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What’s Going on When I Cheat on My Partner in My Dreams?

Look, you probably don’t actually want to fuck your cousin’s best friend, but there are some dreams that might be worthy of deeper interrogation

Two months ago, Mike, a pseudonym, was woken up by his distraught wife, who had a dream that he was fucking someone else. In a wildly popular Reddit post, he shared this story alongside his quick-witted response: “Was she hot?” Not amused, Mike’s wife refused to answer.

It only takes a quick glance through the comments section to see that plenty of us get pissed when our partners “dream cheat” on us, no matter how unreasonable we know we’re being. “I’ve been with my wife for 19 years, married for 14,” replies one user. “She used to get pissed at me for things she dreamed about. When I learned to steer into the skid and accept that she’s going to be mad anyway, my life got easier. When these types of dreams happen — it’s a lot rarer now — I simply go about my day, get home from work, grab a beer and wait for it all to blow over.”

Sex dreams with strangers obviously don’t constitute actual infidelity, but they’re a sore spot for relationships just the same. So when we stray from our loving partners in the dream realm, what’s actually going on? Are these sex dreams a manifestation of deeper relationship issues, or just our brains reminding us that we’ve still got it going on?

“People have a wide variety of sex dreams, many of which don’t feature their current, committed partner,” explains psychologist and dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, author of The Committee of Sleep. “Some are set in the distant past, so maybe someone’s dreaming of being a teenager again at their old high school. Occasionally, dreams may involve partners such as animals and robots, without the dreamer having any fetish about these in waking life.”

Clinical sexologist Sunny Rodgers hears stories like these on a regular basis, estimating that 60 to 65 percent of her clients have opened up in sessions about sex dreams with strangers. “Most don’t consider it infidelity,” she tells me, but Rogers does usually probe a little deeper to tug at underlying strings of meaning. “For some clients, a sexual dream including someone other than a partner may be a form of mental release from stressors in their life. For others, it may be an underlying feeling of boredom or resentment in a relationship. Minds will try and ‘fix’ things for us while we sleep, so sometimes it’s about determining what is being ‘fixed’ for that individual.”

If you do remember your dream, it’s worth thinking critically about what happened in it. If you were in a fantastical threesome with a martian and a throbbing, sentient carrot, there’s probably nothing to worry about. But if you’re fantasizing about someone specific in your everyday life, it might be worth digging deeper. “When interpreting dreams, what’s most important is the associations a dreamer has to key characters and actions,” Barrett explains. “If you’re dreaming about someone specific, it might lead to associations that actually you find them attractive, or that interactions have been getting sort of flirty lately.”

Desiring somebody in a dream doesn’t always mean you want to fuck them, though. “It might be that the person you’re dreaming about is decisive, takes a lot of initiative at work or seems to interact confidently with a boss that you’re terrified of,” Barrett continues. In these cases, “sex dreams can symbolize that you want to merge with and incorporate the dream partner’s traits.” There are almost endless scenarios: A sleeping fantasy about a college fling could be an indicator of underlying boredom, or a craving for the youthful exuberance of the good old days.

These conversations sometimes play out in therapy, which makes it pretty damn awkward if the person you dreamed of fucking is also your therapist. Pittsburgh-based writer and sex worker Jessie Sage found herself in this predicament back in 2014, and decided to address it in one of their sessions. “My therapist didn’t seem to indicate there was anything troubling about my dream, but it’s kind of hard to tell because they turn the conversation around to see how you feel about the situation,” she recalls. “I think when we discussed it, we were trying to determine what the root of the issue was. Was the dream about infidelity with my partner, or was it about my blurring of boundaries with my therapist? Or perhaps both?”

At the time, Sage was navigating the first year of a new relationship — more specifically, she was wrestling with the decision of whether or not to be monogamous. “It was no secret that I was attracted to my therapist, but I think that dream created space to have the conversation about what significance that attraction had to me,” Sage says. “If it had any significance at all, that is — sometimes we’re just attracted to people, and it doesn’t have to mean anything beyond that.”

Sage stopped seeing her therapist shortly thereafter — due to relocation, not the dream — and now sees that sex dream as a catalyst for a key conversation with her partner. They’re still together seven years later, and happily non-monogamous.

Sex dreams are often totally random and brilliantly bizarre, but these horny astral encounters can act as useful prompts for real-life relationship check-ins. It’s natural that our partners’ sex dreams might trigger insecurities or temporarily hurt our feelings, but it’s also important to remember that some of us are fucking robots in our sleep for no apparent reason. These dreams might sometimes be indicative of deeper issues, but usually it’s our reactions that tell us the most about the state of our relationships. Is your partner so pissed at you for “dream-cheating” that they make you sleep on the couch for a week? If so, that might be a red flag, not the dream. 

As Rodgers advises, “If you or your partner is upset about these types of dreams, stop and ask yourself: ‘Why is that?’” In her eyes, these kinky dreamscapes can be a springboard for real-life change. “Dreams can be powerful,” she concludes. “Perhaps using them to improve our lives is a good place to start.”