Question

My wife occasionally has vivid dreams that disturb her after she wakes up. For example, she might have a dream where we’re fighting and I’m yelling at her. Or, she sometimes dreams that I’m cheating on her with another woman. She’s also had dreams of me hurting our children or other horrible things. When she wakes up, she not only wants to talk about these dreams, but she also feels they are warning her or telling her something important about her life. In some ways she feels like they’re based in reality, especially the dreams that are recurring. I promise you that I’ve never cheated on my wife and I’ve never hurt my kids. Yes, we’ve had arguments where we’ve raised our voices, but I’ve never abused her. I can’t explain her dreams and I feel like I’m on trial for something I’m not doing. These conversations about her dreams go nowhere and I end up worried many nights about what I’ll wake up to.

 

Answer

I can only imagine how powerless you must feel being held accountable for things you didn’t do. Your wife is obviously looking for a way to make sense of her distressing dreams and is turning to you for answers. Dreams can leave some people with powerful imprints and emotions that are difficult to shake. I’ll share some thoughts on how you might respond to her distress.

You can quickly drive each other crazy trying to prove or disprove something that happened in her head while she was sleeping. This type of standoff is a guaranteed dead end discussion that needs to be interrupted as soon as it begins. Instead of trying to establish guilt or innocence about behaviors in the dream, I recommend you focus on staying connected to her emotional experience inside the dream.

For example, if she tells you that she is worried you’re going to cheat on her because she dreamed it, you can reassure her that this will never happen while at the same time validating how scary this must be for her. Let her know that you want to understand how scary this was for her. This dream isn’t about you. It’s about her working out fears, worries, and insecurities. If you are supportive, present, and interested, it will make it harder for her believe the fears she has about you in her dream.

While you don’t need to take seriously the events of the dream as reality, you absolutely need to take seriously the feelings she shares with you as reality. When she’s sharing her fear, she’s really feeling. You can dismiss those fears because they’re based on a dream, or you can stay with her experience of feeling fear and let her know you care about her pain.

If you have nothing to hide, then you can be fully present in a nonreactive way to her fears. If she insists that these are warnings, I encourage you to invite her to share more about her fears and why she believes this might happen. Are there things in the marriage that make her anxious? Is she noticing behavioral patterns that may be blind spots for you? Don’t immediately dismiss her concerns as irrational just because you haven’t done the exact thing she dreamed about. She may be nervous about specific behaviors or situations that could be the seeds of future betrayals.

Let her know you are there for her and want to help her be heard, see, and understood. The less threatened you feel about her emotions and fears, the easier it will be for both of you to make sense of what is happening to her.

I want to point out an additional consideration. If your wife has a history of trauma, abuse, or other betrayals, it will be important for her to get the proper professional help. These dreams may be ways of her trying to work out the memories stored in her body. If, despite your best efforts at validating and supporting her, she continues to struggle with the outcome of these dreams, encourage to seek additional professional help to better understand what these dreams and resultant emotions are telling her. Regardless of the outcome, she is going to be benefit from your loving presence and support as she makes sense of these overwhelming emotions.

 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

 

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:

Website: www.lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT