Have you ever dreamt of arguing with your partner, or dreamt they were unfaithful, and then – irrational as it may be – found yourself in a bad mood with them the next day? This will be a familiar scenario to many, and yet such apparent effects of dream content on our real-life relationships have only now been studied for the first time.
Dylan Selterman and his colleagues asked 61 undergrads (aged 17-42; 47 women) to keep detailed, morning dream diaries for two weeks. Each evening the participants also kept records of what they’d been up to in the day, including their relations with their partner. Having a partner of at least six months duration was a requirement for taking part in the research.
Overall, last night’s dream content was associated with the ensuing day’s behaviour in ways you’d expect. Dreaming last night of being jealous of one’s partner, or dreaming of arguing, went hand in hand with more rows during the ensuing day. Dreaming of infidelity by oneself or by one’s partner was associated with lower feelings of intimacy. These patterns held even after controlling for the previous day’s activity, and factors such as gender and relationship length.
Some dream-behaviour associations were moderated by other factors the researchers looked at including anxious attachment and the seriousness of the relationships. For instance, dreaming of sex with your partner was associated with feeling more intimate during the following day, but only for those in more committed “interdependent” relationships. For those low in interdependence, dreaming of sex with one’s partner actually tended to be followed by lower feelings of love and intimacy the next day, possibly because the sex in the dreams wasn’t welcome or enjoyable.
Similarly, jealous dreams tended to be followed by reduced feelings of love and intimacy the next day, but not for those with an avoidant attachment style. This is possibly because such people have high baseline levels of jealousy anyway.
Selterman and his colleagues admitted they haven’t demonstrated conclusively that dream content is causing changes to behaviour the next day. Despite the study’s longitudinal design, there remains the possibility that the observed patterns were due to daily activity affecting dreams. However, this seems unlikely because the researchers controlled for previous day’s activity, and most of the dream content / next-day behaviour links they uncovered failed to correlate when looked at in reverse – i.e. when they looked to see if daily behaviour recorded in the evening was associated with dream recall the next morning.
If dream content really does affect our relationships in the ways implied by this research, Selterman and his team think the mechanism is probably similar to the way we’re primed by our thoughts and surroundings during waking life. “When recalling a dream after waking, the content and/or emotions are active in the mind, and once they are active, may influence subsequent behaviour,” they said.
It seems amazing that no-one has investigated this possibility before, but the researchers emphasised that this is the first ever systematic study of the potential for dreams to affect daily activity. It adds to plentiful previous research showing how daily activities affect dream content. “The findings support the idea that dreams are an important component of human social life, the scientific examination of which may provide unique insight into close relationship processes,” they said.
Dylan F. Selterman, Adela I. Apetroaia, Suzanne Riela, & Arthur Aron (2014). Dreaming of You: Behavior and Emotion in Dreams of Significant Others Predict Subsequent Relational Behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550613486678
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