I don’t recognize the bedroom. The walls are black and bare, except for a chaotic painting hanging in a random corner. From the doorway, I see two people laced together on a bed. I’m embarrassed, because they’re naked, but I don’t think they know I’m here. There’s a woman whose voluptuous silhouette is blurred by shadows — apart from her hair. Even against the dark contrast of the room, her cascade of long, black curls stand out. There’s a man too. I can see him clearly, but … that can’t be … oh, god.
For the past few months, I’ve had a vivid, recurring dream that I catch my husband being unfaithful with some mysterious woman, always the same one.
Every time, I wake up shaking, almost in tears, and immediately want to lash out at my husband — even though he is fast asleep, drooling away on one of our overpriced down-filled pillows. He’s done nothing wrong, but I still can’t help but hope that a stray feather drifts up his nose and makes him sneeze. The emotions I have in this dream are different — deeper, more painful — than anything I’ve felt in dreams past. And they linger.
The next morning, behind red, swollen eyes, I try to shake off the hurt and anger that have been plaguing me all night. But lately, things haven’t ended so well. While eating breakfast the other day, my husband mentioned running into a girl from high school at a local convenience store. An innocent story, except that I’d just had the dream again the night before. In my mind, I saw her face on the unidentified woman — and stormed off, leaving behind a man who was incredibly confused.
Later in the day, I apologized and we carried on — but somewhere deep inside, I continue to hold a tiny grudge. Yes, it’s unfair, and I know the whole thing makes me sound slightly unhinged. How can I stay mad at someone over a hypothetical situation? Besides, I’m not normally the jealous type, and I know my husband would never cheat. So, why is a dream affecting my reality so much?
“Typically, dreams that are troubling to us or that have particularly intense emotions tend to stick with us more than neutral or less intense dreams,” explains Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist based in New York. Most people dream at least four to six times per night — that’s generally about two hours total, adding up to a twelfth of our lives — but remember only a tiny sliver of what they’ve dreamed about. And most of the time, the dreams they remember are the emotionally shocking or difficult ones, filled with anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, helplessness, or confusion.
In part, the explanation is straightforward — negative experiences are generally more emotionally charged, and easier to remember, than positive ones. Timing also plays a role: The majority of our dreams — especially our most vivid dreams — happen during REM sleep, which is also when the limbic system, a collection of structures in the center of the brain that deals with emotion, is especially active.
While researchers still aren’t sure why we have nightmares, one theory is that they provide a safe, low-stakes space to work through difficult emotions or situations that might be troubling us in waking life. “Dreams are the number-one way in which we process emotions, particularly emotional tensions that we are experiencing in waking life,” said psychologist and dreaming expert Ian Wallace. “They are part of the same problem-solving processes that we use during the day.”
This might explain why I keep having the same recurring dream. “Generally speaking, we dream about whatever it is that is going on in our lives as we are falling asleep, or it’s the most prevalent stressful situation that’s going on in our world,” explains psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus. “If you have a situation where you are thinking about something that is very, very stressful on a fairly regular basis, then it will show up as a dream or in your unconscious.” And that same dream can replay over and over again during stressful periods.
That’s not to say that the dream scenario is a literal representation of what’s bothering you in waking life — it can just be an indication that something is wrong. Breus, for instance, has a recurring “stress” dream of his own: “I’m in high school, the bell rings, and I run to my locker to get my books for the next class,” he says, but “it’s a combination lock and I cannot remember the combination. I sit there and I spin the dial and I get more and more stressed out.” He wakes up in a cold sweat, he says, but understands it’s a sign that there’s something going on that he needs to think about.
Infidelity dreams, similarly, often have a lot to do with stress. “This has more to do with insecurity or self-esteem that’s going on with you personally than with your husband,” Breus says. And Wallace, who studies dream interpretation, suggests that I may conjure up the affair dream when I’m disappointed with myself. (Ironically, I’ve struggled with writing a novel this year, despite my husband’s support.)
And, as my husband unfortunately already knows, dreams can also impact our relationships. One 2013 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the mood-altering effects of troubling dreams can last throughout the following day or even longer, negatively affecting intimacy and communication.
The good news, as Breus is quick to highlight, is that there’s no predictive value to dreams. And there are ways to stop the emotions of a bad dream from bleeding over into regular life: One approach is to give dreams better outcomes in our waking lives. “Prime your brain right before bed. And what that means, is to think about things that are positive before you go to sleep,” Breus recommended. Deep breathing and relaxation exercises can help. So can a technique called Image Rehearsal Therapy, in which a person writes out the entire content of their dream and then gives it a different ending. The idea, developed by sleep-disorder specialist Barry Krakow, is that over time, the exercise can alter the dream with the new outcome.
For now, I need to find a quiet corner and reflect on what stressors in my life could be causing my recurring nightmare. It might be the unfinished novel, or it might be something else. Until I find an answer, I’m hoping the mystery woman remains faceless and the pillows stay in one piece. And as far as my husband knows, my red eyes in the morning aren’t necessarily caused by the dream, anyway. I think I’m allergic to down.