I've been having strange dreams -- what are they telling me?

I'm not sure I should talk to my boyfriend about these dreams -- they might worry him.

Published February 13, 2006 11:58AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

After years of waking up with absolutely no recollection of what I dreamed about the night before, I've started making a conscious effort to remember my dreams. And surprisingly, it's been working. I remember at least one dream almost every night. It's been great having this new window into my subconscious: Some of the dreams are funny, others serious, but all provide me with a sense of connectedness to my inner self as well as some insight into conflicts in my life. The problem is, sometimes I don't like the connections and insights they provide.

About a month ago I started a long-distance relationship with an intelligent and kind guy I've known for years and used to date off-and-on. In normal, waking life, everything is great between us: We communicate well, we have hours of fascinating conversation, we emotionally support each other, and are madly in love. Things aren't perfect, but very satisfying and happy. But ever since I started remembering my dreams, I've been troubled by the ones that have to do with our relationship, most of which involve me cheating. In one dream, I kiss a transsexual man, stop myself before having sex with him, but fear that he'll come back and rape me (he doesn't). In another, I'm falling for a guy whom I've made an immediate connection with because we both have experienced the death of a loved one (unlike my boyfriend). In another, I'm alone at the beach with a burly macho man when the tide comes in and I almost get swept away (but don't). In another, I'm having a fling with a dull guy who strikes me as a much downgraded version of my boyfriend -- in the dream, I think to myself, "This guy could have turned into someone as good as my boyfriend if he hadn't been stopped by having such dumb friends and stunted opportunities." Later in the same dream, I go to visit my boyfriend and his roommate tells me that my boyfriend is so enamored of me he never quits talking about me, and I feel -- unmoved.

I'm trying to figure out what this all means. In real life, I would never cheat on my boyfriend. However, I might be tempted. Sometimes I think about male friends or acquaintances who intrigue me and I wonder what might happen between us if I weren't in a serious relationship. I'm also interested in exploring a relationship with a woman, although there aren't any women I'm attracted to in my life right now. But I wouldn't act on these thoughts and desires because I don't want to hurt my guy, or jeopardize a relationship that I feel happy and healthy in. Are these thoughts and these dreams just a normal issue in committed relationships? Or is my subconscious trying to send me a message I just don't want to deal with in waking life-- that I'm not ready for a serious relationship?

I hate waking up with these images and thoughts in my head. I don't want to start out my day worrying about relationship problems that don't even exist, wrongs I haven't even committed. But these dreams stay with me through the day. They're even starting to make me feel less excited to talk to my boyfriend in our nightly long-distance calls. And I feel I can't discuss the issue with him, because I don't want to make him feel insecure about the otherwise good relationship. To state the general problem way too dramatically, I don't want to let dreams that haven't come true get in the way of ones that have. So how do I set them aside? Or don't I?


Dear Dreamer,

This morning I got up before sunrise and wrote this in my journal:

"Walter Cronkite Dream: I dreamed I was standing on a slight dais or landing of a stair. And Walter Cronkite saw me and came over in front of all these people and he hugged me, the little old man did, and put his dry lips to my neck and gave me a good warm, fatherly kiss -- a loud kiss, unabashed, a little longer than just polite. I held him, Walter Cronkite, in my dream."

Then I read your letter.

Now hear this: Dreams are nutty. I think I know what this dream was about. It was about my desire for fatherly approbation for my journalistic career. But not all dreams are so transparent, certainly.

In answer to your question, I would say that these thoughts and dreams are indeed just a normal issue in committed relationships. I would say also, however, that your subconscious is indeed perhaps trying to send you a message that you don't want to deal with. Both those things can be true. It needn't be an either/or proposition. In other words, it's possible that what you don't really want to deal with are the normal issues that come up in committed relationships. And, I mean, who does? And yet it's something that most of us face. So maybe you could view the dream not as a frightening portent, but as a friendly reminder: Yes, indeed, there are some issues in your relationship that it would be best to deal with.

What sort of issues? Well, for instance, there's the issue of fidelity. As you say, "In real life, I would never cheat on my boyfriend. However, I might be tempted." It's not such a terrible thing to be tempted. Temptation visits us often in the world. We are not responsible for its visitations. We are only responsible for how we respond.

Likewise, there is apparently the issue of some faults you may see in your boyfriend. The dream seems to hint at them. Perhaps you fear to mention it because you really believe there to be a grain of truth to it. On this matter, I would only mention the dream if you had something you really wanted to say to your boyfriend that is true and helpful. I mean, what is the relationship between the dream and your perception of him? If you feel that others view him as dull, or if he has said to you that others have viewed him as dull, perhaps this is a cue for you to reassure him -- or to give him a reality check and tell him that indeed, when he seems to zone out or act listless that he is indeed in danger of being perceived as dull.

Near as I can figure it, your concern is that there is a grain of truth in these dreams. In that regard, perhaps it is useful to think of dreams as about abstract capacities rather than brute actualities. We have the capacity to think and feel many things that we don't approve of and wouldn't do. We have a great repressed capacity for violence, for instance. That capacity might at times appear in our dreams. Does that mean we secretly wish to commit violence? Not exactly, I don't think. Even toward those we love, we are capable of feeling rage, impatience, annoyance, contempt. These darker, unspoken things might even be said to power our relationships and make them richer; they are the spice and the ballast; they are the soul of a relationship. It is in this area of conflicted, guilty feelings that the truth is often found. So why run from the truth?

In that regard, the thing that really interests me, and which seems to be utterly archetypal, is when his roommate tells you that he talks about you all the time, and you are unmoved. This to me sounds like the narcissistic dream of being a queen, cold and imperious, unmoved by the adoration of others because it is, after all, nothing more than your due. So it would be interesting to inquire how that narcissistic capacity plays in your relationship.

Perhaps you actually do have an inflated sense of your own value, and it is that, rather than humble compassion, that gives rise to your concern about telling your boyfriend your dreams. What I mean is, telling our dreams is opening a door into our soul. It may be, in fact, that this outsize queen who lives within you, this imperious and demanding soul, is trying to control the situation and prevent any vulnerability from surfacing.

The result of such control can be a relationship in which vulnerabilities and ambiguities are hidden and repressed; eventually such a relationship grows sterile. But in the dream world lies rich ambiguity, humor and power -- and that seems to be what these dreams are really offering you.

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