who dreamed about being cheated on felt less love and intimacy toward their partners the following day as well.
Bad emotions in general did not produce bad relationship days on the morning after. There were no apparent effects of relationship quality during the day on dream emotions that night. Of course, given the nature of the study, there’s no way of knowing exactly what participants dreamed about, nor may there ever be such a way to tell. What was important here was not what people actually dreamt, but what they recalled about their dreams.
Attachment style and relationship quality also played important roles. People who were high in avoidant attachment tended not to be influenced by dreams about infidelity. But this is because these individuals spend much of their waking life feeling jealous of their partners already, assuming that betrayal is always around the corner. People who are more trusting become more emotionally sensitized by dreams in which their partners cheat. In terms of relationship quality, people who felt that their relationship was already strong tended to become less distressed by dreams involving infidelity, but for different reasons: If you feel that your relationship is a good one, a dream in which your partner is unfaithful won’t be taken very seriously, even at the unconscious level.
There was an intriguing connection between dreams about sex, and love or intimacy the next day. People in a solid relationships who had dreams about sex felt more loving toward their partners the following day, but there was no similar effect for people in a weaker or less interdependent partnerships.
Finally, there seemed to be a bonding effect of dreams about the partner in general. People who had more dreams about their partners, period, seemed to have stronger positive feelings about them in the light of day.
The study suggests some intriguing possibilities: First, your dreams do play out in your waking life, for better or worse. If you’re having frequent dreams in which you feel that your partner is being unfaithful or in which you’re bickering, you may become so sensitized to negative emotions that your relationship could start to unravel. When you awaken with that vague feeling of dread that something’s wrong, the study suggests, you could benefit from trying to pinpoint where that feeling came from.
Telling yourself, "It was only a dream,” may clear your head enough to allow you to approach the next day, and your partner, in a more positive and loving frame of mind.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Reference: Selterman, D. F., Apetroaia, A. I., Riela, S., & Aron, A. (2014). Dreaming of you: Behavior and emotion in dreams of significant others predict subsequent relational behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 111-118. doi: 10.1177/1948550613486678