“I’ve had quite a few dreams about cheating on my boyfriend,” says Liz*. “In one, there was quite erotically charged foreplay with The Governor–” the bad guy with one eye from The Walking Dead, she clarifies, which she and her boyfriend have been binge watching “– I don’t remember the setting, but I know it felt very exciting; he fingered me, and went down on me.”
Liz is 29, and has been with her boyfriend for three and a half years; they’ve lived together for the past six months. “I’m pretty happy in the relationship,” she assures me. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t quite know what to make of her Governor dream. “[It was] bizarre, as I don’t consciously find the character or the actor attractive in any way – but I really enjoyed it in the dream.”
Liz doesn’t tell her boyfriend every time she has one of these dreams – “I’m not sure whether anybody would need to know every single time their partner dream cheats” – but she’s fairly relaxed, albeit confused, about them. “Everyone dream cheats… surely?”
That’s the big question. Lockdown has borne witness to a slew of intense, vivid dreams; no surprises there. Until recently, we’ve all been stuck in our homes night after night, binge watching Netflix right up until the moment we go to sleep – so it makes sense that whatever culture we’ve been ingesting all evening might worm its way into our dreams. But what of cheating dreams? Are they more universal than we all think?
Alex Morgan hosts a dream-themed podcast, In Your Dreamzzz, and he felt that cheating dreams are so common that he dedicated an entire episode to them. “There are easy dream topics – and then there are cheating dreams,” he tells me. “People were writing in [to the podcast] describing waking up in a state of panic; there was a real urgency in some of the messages. People wanted to understand why they’d dreamt these things.”
Morgan hosts the podcast, but In Your Dreamzzz resident expert Theresa Cheung – bestselling author of The Dream Dictionary from A-Z, first published in 2006 and re-released last year – who interprets the dreams on the show. She’s adamant that, in the majority of cases, dream cheating doesn’t mean anything bad. “It’s perfectly natural to panic when you wake up… But you don’t need to feel guilty. You’re not a bad person if you have this dream – just human. And human beings are sexual beings,” she maintains.
Cheung also emphasises the importance of tapping into the language of dreams, in order to understand them. “Your dreaming mind speaks to you in the language of symbols,” she explains. “So you need to know what ‘dream cheating’ is a symbol for in your waking life. What, in your waking life, are you feeling guilty, or compromised, or jealous, or bored about? Mostly, it’s about what’s going on inside you; what you need to develop, emotionally and psychologically, within yourself to feel fulfilled.”
Sean*, 29, has been with his girlfriend for four years; they’ve lived together for two. He’s no stranger to cheating dreams, and recently dreamt that he spent the night with his ex. But he feels it’s not hard to understand why. “I identify as polyamorous,” he explains. “I discovered this properly for myself in 2019, and approached my girlfriend about it then.”
And polyamory is certainly at play in Sean’s dreams. “The scenarios that I’m experiencing when dreaming… it’s never set up as cheating,” he points out. “I dream about it as, yes, something happening outside of my relationship; but it’s something that’s consensual for all parties, which is what I’m working towards in my life anyway.”
Of course, not all cheating dreams equate to a desire for polyamory. There’s a huge number of reasons for why these dreams may occur, and often they’ve got nothing to do with you current relationship. “For example, if you dream [cheat with] a colleague, and this colleague has a great sense of humour, it doesn’t actually mean you fancy that colleague,” emphasises Cheung. “But you may be longing to lighten up a bit; to take your life a little less seriously. And that’s what that dream is telling you.”
And what about the reverse – dreams in which your partner is cheating on you? This is something Ellie*, 34, has experienced firsthand. She’s been with her boyfriend for three years, and they moved in together over 18 months ago.
Ellie recalls two recent dreams in which her boyfriend was cheating on her. She knows nothing is wrong in the relationship, but she unsurprisingly found the dreams upsetting. “[In the dreams] he was just denying, denying, denying… and then when he did admit it, there was just no remorse. Which he would never do in real life; but both times I woke up stressed, trying to rationalise.”
The dreams left Ellie feeling in a “funk” all day. It didn’t take her long to work out why – she’s been cheated on before, in a previous relationship. “It had a big impact on my mental health at the time; and when I confronted my ex about it, he aggressively denied it, and tried to imply that I was crazy.”
Once again, Cheung is adamant that cheating dreams of this sort link back to ourselves. “Think about cheating – when your partner cheats in a dream – not as them actually cheating, but as a symbol for something you need to learn, and grow,” she explains. “If you’ve been cheated on before, you might be reliving that past: [in which case] your dreaming mind is trying to help you address that.”
The main takeaway? Don’t panic. “We often ignore our dreams; so that’s why, sometimes, the dreaming mind will send you scary dream scenes, because it knows you’re going to pay attention to those,” Cheung explains. “Your job is to become a detective, and work out the personal meaning of your dreams – which will be different for everyone.”
So next time you have an unsettling cheating dream, why not whip out a dream journal and try to figure out what it’s trying to tell you? They’re usually pretty on the money.
*Names have been changed