Years ago, writer and editor Amberlee Peterson had a dream nearly every week that her boyfriend was cheating on her.
“It was a serious relationship and in the dreams, he was always being unfaithful. It was always hard to shake those dreams,” she told HuffPost. “Looking back, I think the dreams said a lot more about my doubts in the relationship than about him. He wasn’t the type to cheat so I think it was just my subconscious realizing we weren’t right for each other.”
These days, Peterson is married, but to someone else. When she dreams about her husband committing some sort of spousal sin, it’s usually something she can shrug off, like an offhand smart-ass remark or dirty dishes in the sink.
“When that happens I tell him, ‘Dream you was so rude last night,’” she said. “And he usually laughs and says sorry.”
Peterson is hardly alone in having unsettling dreams about a significant other. In a survey of 2,000 people conducted by mattress company Sleep Innovations, nearly half of the respondents said they’d experienced a bad dream about their spouse or partner – with almost two thirds of them admitting it affected their mood toward their partner the following day.
Marriage therapists told HuffPost that they often hear from clients about spouses behaving badly in dreams.
Ryan Howes, a psychologist in Pasadena, California, once spent a whole session discussing a very vivid dream a client had about her husband destroying her prized tennis trophies and then replacing them with fakes.
The woman said she knew her trophies were fine in real life and that her husband was a great guy; it was the symbolism of the dream that unnerved her.
“Maybe he didn’t destroy the trophies, but she felt he was they type of person who could do that,” he explained.
Howes and the woman explored what each part of the dream could mean, eventually honing in on how the trophies represented all the hard work she put into excelling at sports she was forbidden to play as a kid. Her husband’s dismissiveness in the dream reminded her of how her brother would treat her during their intense sibling rivalry in childhood.
“We determined that this dream could be unearthing her fear that her mostly pleasant marriage would devolve into a bitter, ugly relationship, like the one she had with her brother growing up,” he explained.
Finding the symbolism in dreams means everything, since most dreams can’t be taken at face value, said Tina Goodin, founder of the Psychology Center of Palm Beach.
“We need the associations of the dream in order to understand them,” she told HuffPost. “The dream itself is the manifest content ― or the the obvious content. We are aiming to understand its meaning by grasping the latent or hidden content.”
Psychoanalysts like Goodin often incorporate dream interpretation into their practice, usually adopting the theories of Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung. Freud considered dreams the “royal road to the unconscious,” allowing accessibility to parts of the psyche inaccessible through conscious, everyday thought.
So what road are you walking down when you have a seemingly baseless dream that your spouse is cheating?
“It could relate to a fear that your spouse is no longer in love with you or a concern that they’re not as open and seem secretive,” Howes said. “But it’s very rare that I’ve seen a client have a dream that corresponds exactly with their spouse’s real behavior.”
Ultimately, interpreting a dream is a very individualized process, said Shain Miller, a psychologist based in Santa Monica, California. Usually, dreams have more to do with the dreamer than the person in the dream.
“When a patient brings a disturbing dream into session, we look at it in the context of the dreamer’s life,” she said. “While every situation is different, a patient bringing in a dream about their S.O. can sometimes find that it reveals repressed anger at their partner. Other times, it has more to do with something they’re trying to resolve within themselves.”
“Remember: No one likes to be accused of a crime they never even knew happened.””
In other words, it may pay to get a little self-reflective before you get huffy with your spouse about their behavior in a dream.
“I tell clients that dreams are a signal of the brain trying to solve a problem,” Howes said. “When we can identify what the problem is, and start working on it, these types of dreams typically subside.”
And if you are going to tell your S.O. about the dream, don’t be surprised if your triggered response catches them off guard.
“You may feel like they should feel some guilt ― and that the scenario seemed very real to you ― but it could be coming out of left field for them,” he said. “Remember: No one likes to be accused of a crime they never even knew happened.”