Sometimes people’s eyes get wide when I tell them that I’m a psychologist who studies dreams, and they immediately start confiding in me about their “weird/crazy/strange/vivid” dreams that often include similar themes (like their teeth falling out). Then they ask me what it means, and to their disappointment, I tell them that based on the limited scientific data on dreams, we just don’t know. Despite what some artists, philosophers, or “psychics” might tell you, there’s no universal codebook that helps you translate content from a dream into direct meaning. Instead, the human mind constructs dreams based on unique experiences (some psychologists have said that dreams are like mental fingerprints). Perhaps someone had their teeth painfully pulled at the dentist or wore braces at a young age, and perhaps another person got a tooth chipped (or knocked out) while playing sports. Those two people with different “teeth experiences” could form dreams with very different meanings, even if they both contain teeth as a central image. The dreams you have likely represent your unique conception rather than some universal symbolic meaning.
But what about relationship dreams? Here it gets a little more interesting. While it’s true that people dream about their parents, friends, and significant others in a way that mimics their own unique experiences in relationships, some specific dream content does seem to indicate something about their attachment styles.
When I was in college I dated a girl who had a textbook case of insecure attachment. She was chronically jealous and clingy, fixated on the idea that I was going to abandon or betray her. Her insecurities would often surface in her dreams about me. Apparently I was a huge jerk in her dreams—I would cheat on her, make fun of her, and leave her in distress. Of course, I never did any of these things in our relationship, but when she woke up in the morning, she would be really pissed at me because of the horrible things that “dream Dylan” had done. (Clearly I wasn’t being the “man of her dreams” that she hoped I’d be).
My college experience motivated me to pursue this as a research topic—it became a central theme in my work over the next 10 years. As an undergrad, Steve Drigotas and I did a study where we collected dreams from people in committed romantic relationships. We found that the higher people scored on avoidant or anxious attachment (measured by a questionnaire), the more conflict, stress, anxiety, and jealousy we found in their dreams about romantic partners.1 As I wrote in a previous article, part of my grad school research found that people dream about their significant others in a way that mimics the types of experiences they have while awake (including movie dates, texting, flirting, etc.). Secure dreamers displayed more emotional comfort and positive exploration, whereas insecure dreamers displayed more abandonment and betrayal.2
I wasn’t the only researcher finding these patterns of dreaming—other labs from all over the world have found similar results. For example, one study found that highly insecure people were more likely than secure people to have themes of aggression and self-derogation in their dreams.3 Other studies found that insecure people were less likely to seek or receive support from others in their dreams and were more distressed because of their lacking support.4,5
So, if you find yourself consistently having bad dreams about people close in your life, it probably wasn’t because of the spicy tuna roll you had before going to sleep—it could be a sign of insecure attachment. Check out the second part of this post, where we explore how dreams affect people’s behavior after waking up.
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1Selterman, D., & Drigotas, S. (2009). Attachment styles and emotional content, stress, and conflict in dreams of romantic partners. Dreaming, 19, 135–151.
2Selterman, D., Apetroaia, A., & Waters, E. (2012). Script-like attachment representations in dreams containing current romantic partners. Attachment & Human Development, 14 (5), 501-515.
3McNamara, P., Pace-Schott, E. F., Johnson, P., Harris, E., & Auerbach, S. (2011). Sleep architecture and sleep-related mentation in securely and insecurely attached people. Attachment & Human Development, 13, 141–154.
4Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., Sapir-Lavid, Y., & Avihou-Kanza, N. (2009). What’s inside the minds of securely and insecurely attached people? The secure-base script and its associations with attachment-style dimensions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(4), 615-633.
5Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., & Avihou-Kanza, N. (2011). Individual differences in adult attachment are systematically related to dream narratives. Attachment & Human Development, 13, 105–123.
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.