You wake up in a tangle of sweaty sheets, reach to your left, and feel your partner next to you. They're sleeping soundly, not sneaking around behind your back with a supermodel, like in the awful, way-too-detailed dream you just had. You breathe a sigh of relief and try to go back to sleep. But since this isn't the first time your brain has conjured images of your partner hooking up with somebody else, should you take cheating dreams seriously?
According to Dr. Nancy Irwin, PsyD, C.Ht, a clinical psychologist, this type of dream is actually quite common. "Most people in long-term relationships have a dream around this theme," she tells Bustle. Yet nine times out of 10, you don't need to take it literally or assume it's a sign your partner is getting some action on the side. Even though it can be difficult to shake the mental image, Irwin says it's important to remember that dreams always say more about the dreamer than the person being dreamt about.
Irwin says it's the mind's job to connect the dots and make sense of the world while you sleep, and it often does so through metaphor. It's why dreams almost always represent something entirely different from what they seem to mean on the surface — and it's why there's always going to be more than one explanation. So instead of jumping to conclusions, take the time to analyze yours a bit further.
On the more extreme end of the spectrum, your cheating dream could be a result of leftover memories from old painful experiences, Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, a certified dream analyst, tells Bustle. You're way more likely to dream about cheating if a partner lied and cheated in the past. "It creates distrust within the psyche that never seems to go away, even with a new partner," she says. "If this is the case with you, these recurring dreams are a telltale sign you need to learn how to rebuild your ability to trust again."
If you keep having cheating dreams, sit down with your partner, and chat about the issue ASAP. Share what you went through in the past, and how it's been cropping up in your subconscious while you sleep. Then discuss ways to make your relationship feel more secure. That's one way dreams are super helpful: They inspire constructive conversations about topics that need to be addressed.
Am I projecting my own history of cheating onto my partner?
To get into more metaphorical territory, Loewenberg says one of the most common reasons for cheating dreams is the sense that the dreamer is being "left out" in their waking life. They might feel like a third wheel in their relationship, at work, or among friends. And the brain interprets that as "cheating" and molds it into an annoying dream.
So take a look at your life, Loewenberg says, and ask yourself what doesn't feel quite right. "Is your partner working too much? Do [they] have a side hustle that is taking up too much of their attention? Is there a new baby that is now taking up all the time and energy you used to have? Have you been turned down for sex one too many times?" Any of these situations could trigger cheating dreams simply because they leave you feeling left out and/or rejected.
Spending more quality time together could remedy the situation, rebuild trust, and reaffirm that you're both invested in the relationship, Loewenbreg says, as can making sure you're both still having a good time — if you know what I mean. This dream also has a way of popping up if your relationship has become a bit stale or routine, or if your sex life has started to fizzle.
With that in mind, remember earlier when I said dreams say more about you than the other person? According to Irwin, you might be having cheating dreams because you cheated on your partner, or are thinking about so. If that's the case, ask yourself this: "Am I projecting my own history of cheating onto my partner?" You might realize your mind attempts to release guilt or anxiety about this issue.
Even though cheating dreams are extremely common, they can leave you feeling sick after you wake up. But remember they aren't a secret message that your partner is cheating, as much as they're a sign of your own inner turmoil. Use the dream as a conversation starter, Loewenberg says, to get to the bottom of your issue. And you'll be sleeping peacefully again in no time.
Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, certified dream analyst
Dr. Nancy Irwin, PsyD, C.Ht, clinical psychologist