DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: First, I’d like to say thanks. My boyfriend and I used your sex advice to save our relationship. We were long distance, and both inexperienced, and when we found your site, it made all the difference. So, thank you.
Unfortunately, this sexual awakening has bred some new problems. I’d like to underscore the fact that I am happy. I am in love 100% with him, and though we occasionally hit our road bumps, we have a very successful relationship based on equal partnership and respect. We’ve been together almost a year and a half (a year of which was long distance), and now live closer which has only strengthened our commitment. I’m writing to you because, despite my conscious brain agreeing that all is good, my subconscious brain seems to be fixated on cheating.
About 6 months ago, I started having vivid dreams every few weeks that I was cheating on him. At the time, I thought it was because of our poor sex life, but then we started fixing that and the dreams only got worse. Usually, in the dream, I’ll be with a group of people who may or may not be strangers. One of the people in that group will look or have the same name as a guy I know, and we will start conversing. Things escalate, and suddenly… well, let’s just say “sex” is putting it mildly. After we’re done, in the dream, I’ll become aware that I have a boyfriend, and that I’ve cheated. My reaction in the dream ranges from crippling guilt to promising myself to keep it secret. Sometimes, I’ll see my boyfriend in the dream afterwards, but I always wake up before he suspects anything. The real problem comes after I’m awake. I’m overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and self-hatred for my actions in the dream. Logically, I know it’s a dream and that I can’t really control it, but I’m still wracked by feelings of disgust and horror.
When they first happened, I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want my boyfriend to think I was anything but devoted. Then they started happening more regularly, and when I woke up (on occasions we were together) I couldn’t look at him. I decided to talk to him about it, and he’s been nothing but supportive. I have a dark history with sex dreams (stemming from something that took place in my childhood), so they’ve never been good, but these are really hitting me hard. Their persistence is making me doubt my own happiness, and the strength of our relationship, neither of which I want to do. I know you aren’t a dream psychic, but is there anything I can do to make it stop? It’s driving me insane and making it hard to be the girlfriend I want to be.
Thanks, because I wish I was,
Dreamless In Dallas
DEAR DREAMLESS IN DALLAS: I’d like to welcome you to what those of us in the love biz call “having a sex drive.”
This is something that a lot of people get wrong about monogamy: being in a monogamous relationship means that you choose not to have sex with other people; it doesn’t mean you won’t WANT to. And that desire for other people? That is entirely, perfectly and utterly 100% normal. It doesn’t mean say anything about the strength of your relationship, the depths of your devotion or how happy you are. It just means that you’ve got a libido and your libido is doing what libidos do: perking up whenever someone who hits your buttons comes by. People in relationships get crushes. People in relationships get concrete-busting erections and screaming thigh sweats for other people all the time. All it means is that you’re human, with all the weird little quirks that comes with it.
Similarly, dreams aren’t always deep and dark reservoirs of hidden truths that your subconscious is desperate to reveal. Sometimes dreams are just your brain clearing out the mental bandwidth and offloading the experiences and thoughts and anxieties of the day. The thing that frequently makes dreams so disturbing is that they form their own little worlds with their own rules and histories that may well have nothing to do with reality. You will have memories in dreams of things that never happened. You’ll do things in dreams that you would never do in real life – sometimes they’ll be horrifying, sometimes they’ll be thrilling, but how you feel in the dream is frequently just in the context of the dream.
But more importantly: dreams are not reality. The things you do in dreams do not count. If they did… well, I’ve lost track of how many goddamn zombie apocalypses I’ve lived through, T-rexes I’ve hunted, Balrogs I’ve fought, Disney princesses I’ve dated (DON’T JUDGE ME!), times I’ve discovered the secret of flight, times I’ve forgotten the secret of flight and could only glide, monsters I’ve become, hands I’ve lost and times I’ve beaten the s--t out of my brother because he snagged the dream girl I wanted. Yes, dreams can be incredibly intenssse. They can feel unbelievably real, and in the liminal space between dreaming and waking, it can be incredibly easy to confuse dreams for reality. But – say it with me now – dreams are not reality.
Now, could it be that your subconscious is working through some issues? Oh, sure, it’s possible. But is it that you’re longing to cheat on your boyfriend?
No, probably not.
Now, were I to play armchair psychologist (remember: Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor), I’d say that perhaps the dreams are about your sex life – in the sense that you want more – but you don’t feel like you’re allowed to have it. The maybe/maybe not strangers may well be a way of stepping outside yourself and becoming someone who does have permission to do these things. Your overwhelming sense of guilt (remembering you have a boyfriend) could be coming back to “you” instead of this other person who has the permission to do these wild and crazy things, and that guilt you feel is a way of punishing yourself for wanting more than you feel like you’re “allowed”. And perhaps these feelings tie into that something that happened in your childhood. I don’t know. Like I said: armchair psychologist. Not even remotely close to the real thing. Take any of my interpretations with heaping tablespoons of salt.
But let’s get back to the practical level: the dreams don’t mean that you’re not devoted to your boyfriend or that you don’t love him. It doesn’t mean that you’re not really happy together. It just means your brain is firing off neurons that tie into your libido. Dreams don’t count as cheating, no matter how vivid and intense they are. Your imagination doesn’t count as cheating. Whatever goes on between your ears is your business and yours alone; fantasy is not only harmless, but a valuable way of venting a little libidinous steam on occasion. And lusting after someone else – even when you dream about banging them like a screen door in a hurricane – doesn’t mean that you don’t love your boyfriend or want to jump his bones.
Are there things you can do to not dream? Well… nothing healthy. Dreaming is an important part of your mental and emotional health and trying to skip REM sleep is a great way to do damage to yourself. If you’re really determined, you can look into lucid dreaming – essentially learning how to wake up while in your dream and take control of it. The easiest way is simply to learn to question reality and look for dream signs – indications that you’re dreaming. The most common signs are that reading is impossible and clocks never tell the same time twice when you look away and look back. You may also want to start keeping a dream journal and writing your dreams down in as much detail as you can remember as soon as you wake up – these help you become more aware of your dreams in general, and being more aware may make you more likely to recognize these dreams when they happen.
But honestly? The best thing you can do is to learn to relax. The more anxious you make yourself, the more anxiety dreams you’re going to have. By constantly dwelling on these dreams – what do they mean, what does it say about your relationship – the more you’re bringing them to the forefront of your mind. That, in turn, is going to make you more likely to have these dreams again – they’re taking up so much mental bandwidth, it’s not really surprising that you’re having them again when your brain is firing off neurons while you’re in REM sleep. Accept that yeah, they’re a little freaky but they’re just dreams and ultimately they don’t mean anything.
And hey: if the super-crazy sex in your dreams is still intriguing to you when you wake up… maybe you should have a conversation with your boyfriend about how to incorporate some of it into your waking life.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org