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As I slowly drifted awake one recent morning, scenes from a dream I'd had the night before floated through my mind. The guy I'd lusted after in high school had been kissing me passionately (something that never happened in real life). Then -- amazingly! -- he apologized for the way he'd ignored me all those years ago. Remembering his repentant face, I smiled as I lay there on the pillow. Then I turned and noticed my peacefully sleeping husband.
Suddenly, I felt consumed by guilt. Why was I dreaming of this long-ago crush? Was my subconscious telling me my marriage was in trouble? It felt like I'd committed mental adultery.
If your dreams sometimes leave you dazed and confused, you're not alone. The good news is that usually there's more than meets the eye. "Sexual dreams should not be immediately interpreted as literal expressions of desire," says Charles McPhee, author of Ask the Dream Doctor (2002, Delta Trade Paperbacks), who has analyzed thousands of dreams through his Web site, www.askthedreamdoctor.com.
Cynthia Richmond, a behavioral therapist and author of Dream Power: How to Use Your Night Dreams to Change Your Life (2000, Simon & Schuster), says understanding your dreams can help you understand your wants, concerns, and fears. "Paying attention to your night dreams can help you realize your life dreams and goals," she says. Ready to find out what your dreams are telling you? Here are five common romantic dreamtime scenarios.
1. The Ex Encounter Like me, many women find it very unsettling to dream of a romantic figure from the past. Recurring, obsessive dreams about a former boyfriend -- especially if he's someone you still see or talk to -- might be a cause for concern, but the occasional glimpse of a past love is usually nothing more than mental vacation from everyday life. "The past lover is symbolic," says Richmond. "He may represent anything that you associate with him." A high-school or college boyfriend symbolizes the freedom you had before being saddled with work, children, and mortgage payments. Dreaming of a sexy bad boy in your past signals a desire for more spontaneity and excitement in your romantic life. So go ahead and enjoy a romantic flashback; as Richmond says, "Dream sex is certainly safe sex!"
2. Seeing Stars Chloe*, a 36-year-old Chicago mom, still remembers vividly a dream she had her senior year of college, as she was emerging from a dysfunctional relationship with an alcoholic boyfriend. "I was dating Rod Stewart -- who I didn't even like that much at the time -- and I was so aware of how much he loved me," she says. "And his mother loved me, too! I woke up with this really strong feeling that I should wait for someone who would love me this much."
Celebrity dreams are quite common among women, says Richmond. A dream about a movie star you've always had a crush on may be simple wish fulfillment. But if, like Chloe, you dream about someone you're not particularly attracted to in real life, "it may indicate a desire to feel more special, to be romanced," says Richmond. Famous people have a special status, and being treated well by a celebrity -- not to mention his mother -- shows that the dreamer wants to be part of that VIP world.
Chloe's celebrity dream was so powerful that she did indeed hold out for someone who would treat her right. And she doesn't think it's a coincidence that the man she ended up marrying turned out to be a musician.
3. The Ick Factor An intimate encounter with a past boyfriend or famous celebrity can be a fun diversion. But what about when the dream romance involves someone you can't stand? Beth*, 38, of Oak Park, Illinois, was appalled when she had a sexy dream about an annoying coworker. "The dream involved us having a clandestine affair at work," she says. "I was really surprised that I would dream about this guy -- he was opinionated, loud, and never did any work. Afterward, I would think to myself, I cannot even believe I wasted a dream on him!"
According to McPhee, we are attracted to qualities that our dream sex partner possesses; there's something about them that we want to get close to or emulate (even if the actual person turns us off). Indeed, says Beth, "The thing I admired about this guy was that he didn't really care what anyone else thought. I am always pretty concerned with how I present myself, how I look to others, and he had none of those hang-ups."
Dreams about people at the office can also signal a desire for closer working relationships so you can do your job more effectively. Similarly, sexual dreams about male relatives (which can be especially disturbing) usually indicate nothing more than desire for stronger family relationships. The next time you're mystified by a particular dream partner, think about what qualities that person represents -- and why you might be drawn to them.
4. Girl Power "Both straight and gay women dream of sexual encounters with another woman," says Richmond. "It may reveal a need for more sensitivity or creativity from your partner, since we associate females with sensitivity and nurturing."
In McPhee's book Ask the Dream Doctor, a 22-year-old woman named Amanda describes a dream that took place at her best friend's house. "We were lounging around and drinking wine," she says. "All of a sudden we're in her bedroom and she is seducing me. I was totally into it." At the end of the dream, she finds out her mother has died in a car accident. Amanda was not sexually interested in other women -- she had a boyfriend -- but had been having problems with her mother. According to McPhee, the dreams signals that "her mother's reign as an arbiter of morals and values is coming to an end. Amanda is now rapidly ascending to the throne of deciding what's best for herself -- including her sexual self-expression."
5. Man of Mystery Richmond says dreams about making love with a mysterious stranger are quite common. "The dreamer usually enjoys the encounter but doesn't know who she has just been with. It may signal a desire for more mystery, less ritual."
Kerry*, a 36-year-old mother of two in San Diego, says one of her strangest dreams involved not one, but two mystery lovers. "I was in a threesome, but my mind was inside a guy's body," she says. "Then the dream morphed into another dream where my husband and I were sharing a hotel room with another couple. I was afraid they would hear our lovemaking, but I couldn't stop making noise!"
A dream of sex with strangers -- and the desire to experience everything through a man's body -- signal a wish to break out of a romantic rut, says McPhee. "It could be simple curiosity of what it would be like on the other side of the love act," he says. The fear of being overheard indicates worry about being found out: what would the neighbors think of all this bedroom experimentation?
Dreams often compensate for what we're not getting during waking hours. Pay attention to what your dreams tell you, and you might just find your real romantic life getting a whole lot more satisfying.
* Names changed