In the dream, he was smooth, seductive. He cupped the back of my neck with just the right amount of pressure when he kissed me, with force and urgency. His skin felt warm and he looked into my eyes and smiled slyly in a way that screamed “sex.”
In real life, he wore the same desire-killing button-down white shirt and goofy bright blue silk vest that we all had to wear at the restaurant where we waited tables. He was too perky for me, and sort of a jock. I liked the dark, artsy type, generally. So when one night, weeks earlier, he had leaned forward conspiratorially and asked if he could “tell me something,” I said no in a way that can only be described as stern. The feeling wasn’t mutual and I didn’t want to have to say so. Plus, I didn’t want things to get weird at work.
But then he appeared in my dream and I changed my tune. Suddenly seeing him in a new, appealing light, I ended up telling him about it. Engaged, side-by-side, in the unsexy task of sorting and polishing silverware one night soon after, I told him “I had a dream about you.” He looked at me wide-eyed and said, “Yeah?” After hearing a few details, he suggested we get a drink after work, and from there, an IRL affair was on.
I’m not a hippie, spiritual kind of person who makes life decisions based on cues from the universe, let alone dreams. So when a guy went from a no to a go after one measly dream, I was surprised, and a bit disturbed. Did the dream uncover a desire I’d repressed, or did it manufacture one?
There’s a bit of evidence to suggest that dreams can influence real-life behavior. Researchers concluded in a 2013 study that people who dreamt of infidelity or feelings of jealousy about a partner said that tension and conflict erupted and lingered for several days in their waking lives. Such anxiety-producing dreams aren’t unusual — in fact, cheating dreams are some of the most commonly reported risqué midnight narrative.
But many experts dismiss the century-old Freudian idea that dreams are “wish fulfillment” and a “road…to the unconscious.” As we learn more about how the brain functions during sleep, some scientists say that dreams are nothing more than a biological byproduct, a hodgepodge of mind-garbage not to be taken too seriously.
There is a more middle-road philosophy, however, that holds that while dreams — particularly those that deal with infidelity, conflict or breakups — shouldn’t be thought of as blueprints for conducting your affairs, they shouldn’t be immediately dismissed either.
“Not many people make a strong case for the meaningless of dreams these days,” says Michael Garfinkle, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City, who calls the biological-refuse theory “reductionist” and “old-fashioned.”
“If you had a thought in your waking life that caused you distress, you wouldn’t necessarily dismiss it as meaningless, ” he says. “So why would you assume it was meaningless in a dream?”
Sarit, a 26-year-old writer in Boston says she believes that everything we dream means something; it’s just a matter of deciphering their significance, if any.
“For years, the only sex dreams I had were about people I had absolutely no interest in sleeping with,” she says. “When I'd wake up, I would ask myself ‘Wait, am I attracted to this person? I don't think I am, but what if I'm wrong?” There's so much more that dream could mean. That person could be a stand-in for someone else, symbolize someone or something, or maybe the sex itself is signifying something.”
Sometimes the sway of a dream goes beyond a prompt for reflection and instigates a major life change.
In a long-term relationship and newly engaged to “W,” Marissa Landrigan, a college professor in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, had a dream in which a grad school colleague proposed to her.
“I don't remember a lot of the details now, but I do remember that the dream proposal was accompanied by a speech about how even though I was with W, we were meant to be together,” she says. “It was this grand, rom-com, ‘You're with the wrong guy, you should be with me,’ kind of thing, and I said yes in the dream. When I woke up, I felt really shaken by it.”
Over the next few weeks, she says, she realized the dream bothered her so much because it felt true. It made her think how much she and her fiancé had drifted apart as well as how attracted she was to the guy she’d dreamed about.
“I didn't break up with W until about six months later, so I can't say it was because of the dream,” she says. “But it felt like a turning point.”
Relationship dreams can sometimes clue you in to the external as well as the internal.
Sarit went to a party with a guy she was seeing and dreamt that night that he’d had sex with a woman she’d seen at the party but hadn’t given much of a thought — a conscious one anyway. “Later I found out that they had actually slept together,” she says. Because of the dream, she says, they had a conversation about where their relationship was going.
“We absorb everything around us,” Sarit says. “I think that sensory content seeps into our dreams sometimes, and we’re able to tap into things we usually skim over in waking life.” We might encounter things that remain in the backs of our minds when we’re awake but are front and center in a dream, Garfinkle says, when “the mind’s ability to censor itself drops.”
Still, many people would hesitate to put too much significance on a one-off dream; but when similar dreams recur, it might incite deeper reflection.
Take Diane. After she became engaged to her partner, bad dreams increased in frequency from about twice a month to sometimes weekly. “Almost every dream was the same,” she says. “I didn't know what my ex and I were fighting about, but every time, I would scream some version of, ‘I'm done!’ and start packing up my stuff. And he didn't stop me. Looking back, that made total sense.”
They didn’t fight much but just weren’t right together, Diane says.
“I would always wake up with a nagging sense of dread. I wouldn't say the dream had an impact on how I felt about the relationship -- it was more that the dream was trying to get me to pay attention to how I was feeling about the relationship,” she says. They eventually ended the relationship.
Even less obvious dreams, however, might reveal something that could enrich your life, some say. Garfinkle suspects that shorter attention spans combined with an increasing lack of imagination in people generally might be making us likely to miss out on insights that a dream might offer. It can be valuable, he says, to wonder about something that isn’t obvious.
“Our appetite for mystery isn’t what it once was,” he says. “If something in a dream is strange or hard to immediately understand, having a knee-jerk attitude that it must be exactly what it appears to be is totally disengaging from the mystery that, to me, seems like an entirely worthwhile one.”
Obviously though, most of us are too busy to sit around pondering what the giant pizza-eating platypus on a bus that we dreamt about could be trying to tell us. There’s a balance to be struck between being open-minded about dreams and being silly about them.
“The question is, how do you use your dreams without overusing them?” says Holly Parker, Ph.D., a psychotherapist who lectures about the psychology of relationships at Harvard University. “What’s the line between being attentive and letting a dream pull you and dictate what your thought process is?
Parker says she’d caution people against reading too much into every dream. Dreaming that you and your partner broke up might mean that deep down, your uncensored brain might think it’s a good idea. But it could also have been triggered by a breakup of someone you know or a couple you saw on TV.
“There are so many other things in the mix that anything’s possible,” she says. “You never know what your brain is going to slog together when you go to sleep.”
After watching an episode of the reality show “Intervention” before bed recently, I dreamt that my partner, with whom I just bought a house, left me to train-hop across the country so he could do heroin (a drug he’s never done). I didn’t feel like there was anything to take from that dream other than laughter. But I nevertheless think some dreams merit serious reflection.
“If someone is awake and something still doesn’t feel right, or something in a dream connects with you in those really quiet moments when you’re being really honest with yourself, keep listening,” Parker says. “Try not to get in its way.”
My affair with my restaurant co-worker was so brief and meaningless that it’s difficult to remember much about it. It seems like my feeling for him in real life was nearly as fleeting as a dream. Whether to take a dream to heart is best decided on an individual basis, but the next time something strange and sexual happens in one of my dreams, I’ll probably leave it there.