Picture the scene: You’re alone with, say, a colleague. An ex perhaps. Maybe a friend? Things are heating up. In the back of your mind, you know that your devoted partner is at home, eagerly awaiting your return.
Something takes over though and you continue doing what you know you shouldn’t. Before you know it, the damage is done. It’s too late and the guilt is overwhelming.
But, in a split second, you’re transported back to your bed and innocently waking up next to your other half. Relief washes over you from head to toe.
The guilt melts away. You realise that it’s all a dream and you're safe in the knowledge that your loyalty is intact.
Does this feeling ring any bells for you? Have you found yourself in a similar position? If so, you’re not alone. A study in 2018 by Leesa found that 57% of women have dreamt about cheating on their partner.
But what does it mean? Is this something you should feel guilty about?
Remember that you have no control over your dreams
This means you have no reason to feel shame or guilt. Interestingly, guilt and shame tends to be experienced more so by women than by men in this situation.
Just because you dreamt about cheating on your partner, there’s no reason to believe that this is a subconscious desire to have a sexual experience behind your partner’s back.
Instead, put some thought into what other meanings there might be for this dream.
There’s no one meaning
We must establish one thing; and that is that dreams are extremely personal. You and a friend might have similar dreams, but the meanings behind them could be worlds apart. It will vary depending on a range of circumstances, such as your situation, history, culture, beliefs, personality, needs and longings.
There could be a number of reasons you’re dreaming about sex with someone other than your partner. Keep an open mind and stay curious before jumping into quick conclusions.
It might not be about sex
You may have dreamt about sex, but the meaning behind it might be totally unrelated. Often the sex is purely a representation of a feeling, longing, need or a reflection of a part within the self.
Our dreams act as a window into our unconscious mind and our soul. They tend to bring things to our attention that are important to us, but that we tend to ignore, repress or deny in our waking hours.
If the ‘manifest content’ (that is, the images, thoughts and content of the dream that you remember upon waking) is sex then there’s a good chance that the sex is standing in for something else. It could be about something else which is forbidden or inexplicably exciting - and you might not always have the answer.
Dreams can also symbolise the relationship we have with parts of ourselves related to other areas. For example, a different relationship with a colleague, career or a friend where we feel shame, guilt or repression might be projected in your dream. Alternatively, it might represent an integrity issue in another area of your life, where your actions conflicted with your values or a desire for more excitement and vitality elsewhere in your day-to-day.
Think about what it could mean
If this has happened to you, ask yourself: What were your feelings during the dream and when you woke up? For many people, sex represents excitement, vitality, life or energy, whereas dreaming about cheating might link to a sense of worry, anxiety or guilt.
Where else, when you're awake, do you experience these feelings in your life? If the dream is not about sex per se, what might it be related to? Which parts of yourself, parts you may deny, reject or repress, might it represent?
Equally, it is worth thinking about the quality of your relationship. Think about your emotional and physical intimacy satisfaction, your sense of partnership and whether you have some wishes for more excitement or novelty to explore with your partner.
Stay curious, non-judgmental and open minded. It might end up making you aware of something you hadn’t paid much attention to before.
You might not come to a conclusion, and this is absolutely fine. But rest assured that a dream like this doesn’t warrant any shame.
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor and has been the Chair of Imago UK since 2013.