Dreams might seem benign, but they may alter your relationship experiences.
It's morning. Your alarm buzzes and you're pulled from a dream (a nightmare!) in which your romantic partner ate the last piece of your birthday cake. As your mind adjusts to consciousness, you're assaulted by fleeting images of a frosting covered knife and your partner blatantly lying about the dust of crumbs on the counter. The sun is forcing you awake, but you still feel the betrayal. This betrayal may have happened in a dream, but it can affect your relationship. The mind dreams... then what happens Scientists are interested in how the content of dreams may affect real-life relationships. Dreams are often quite social, full of interpersonal situations. Some of these interpersonal situations are intensely anxiety-provoking (Oh no! You forgot your anniversary!), anger invoking (They did what?) and others are blissful wish-fulfillment (An evening in Italy!). When dreams include our close relationship partners, like our romantic partners, best friends, or children, what they do, feel, and say in our dreams may have carryover effects into our real lives. Do dreams affect how we feel about a romantic partner? The idea is similar to priming: if dreams are vivid and emotional, they may "prime" people to behave in certain ways with their romantic partners. This might be good news if you have a sweet dream, but when your partner does something annoying or hurtful in your dream, you may be primed to behave defensively or aggressively in response. In other words, romantic partners might bear the real-life blame for how they behaved in your dreams last night. To test this idea, researchers asked approximately 60 individuals in romantic relationships to keep detailed track of their dreams for a period of two weeks; they also were asked to complete daily reports of their feelings of love, intimacy, and closeness towards their romantic partner (Selterman, Apetroaia, Riela, & Aron, 2014). Participants also completed measures of their attachment style. Together, these data allowed researchers to assess how dreams about a partner might predict the quality of their day-to-day interactions the following day. About 85% of people reported dreaming about their partner, and in their dreams, their partners enacted out different behaviors. For example, some dreamed about conflicts with their partners, positive interactions with their partners, engaging in sexual behaviors with their partners, or experiencing betrayals by their partners (e.g., infidelity). People also reported dreams of sexual encounters with people who are not their partners. These dreams may have set the stage for people's behaviors. After controlling for participants' attachment styles, how they acted the previous day, and their overall relationship quality, the researchers observed a fascinating link between participants' dreams and their relationship experiences the following day. When people dreamed about conflicts with their partner, they tended to have more conflict the following day, perhaps because they were "primed and ready" to fight. People in highly interdependent relationships who had sexual dreams about their partners reported feeling closer to their partner the following day; however, these same types of dreams had by those in relationships characterized by low commitment predicted feelings of less love and intimacy the following day. Perhaps the contrast because their dream and reality made reality feel a bit worse. Finally, individuals who dreamed of sexual encounters with people who were not their partners felt less love and connection with their actual romantic partner the next day. This effect was small in size, but tells us something important about our mental worlds: the psychological experience of connecting to someone else in a dream can linger, potentially creating a sense of distance (if small and temporary) from our real-life partner. The idea that dreams might affect our relationships seems wild at first, but remember that our relationship experiences are not based on objective reality. How we interpret a partner's behaviors, for example, or what we think a partner thinks of us... these are subjective judgments based on past experiences and expectations. They are subjective and not necessarily accurate, yet they color how we feel about our relationships. Likewise, dreams occur in our minds and could color the lens through which we see our partners in the morning. Beyond telling us something interesting about how the human mind works, this research also offers a practical intervention: If we pay attention to our dreams, we might be able to promote the health of our relationships. Instead of blaming your partner for what they did in your mind, you can preempt the potential ill effects of your bad dream by extending your forgiveness the moment you wake.