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Sometimes a Cigar is Just An…Unsupportive Partner

Ever dream about your significant other? What was the dream like? Was it happy or painful?

For my dissertation project (published in Attachment & Human Development), I wanted to study the dreams people have about their romantic partners, and how those dreams relate to secure or insecure attachment.1 My colleagues and I asked a sample of people (mostly young adults) in committed relationships to keep a record of their dreams for 2 weeks. They also completed a storytelling task2 that we use to measure attachment security for specific relationships. Briefly, people who are secure in their relationships are confident that their partners are supportive and they feel comfortable with intimacy. People who are insecure have fears that their partners will betray or abandon them, which often leads to intense negative emotion and conflict.

We sorted through the dream logs and looked for the dreams that contained current partners. People reported (on average) between 3 and 4 dreams about their significant others over a 2-week period (the full range was 0-13 total dreams). So, on average, people dream about their current partners about once every 3-4 days. 

We rated these dreams for positive and negative attachment behavior. Those people who were more securely attached had dreams that reflected being comfortable turning to each other for support, enjoying each other’s company, and so on. In contrast, insecure people had dreams of their partners marked by distress, anxiety, and abandonment. In other words, the more secure the relationship was in waking life, the more secure the relationship was in dreams.

Here are two examples of dreams from the study (we deleted names for anonymity purposes):

Insecure dream: ¨My mom and dad…sat on the foot of my bed…they told me my Uncle died…My parents left my room together and I slowly got out of bed and got dressed. I was feeling very sad and confused… ¨I looked to [my boyfriend] for comforting. I texted him and messaged online. He simply responded with “Oh” and “sorry.” Suddenly I felt very lonely and like I had no one to talk to. I unplugged my computer, turned off my phone and went to my aunt’s with my family.”

Secure dream: “This was a memory.  It was our first date, and we were watching Saw II. I was so scared…I kept ducking my head into his shoulder and squeaking when some gory part appeared. He just laughed and comforted me, somewhere in the middle of the movie I rested my head on his shoulder and he put his arm around me and kissed me. He was sweet and I remember feeling tingly. We continued to kiss and hug each other.”

Notice in the first example how the dreamer’s boyfriend was very unresponsive and didn’t help her feel better after a death in the family. In the second dream, what was scary at first didn’t seem so bad after a little cuddling and comfort. These dreams mimic the kinds of experiences people have with their significant others in waking life.

Now, if you happen to have a bad dream about your partner, don’t freak out! It doesn’t mean you’re doomed to insecurity forever. But be mindful of your dreams, because there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that dreams reflect “current concerns,” especially about relationships.3,4

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1Selterman, D., Apetroaia, A., & Waters, E. (2012). Script-like attachment representations in dreams containing current romantic partners. Attachment & Human Development, 14 (5), 501-515.

2Waters, H. S., & Waters, E. (2006). The attachment working models concept: Among other things, we build script-like representations of secure base experiences. Attachment & Human Development, 8(3), 185-197.

3Cartwright, R. D. (1991). Dreams that work: The relation of dream incorporation to adaptation to stressful events. Dreaming, 1(1), 3-9.

4Cartwright, R., Agargun, M. Y., Kirkby, J., & Friedman, J. K. (2006). Relation of dreams to waking concerns. Psychiatry Research, 141(3), 261-270.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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