Some people ascribe a lot of meaning to their dreams. They need to know why they're falling asleep and fretting over Cersei and Jamie Lannister's robot-themed "Save the Date" invitations. Other people are more like, "I'm not sure why my screwy subconscious can't let go of Zachary Guy-Frank even though he moved away in first grade. Oh well, REM mentation is weird."
But dreams can interfere with our lives whether or not we believe they hold deeper meaning. In fact, Dylan Selterman, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, has found that dreaming about a romantic partner can predict how someone will feel and behave towards their one-and-only after they wake up. Various factors contribute to the romantic influence of dreams, including what happens during them and how people deal with emotional attachment in relationships. But, the predictive power of dreaming about baes, boos, daddies, main squeezes and the like only appears to go in one direction: Dreams about the ones we love seep into IRL dynamics, but daily goings-on don't dictate nocturnal adventures in the same way.
Selterman first established a link between dreams and romantic partners in a 2012 study involving non-single college undergrads. Previous research had shown that people who struggle with attachment in relationships — either because they can't get close to people (called attachment avoidance) or because they worry about their paramour's love for them (attachment anxiety) — have more dreams containing negative emotions. But, researchers hadn't much considered if and how romantic partners pop up in dreams. So, Selterman and colleagues looked at the connection between relationship security and dream narratives. Specifically, they sought to see if secure lovers were more likely to have dreams that followed a specific script: The dreamer engages in some type of exploration (threesome? spelunking? becoming an immaterial force?) until a person or event threatens their exploration. The dreamer then calls out for help, and their romantic partner comes to their rescue, enabling them to keep exploring, or do whatever else they want, in the arms of their angel in safety and comfort.
For the study, participants kept dream logs for two weeks and filled out questionnaires about attachment traits in general, as well as attachment security in their current relationships. The prediction basically bore out: Participants in more secure relationships had more dreams that followed the script, and did so in rich detail. But the trend was specific to dreams about romantic partners (compared to other people). "The result fits empirically and theoretically with a compelling biological perspective on the role of dreams in human life, specifically REM-stage sleep as a social bonding mechanism," wrote researchers.
The study supported the notion that real-life romance seeps into our dreams, specifically showing that significant others figure prominently in dreams, perhaps in a manner distinct from other people. But, the study only focused on a single dream narrative, indicative of secure relationships. And it didn't assess the impact of lover-centric dreams on the waking world. Selterman tackled both of these unknowns in a 2013 study, aptly called "Dreaming of You."
Again, Selterman and (different) colleagues recruited coupled-up college kids who'd been going steady, or casually getting it on, with the same partners for at least 6 months. This time, however, researchers poured over any and all dreams that featured romantic partners. They predicted that dream tone and content would affect how dreamers felt and acted towards their significant others the next day. So, if someone dreamt about infidelity, they'd wake up ready to fight, whereas a fiery fantasy or noble hero-tale would leave them prone to aww-ing over any old comment. The underlying idea frames dreaming as a form of psychological "priming," a process wherein an experience puts someone in a state of mind that tints their psychological responses to related events. The science of love, researchers wrote, depicts a number of processes as serving a priming function. For example, it's been shown that synchronized movement between partners predicts relationship satisfaction.
To evaluate the influence of dreams, researchers coded 842 dreams about romantic partners (or with explicit references to them) according to elements including general presence, partner conflict, sex and intimacy, positive nonsexual interaction, the presence of a third person, and infidelity (by either partner). Across the board, dreaming more often translated to dreaming more often about romantic partners.
As researchers predicted, what happened in dreams appeared to affect what happened in real life. Participants who reported jealousy in their dreams, for example, fought more with their partners the next day. Dreaming about infidelity similarly predicted less intimacy afterwards. But, attachment and personality traits also factored in. For example, dreaming about cheating had a stronger next-day impact on people with attachment avoidance, compared to their attachment-seeking counterparts. Individual differences in reactions to dreams, researchers surmised, suggests that a healthy relationship can withstand more ups and downs without sacrificing intimacy.
Though researchers focused on the next-day influence of dreams, they also looked at the reverse relationship — how daily activities affect subsequent dreams. And they didn't find a strong effect. How couples behaved towards each other by daylight didn't predict what they'd later dream about. Researchers didn't claim that daily behavior has no effect on dreams — nauseatingly sweet couples tended to have happier dreams (and vice versa) — but their waking interactions didn't predict the stories their minds wove during sleep.
While the study established dreams as a priming process in romantic relationships, it left plenty of questions unanswered. For example, it's not clear if participants consciously or unconsciously incorporated last night's dreams into tonight's dinner date, which brings us back to individual beliefs about the meaning of dreams. It's plausible that dream-believers would knowingly take cues from cheating nightmares, whereas dream skeptics would only do so on a subconscious level. Of course, the outcome is the same: Love is a battlefield, even when the casualties only happen in our minds.