Can Sex Dreams Improve Your Relationships?
A few weeks ago, Sabrina* woke up feeling confused and guilty. Despite being in a happy, healthy relationship, she had a wild sex dream about another man. "Before I met my boyfriend, I slept with various guys, two of whom meant a lot to me," she explained. "The dream was set in a hotel and was about a man who was, like, a combination of them both."
If you've ever woken up from a sex dream with this hazy mix of arousal, confusion and disgust, you're not alone: Sex dreams account for 8 percent of all adult dreams, according to a 2007 study by the University of Montreal. Sex dreams are perfectly normal, though, and if we look past the awkwardness, they have plenty to teach us about the relationships in our waking lives.
Sex dreams account for 8 percent of all adult dreams.
One of the reasons for our sex dreams is simply biology. "The part of our brain that deals with memories, emotions and motivations, the limbic system, is at its most active during REM sleep," said Yvonne Filler, a psychotherapist based in London. "The limbic system is also linked to feelings of pleasure from sex, so it is very natural to have dreams about sex. Additionally, oxytocin, the chemical that causes our genital nerves to fire, also peaks around the same time in our sleep cycle."
Often, sex dreams involve unexpected partners such as friends, colleagues or exes, and this might leave you feeling disoriented and disturbed. However, it's important to remember that sex dreams don't necessarily mean we want to get down and dirty with the people who appear in them. Instead, they may be an indication that we are trying to process complex emotions about our relationships: It's been well-established that REM sleep plays a pivotal role in helping us process our waking-life experiences, according to a 2019 study in Frontiers in Psychology.
Interpreting a weird sex dream isn't an exact science, but it helps to start by considering who the dream is about. "Sex with a boss could be about wanting something for ourselves that we admire in them," Filler said. "[This] isn't necessarily power or authority. It could just as easily be patience or empathy." Alternatively, a dream about an authority figure might "indicate a desire for more control in your life," according to Zoe Williamson, a relationship therapist in Essex, England, "or it could stem from a craving for attention."
Filler explained that sex with a friend may suggest we need to give them patience, time or even space, and sex with an ex might mean we're missing something they gave us, whether emotional or sexual.
'It's common to dream about sex outside or somewhere our conscious brains wouldn't dream of taking us.'
To further decode a sex dream's emotional meaning, consider what's happening and where it's taking place. "It's common to dream about sex outside or somewhere our conscious brains wouldn't dream of taking us," Filler continued. "If we think about the emotion this environment might be trying to connect to, we could be feeling anxious or exposed."
The type of sex can provide clues, too. "You may find yourself in a situation that involves sex with a group of people," Fuller said, "which can actually be about feeling overwhelmed." Dreaming about adventurous sex can indicate that you "want to let go of self-judgment and get out of your comfort zone," Williamson added.
All of this came as a relief to Sabrina, who is now less confused and ashamed about her sex dream. "It's pretty helpful to learn that this dream didn't actually mean what I initially thought," she said.
"I think I've been missing the excitement from something new, especially as it's all been basically the same since 2020," she concluded. "The situation [in the hotel] definitely made me feel excited. While I'm happier in my current relationship, maybe I should think about ways to make it more fun and exciting once lockdown properly lifts."
*Name changed for privacy.