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Why Your Sex Dreams Matter
A new study indicates that our sex dreams can affect our relationships.
BY KATE HAKALA
Have you ever had sex dreams about Alan Rickman, a childhood friend, or maybe, if we’re being candid, about a certain animated Disney character who shall remain nameless? A lot of us experience these normal, less than typical, or maybe even unwanted, sexual encounters during the evening hours and we hardly notice or reflect on them. Most of these have never concerned us, because most people don’t put much stock into the bizarre, feverish events of the sleeping mind. I was always under the impression that dreams are sort of like the Vegas of consciousness, because whatever happens in dreams, stays there. How could our sex dreams possibly influence reality?
But they can. A new study in The Social Psychological and Personality Science journal suggests that what we do in dreams, particularly romantically and sexually, can actually have a palpable affect on our waking lives. The study included 61 participants ages 17 to 42 at The University of Maryland who were in long term relationships of at least six months and completed two dream journal entries a day for two weeks, one to record what happened at night, and then another to reflect on the events of the day.
They found that the occurrence of infidelity or presence of strong emotions like jealousy towards a partner in a dream often affected feelings towards that partner the next day. When a person dreamed of a fight, often they were more likely to fight with their boyfriend or girlfriend on the subsequent day. And when a person dreamed of cheating on their partner or being cheated on, they reported less feelings of intimacy and even felt less loving the next day.
Author of the study, Dylan Selterman, notes that this is because dreams have a "predictive value," and that, "People’s activity changes as a function of the dream they had the night before specifically within the realm of their close relationships." This is what they call "priming" in the science community—we’re all just reacting to a trigger we’ve seen before, and in this case, the stimuli could range from a nude Penelope Cruz to our scolding sophomore Algebra teacher. The problem with these triggers is that we’re largely not in control of them and neither are our partners, so when we react to them, we are reacting to uncontrolled behavior. (Fun fact: Selterman decided to undertake the study when his girlfriend kept picking fights over his dream hijinks.)
The study reassures that for couples who already have a rock-solid track record, dreams of two-timing and annoying spats won’t really shape their days. In fact, people in healthy relationships who have particularly satisfying romps in the REM stage (think: Donald Glover/Carey Mulligan going down on you) might be “primed” for similar activity in their waking life. In similar correlation, those with weak relationships will only be further weakened by compromising dreams of infidelity.
This study could indicate that our satisfaction with the sex in our dreams is analogous to our satisfaction with the sex in our relationships. The reason being that we often dream of what we are feeling subconsciously. If the emotionality of our relationship is subpar, we might sublimate that in our dreams. Those who would be reluctant to psychoanalyze their sex dreams might be missing something key: not only are our dreams a reflection of our reality, but they might soon manifest in our reality.
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."
We should think of our sex dreams in the perspective of our inability to manage them or they will change the reality of our sex and love lives. That is, unless your sex dreams are very, very good.