“Dreams just don’t observe those boundaries,” says Deirdre Leigh Barrett, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, who teaches courses on dreaming at Harvard University, and author of The Committee of Sleep. Anyone can have a cheating dream—even those in that ridiculously happy couple you hate-follow on Instagram. In fact, nearly 60 percent of women have had a dream about cheating on their partner, according to a 2018 study of nearly 1,000 people by bedding company Leesa.
And just because you had a dalliance in Dreamland doesn’t necessarily mean you’re looking for a side piece IRL. On the contrary, having a cheating dream can mean almost anything, says Barrett. Same goes for a dream in which your partner is playing you—it all depends on your life experiences and associations with infidelity.
To interpret what your nocturnal affair specifically means, she suggests pretending like you’re from another planet—stay with me here—and asking yourself “What is cheating?” in the broadest possible sense. Your answer might range from “horrible betrayal” to “titillating, clandestine seduction” to something in between.
Once you’ve established a baseline definition of "cheating" that makes sense to alien-esque you, ask yourself some follow-up questions: What exactly did you do cheating-wise, and how did it feel in the moment? Did it seem like a one-time fling or an ongoing affair? Did you feel like you were betraying your S.O. in the dream? Was your partner actually in the dream, or were you just aware of their existence?
And this one’s a biggie: Does anything in your waking life give you the same feeling as your dream? That Q can help you unlock the “metaphorical” meaning of your dream, says Barrett, because “your associations may lean toward being unfaithful to something about yourself,” not your partner.
Buut your dream could literally be an S.O.S. sent from sleep, too. Here are some common meanings of cheating dreams, according to experts:
If you’re the one cheating…
1. You feel guilty about something in your waking life.
“In my research and experience helping my clients understand their cheating dreams, I have found the main reason you cheat in your dreams is because—deep down—you have guilt or concern about something you’re doing that is taking away from the time you should be putting into the relationship,” says Lauri Loewenberg, certified dream analyst and member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD). But again, depending on your specific sitch, that could be anything from a demanding job to a new baby to an energy-intensive side hustle. Sound like you? Consider your cheating dream a wake-up call (ha) to work on that balance.
2. And that includes cheating on a past partner(s).
Maybe you’ve been Old Faithful in your current romance, but, um... not so much in previous ones. That matters when it comes to dream interpretation, says Loewenberg. “Infidelity can be traumatic and very difficult to heal from. Even if it has been years or decades since the transgression, the emotional scar often remains,” she explains. “This includes the scar of guilt with the transgressor.”
So, if you have a cheating dream years after it happened IRL, it’s time to examine what may be currently triggering that guilt or distrust to rear its ugly head once again. “Hopefully, whatever the trigger is, it’s something you can discuss and work through with your partner,” says Loewenberg. Opening up about your guilt and distrust in yourself can make the relationship even stronger.
3. Something is MIA from your real-life relationship.
The second most common reason for cheating dreams, according to Loewenberg, is that you feel like excitement and passion are missing in your current partnership. In fact, she adds that “cheating dreams are rarely about sex but are, more often, a brutally honest reflection of the dynamics within the relationship.”
Feel like the initial spark that brought you two together has taken a years-long vacation? Don’t be surprised if your imaginary part-time lover is also your first, she says. It makes sense when you think about it: They’re the person you first experienced those feelings with, after all.
4. You feel like you’re not being true to yourself.
Yep, Shakespeare was right all along. “To thine own self be true” isn’t just some solid advice, but when you know you’re not abiding by it, your dreams can become low-key haunted by the three witches of Macbeth. (Kidding! Those gals have better things to do.) But seriously, cheating on your S.O. in your sleep can actually signal that you’re being unfaithful to anything you have some sort of fidelity to, says Barrett. That could be your family of origin, your ancestral ethnicity, a job you haven’t fully committed to, or even your long-term career aspirations that your nine-to-five is pulling you away from. Maybe you’ve always wanted to start your own biz, but you’re wasting your time and energy in an office job you kinda can’t stand. This dream isn’t about cheating on your partner—it’s about cheating yourself from your full potential. Yeah, mic drop.
5. You’ve compromised your principles.
Sure, this is similar to not being true to yourself, but it’s a little more abstract. Maybe you can’t pinpoint an exact area in your life where you're feeling fake, and instead it's more of a “How did I end up here?” kinda feeling. Your cheating dream could make you realise that you somehow compromised your ethics, and you’re not cool with it—even if you previously convinced yourself you were. “We suppress and ignore a lot of things by day that we don't logically endorse as important or the way we want to be,” says Barrett. “Our dreams don't censor those kinds of things. So we learn something about our fuller selves by paying attention to our dreams.”
6. You may have a harmless crush on someone else.
Storytime: Shortly after entering the workforce, I had a dream that I cheated with a coworker. When I woke up next to my then-boyfriend, I brushed it off, even though it had revealed some feelings toward him I previously hadn’t wanted to acknowledge. But just because I had dreamt about cheating on my boyfriend with a specific person didn’t mean I’d actually do it—and I didn’t. It’s very possible to have a sex dream about someone you’re not consciously attracted to, says Barrett. When you wake up and realise you’ve been harbouring some covert stomach butterflies, it usually goes one of two ways: “You either pursue that relationship, or make sure to avoid that person like the plague in the future because they seem like a major threat to the stability of your relationship.” The route you choose likely depends on whether…
7. Something’s wrong in your relationship—and it might not be salvageable.
If you’re extremely aware of your LTR in the dream—to the point where having sex with someone other than your S.O. seems pretty darn purposeful and feels especially positive and titillating, it probably has some literal implications. “I would expect your associations to be much more likely to lean toward something wrong in your relationship,” says Barrett. Depending on what exactly is “wrong,” you might be able to salvage your relationship. Or this may be the light-bulb moment that leads you to call it quits.
It all has to do with intention because there’s a big diff between a cheating dream and a regular ole sex dream—even though you may feel like you’ve cheated after you’ve woken up. “Having sex with someone can represent wanting to merge with some quality that this person has,” she explains. “And it might just have nothing to do, one way or the other, with how you’re feeling about your partner.”
8. You feel unfulfilled by your sex life.
Cheating dreams might not always be about sex itself, but “the quality or lack of sex can be part of the dynamic the dream is commenting on,” says Loewenberg. The devil is in the details here: Try to figure out as many different elements of the dream as possible—partner, position(s), feelings, even location–because they’ll offer clues as to exactly what the issue is. Maybe having an affair at a tropical resort means you’re craving passion or adventure with your partner? A simple staycation can work wonders.
9. If you had a parent who cheated, you might be worried about repeating that behaviour.
“When the first association with your dream is ‘This is something like my mother or father did,’ you may be identifying with that parent—and possibly literally with a propensity to cheat on your partner,” says Barrett. That doesn’t mean history is going to repeat itself, though. You are not your parent.
10. Or you might be trying to understand that parent.
The cheating dream could also be about the broader relationship (or lack thereof) with the parent you usually feel negative about. Ask yourself: Why did I identify with my parent in the dream? How did it feel to be like them? Does it change the way I view them and their actions? Your dream may help you better understand what they did and why. It might not magically fix a strained relationship, but it could help you start the repair process.
11. You could be cheating on something else.
“I've had clients experience the cheating dream when they’d been cheating on their diet or their addiction recovery,” says Loewenberg. You feel guilty about the deception (hence it seeping into your slumber), especially since your S.O. thinks everything is just hunky-dory. It's not all bad, though: “Interestingly enough, experiencing that particular guilt in their dreams helped to reinforce their resolve to stick to their diet or recovery,” she notes of her clients. This dream could be just the thing to help you get back on track, but if you’re struggling with addiction, contact Reach Out for help.
If you’re the one getting cheated on…
Remember the questions you asked yourself about what it means to cheat in a dream. Flip it and reverse it Missy Elliot-style to figure out the meaning of a dream in which your S.O. stepped out on you. First up: What is cheating? Follow that with more specific Q's: What did it feel like to know your partner cheated on you, and when have you had that feeling in waking life? Did the S.O. in your dream act like your real S.O., or was their personality more like someone else you know? Again, those answers will help reveal the specific meaning of your dream.
1. There’s some kind of third wheel in your relationship.
The most common reason behind a cheated on dream is, according to Loewenberg, that you feel like there's a third wheel of sorts coming between you two. “It's often something your partner is giving their time and attention to that causes you to feel left out and ‘cheated’ out of that time you want with them,” she explains. Usually, the culprit is work or a side project, but it can be pretty much anything you wish your partner spent less time doing. “This is almost always the case if there is no history of infidelity in your past,” she affirms.
2. You don’t trust your partner.
However, if you have been cheated on—either by your current S.O. or a past one, this kind of dream “can be a strong indication that the distrust is still very much alive and well,” says Loewenberg. Not only that, but it’s taking up precious space in your psyche. Even if your partner has done nothing wrong, you’re likely still scarred from past experiences, which affects your perspective on the present situation. If any of this rings true for you, it’s important to find a way to heal and rebuild the trust, says Loewenberg.
3. You’re POed about your partner’s flirty habits.
Sometimes, a dream really does just tell it like it is. Depending on your associations (which are revealed through answering those aforementioned questions, people!), your interpretation might be super literal. Maybe you actually were annoyed by your partner chatting up someone at a party last week or commenting on another person’s cute Instagram. Because you feel like your partner’s beginning to pay other people more attention than they are you, you might feel like you're being emotionally cheated on—even when you’re not. Talk to them about your dream and how you've been feeling lately; they may not even be conscious of what they're doing or its effect on your psyche.
4. You suspect your S.O. is actually cheating IRL.
That said, “dreams tend to be symbolic, not literal,” explains Loewenberg. So, when interpreting yours, rule out the obvious first. Aside from the dream, do you already suspect your partner is cheating? Are there signs that have been making you wonder? Has your partner cheated before? If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, your dream could be clueing you in to some red flags you've previously ignored.
Maybe your dream brings up “an association about having overheard something that was really fishy that you just consciously shoved aside,” adds Barrett. “Sometimes, the dream underlines that a part of you wonders if your S.O. is cheating on you now, or is showing more potential inclination to do so.” But take your dream realization with a grain (or ten) of salt and, before making any accusations, ensure you've got legit evidence to back it up.
5. You’re feeling insecure.
If you answered “no” to those above questions, then the dream likely symbolises your own insecurities—either in the relationship or in life, in general. Maybe you got passed up for a job promotion that's making you feel “not good enough,” or maybe your partner simply chose a night on the couch with their favourite TV show over hanging out with you?
Everybody feels insecure now and then, so figure out what gives you a self-esteem boost and do it. And if that doesn’t work, consider talking about your insecurities with your partner so you can work on it together.
6. You feel like your partner betrayed you in a non-sexual way.
If you woke up feeling disloyalty from your S.O., it's likely that you’re harbouring anger or resentment for them “betraying something promised to the relationship other than sexual fidelity,” says Barrett. For example, maybe they didn’t take your side in an argument with the in-laws, notes Loewenberg. You felt abandoned and unsupported—and those concerns seeped into sleepy time.
Bottom line: Cheating dreams might seem like nothing but nightmares, but they can pretty much always teach you something valuable about yourself. Just, uh, don’t blame your partner for anything they did while you were sleeping.