In sleep, our defenses are offline, so the “water” we’re avoiding by day has a chance to flush out in sleep via our dreams. If one’s avoidance of the “water” is chronic and rigid, recurring nightmares can be a sign the psyche is under stress.
NY-based “therapist for creatives” Melissa Daum, LMFT, draws from ancient symbols, Greek mythology, fairy tales, and alchemy to shed light on modern-day conundrums. This realm of feminine magic and symbolism is easily overlooked, on a cultural level and in turn, within ourselves. In an effort to better identify and explain some of this magic, Melissa wants to field questions from YOU! Feel free to share with her your deepest secrets, strangest dreams, most absurd single behavior.
SEND YOUR QUESTIONS/DREAMS/SECRETS to: firstname.lastname@example.org
This week’s question comes from S:
This is not a dream I have, but is a recurring dream my husband has. He dreams different variations of there being an intruder in our house and often he has his voice taken away and he can’t warn me about the intruder. In the latest iteration, he felt a cold draft (in his dream) and that is when he realizes a window/door is open and someone is in the house, I was either in the shower or in a different part of the house and he couldn’t warn me about it.
It often wakes me up as I hear him whimpering or moaning in his sleep or he often ends up waking me up suddenly while he is still asleep (shaking me to warn me or ripping the duvet off and telling me to run- which let me tell you isn’t a great way to be woken up!) or he is covered in goosebumps and is clearly terrified in his sleep, so I feel bad for him having to experience this. He always brushes it off as just a dream/nightmare, but I wonder if it potentially has meaning given it keeps recurring a few times a year. He has quite a stressful job if that means anything.
“Just a dream,” eh? Okay, I’ll play ball with that. Despite the importance I place on dreams, I know we’re not all mean-dream-meaning-making machines. In fact, I even admire what I imagine to be your husband’s dedication to day-to-day life, his work ethic and practicality. Let me take a stab at creating a convincing argument to get a dream denier to become curious about his “night music” (dream: c. 1200 Old English verb from dremen: noise, music, merriment).
Let’s first orient by looking just at the numbers. Statistics show we spend about 10 years of our life at work, based on a calculation of a 40-hour workweek from age 21 to 65. That’s about 90,000 hours of our life. Compare that number to the average time spent asleep in our lifetime, which is about 227,700 hours, or 26 years! By 80 years old, we will have spent one-third of our life asleep, and about 6 of those years dreaming. Just the sheer magnitude of time we spend in slumberland in our lifetime alone is a compelling reason to give our nightlife some proper attention.
Every civilization on the planet, since the beginning of time, has their own ideology on the meaning and purpose of dreams. Even with current breakthroughs in neuroscience about the dreaming mind (which is a cultural ideology unto itself), there continues to be something inherently mysterious and evasive about dreams. Studies have shown how our dreams help us solve problems, integrate memories, and process emotions. Thanks to Freud, we have a sense that dreams contain secrets about our “true selves” or our “real feelings.” This is not too far off from what ancient Egyptians already knew, which is that in waking life one is “sleep walking” and in dreams, the eyes are opened. The ancient Egyptian word for dream, rswt, is etymologically connected to the root meaning “to be awake.” It was written with a symbol representing an open eye.
Recurring dreams in particular are widely thought of as reflecting a certain task we are trying to gain mastery of. This task could be as mundane as a test, as overarching as a stage of development, or as an attempt to overcome a traumatic event. There are a couple of interesting studies out there that validate this theory. The recurring nightmares of veterans with PTSD is a hot area of dream research. One study in particular taught veterans how to lucid dream so they could enter their nightmare and effectively alter its outcome, thereby decreasing the frequency of nightmares. Another study suggests how dreaming can be a way of mentally simulating and problem-solving for a stressful event. It gathered data on students taking a med school entrance exam — students who reported a dream of failing the exam from the the pre-exam night got higher test scores than students who did not dream about the test at all, and students who had frequent dreams of failing in the weeks leading up to the exam did even better! The study suggests that the dreams of failure demonstrated that the student was deeply motivated to succeed (anything come to mind about your boyfriend?)
While modern sleep labs may have replaced Egyptian sleep temples, we’re no less invested in the potential of dreams to inform our waking life. Your boyfriend’s dismissiveness of his recurring dream is highly suspicious. He wouldn’t put up a defensive wall if he weren’t concerned, on some level, about what’s on the other side. My bet is he’s a very high functioning person with a well-equipped defensive system to meet the demands of daily life. Maybe he has an efficient way of clearing himself of emotions and/or he doesn’t spend too much time trying to understand, talk about, or feel his feelings.
I’m thinking now about how men and women are socialized differently from birth. In a drastic oversimplification — girls can cry, boys can’t. Thus, for your boyfriend, he may not have a whole lot of room in his daily life for more painful or confusing experiences to find expression. If we think about a plumbing metaphor, you have a flow of water, and if all the pipes are limited or closed off, the water has to go somewhere. In sleep, our defenses of the day are offline, so the “water” we’re avoiding by day has a chance to flush out in sleep via our dreams. If one’s avoidance of the “water” is chronic and rigid, recurring nightmares can be a sign the psyche is under stress.
With all of this said, your boyfriend is right…there IS an intruder in his home. And he CAN’T warn you about it as he has no voice to do so. To dismiss the dream as “just a dream” repeats this cycle of silencing and is likely perpetuating the recurring dreams. What’s an emotionally attuned lady like yourself to do? Maybe try giving him more physical affection or performing acts of kindness. Trying to get him to talk may prove to be a frustrating experience for you both. Something in his capacity to use his voice or ask for help is compromised, at least unconsciously. On some level he’s stuck outside in another room, so maybe you can get creative and invite him into the shower with you.