George Marks/Getty Images
Let's set the scene: I'm somewhere deep in the throes of my subconscious just having your average nonsensical dream. I'm blissfully unaware and enjoying the random firing of my neurons until all of a sudden, I'm hooking up with a stranger and proceeding to cheat on my partner — or that's what I believe in my dream state. I know it's wrong, but I can't seem to stop it from happening. Afterward, (in my dream) I'm begging for forgiveness from my partner, fearful of losing him until I wake up, look around, and realize "it's just a dream."
If you've sleepily murmured those words to yourself in the middle of the night or perhaps have had the same stressful, guilt-inducing dream, you're not alone. I, myself, have woken up with tears streaming down my face after a dream that I cheated on a boyfriend at the time (Emphasis on the "at the time." More to come on that.) How could I betray him like that? Do I actually want to cheat on him? Am I going to lose him? Am I inherently a bad person?
Why Do Cheating Dreams Happen In the First Place?
First of all, you can relax — you're not a bad person. The cheating on a partner dream sequence is actually incredibly common. In fact, in a 2020 study performed by Amerisleep, out of the 1,000 people surveyed, 21% had dreams in the past year where they cheated on their partner and 23% had dreams they were cheated on by their significant other.
And there's actually a perfectly good and logical explanation behind the cheating dreams. (And no, it most likely does not mean you want to cheat on your partner.) It's actually quite healthy to have cheating dreams, according to dream decoding expert and author of the best-selling book The Dream Dictionary from A to Z, Theresa Cheung.
"A dream is a hall of mirrors," Cheung tells InStyle. "It's an aspect of yourself, you're cheating with yourself in a way. It [is] the dreaming mind just trying to show you that there's more to you to discover."
Yes, It Matters Who You're Cheating With
She likes to use the example of having an affair in your dream with someone inappropriate, such as your boss. It's not that you want to have sex with this person, you may just admire a quality of theirs that you're lacking. "If your boss has a great sense of humor and you tend to be a quite serious person, having an affair with your boss in a dream is your dreaming mind saying 'lighten up,'" Cheung says. "It's saying 'you need to get more humor,' and it's using the striking image of cheating because it's the only way it knows how to communicate that with you." So basically, this extreme, distressing scenario is a way to get you to pay attention.
The same thing is true if you have a cheating dream with a specific celebrity. It's most likely not a vanity or materialistic inclination. There may be something that certain celebrity possesses that you lack in your waking life, according to Cheung.
"Any celebrity has good looks and money. It's usually something specific — maybe their musical talent or their charity work — about that celebrity that [your] dreaming mind has latched onto," she explains. "If you're having a dream affair, it means there's something about you that's underdeveloped and you need to go out and celebrate it."
But depending on who you are cheating with, this dream can take on several different interpretations. Cheung says cheating in your dream with a random person could be a result of being disappointed in yourself or feeling like you let yourself or others down.
"If you cheat with a stranger in your dream, look at your daily waking life," she says. "Where am I letting myself down? What does the cheating mean to me? Cheating means I'm not doing the best that I can. I'm not fulfilling my potential. I didn't do a great job there."
So, Are Cheating Dreams Cause for Concern?
Cheung says she saw a rise in cheating dreams during COVID-19 and the lockdown. One possible reason for this? Partners were literally spending 24/7 together, which could have led to a rut or complacency in the relationship.
"People dreamt of cheating because our dreaming mind was trying to help them," she explains. "We're all stuck at home, stuck in a rut [with] no intimacy. Sometimes too much time together isn't great for your relationship. So your dream was throwing you a bit of an adventure, a bit of fun for you. It's actually very healthy."
There's seldom cause for concern after having a cheating dream. It's typically normal and healthy, even if you are longing to spice things up a bit. It doesn't mean your relationship is doomed or that deep down you want to cheat on your partner. Cheung says the only time it could mean you actually want to have an affair is when it's a consistent dream that happens nearly every night and carries into your waking thoughts and desires.
And in some cases, it could signify underlying issues you have with your partner or that something is missing in the relationship. Perhaps the relationship isn't fulfilling you or your needs, so your dreaming mind goes out to find that with another person. In my case, Cheung confirms I was probably cheating on my now ex-boyfriend for that very reason (which is why he's an ex!). You may have even experienced dreams where your partner is the one doing the cheating, which unsurprisingly, points to feeling insecure in the relationship IRL.
Amber Kelleher-Andrews, relationship expert and CEO of Kelleher International, agrees that most of the time cheating dreams are typically a metaphor, however, she does recommend recording your dreams and decoding what they symbolize in your waking life, in case they are trying to alert you of an underlying issue.
"Cheating dreams can mean a number of things — they can be a sign of insecurities in yourself, insecurities in your relationship, a hidden fear of abandonment rising to the surface, a current rift between you, or a sign that you don't trust yourself or your partner, whether or not either of you has actually had an affair," she explains.
Relationship therapist, coach, and host of "Love Talk Live" on LA Talk Radio, Jaime Bronstein, believes that cheating dreams are a result of anxiety — whether it's from your relationship or another aspect of your life.
"When we sleep, any worry or concern comes through," Bronstein tells us. "It's always best to look at dreams and see what we can learn rather than discount them. It doesn't necessarily mean there is a problem in the relationship as dreams tend to be metaphors and don't always represent what they seem to represent."
But she encourages patients to really take a look at what the unconscious mind is trying to tell you. "When there is anxiety in a relationship, the most common reason why cheating dreams happen is due to fear that the relationship will end. As humans, our fears come out during our sleep state when our ego-mind is not there to censor or push feelings and thoughts away."
Sex dreams in general are "a symbol of curiosity," according to Cheung. After all, we humans are very curious beings! "Sometimes we repress that because of the expectations of society. [But] quite rightly so we are curious, and that's what a sex dream does for you." In other words, it allows you to experiment in a way you may not be able to in real life.
The bottom line is there's no reason to fret or feel guilty when you wake up after having cheating dream. Take a look at what cheating symbolizes for you and if it even has to do with your partner. The majority of the time, it's your brain trying to help you grow and improve yourself. But it's always a good idea to reflect inward and decipher if there is anything underlying in your relationship that needs to be addressed.