During the same month that my ex-boyfriend cheated on me for the first time (that I know of), three years into our relationship, I had a vivid dream about him being unfaithful. Waking up, I asked him: "Are you cheating on me?" He proceeded to convince me that my dream was irrational and unwarranted. Two years later, I found out that I had been on the money — even down to suspecting the friend he cheated with. Often this is called 'women's intuition', where it’s accepted that you 'just know' when your partner has betrayed you. However, this doesn’t mean that every dream or hunch you have will come from a divine force. How can you tell if it’s your intuition guiding you or your insecurities getting in the way of an otherwise healthy relationship?
Online, people often share stories about their intuition informing them of secrets in their relationship, from cheating to porn addiction. However, as anxiety and intuitive feelings can both appear as 'hunches' or 'gut feelings', those suffering from anxiety or dealing with insecurities can’t treat every single thought as some kind of message (hello, intrusive thoughts). Rachel Wright (MA, LMFT), a psychotherapist based in New York, says it can be really hard to tell the difference between a solid neural pathway and an "intuitive pull". "Often folks with trauma will experience what they interpret as a gut feeling when really it’s their brain sensing some sort of danger related to past experience and saying no," she says. "If we believe we’re incapable of something or will fail or look silly, our brain will try to do almost anything to keep us safe – including giving an 'intuitive pull' to not do the thing."
When examining a 'gut feeling', especially for those who have experienced trauma, Wright says it’s important to ask ourselves why we think it’s happening. "If there is anything grounded in your history or your present state of mind, question it and then go from there," she says, recommending people talk this through with a therapist if they have one. This is not to discredit the role that intuition can play in our lives. "Intuition doesn’t have a gender and for those of us who are observant and in touch with our inner experience and experience in relationships, we can tell when something is off," says Wright.
Insecurity comes from a place of fear and anxiety, it can feel sudden and urgent. [Intuition] is a softer message [...] it could still be protective but it might not be as immediate or hijack your entire system.
Sometimes, if we ignore the voice in our head that tells us that something isn’t adding up with a friend or that it’s time to leave a relationship, later down the line we wish we had listened sooner. This voice, says Brujx Edgar Fabián Frías, a psychotherapist with an MA in clinical mental health counselling, is often different from the voice we usually hear. Frías says that this experience is different for everyone. "Intuition, for me, is usually energising and activating and compels me to act or to become fully aware of my surroundings," they say. "It can feel like a visitation from another realm or like the voice of a loved one or higher self. It is usually quiet, firm, calm, clear and consistent."
Frías says that intuition is both a "complex part of our human experience" and born from experience. "As someone who has studied interpersonal neurobiology, I have come to learn that we all have systems in our bodies, including our mirror neurons [brain cells that fire when an individual performs a particular action and when they observe another person performing the same action], ventral vagus [social engagement bodily system] and central nervous systems, that can detect subtle shifts in others and help us know when we feel safe or when we need to protect ourselves," they say. "As a witch [incorporating magic into their art and conducting ceremonial, divinatory and healing services], I also believe that we are in constant conversation with the world and that can often include spirit guides, ancestors and our higher self." Frías says that women and queer people have become known for these intuitive abilities in part due to necessity, as their safety and security are often dependent on an ability to read others.
With countless stories about people who 'just knew' circulating in our daily lives and going viral online, there’s no denying that we’re often more perceptive than we give ourselves credit for. Happily, Los Angeles-based diviner Porsche Little says that intuition is something you can grow and foster, like a muscle. "The best way to tap further into our intuition is to build trust within ourselves," she says. "Go back to the times when someone or something failed you and you knew it would happen but had no proof. Journal, meditate and get to know yourself more." Little says that part of being intuitive is keeping a "clear head".
Little believes that infidelity dreams are an example of "how deep the divine feminine can go". "Those dreams of lovers cheating (if they are accurate) are not just thoughts in your subconscious, sometimes they’re ancestors as well," she says. "Your intuition can work hand in hand with your spiritual court." Nevertheless, Little says that your intuition can be thrown off by emotions without working on your mental health. "You could be in an unfulfilling relationship and your emotions might tell you 'but I love him' but your intuition will say 'girl, this has to end'," she says.
Jeff Guenther, a licensed professional counsellor in Portland, says that an important thing to keep in mind when differentiating between gut feelings and insecurity is that "insecurity comes from a place of fear and anxiety, it can feel sudden and urgent and is typically trying to warn you that something bad is going to happen to you". Your intuition, on the other hand, is more of a knowing. "This is a softer message that comes from a wise place inside of you," he says. "It could still be protective but it might not be as immediate or hijack your entire system. You can typically examine your gut feeling and look at it from different perspectives."
Guenther says that wherever the message comes from, it’s important to acknowledge it and take it seriously. "I’d encourage folks to not get too caught up in whether or not it’s one or the other," he says. "If something is bothering you or doesn’t feel okay, talk about it with your partner. It may not even be important to say where it’s coming from. We should feel insecure about things that don’t make us feel secure." If your gut feeling is saying 'leave him', you’ll want to ask yourself if this is due to relationship issues or a tendency toward avoidance. If you’re fearful of infidelity in an otherwise healthy relationship, this might look like talking to your partner about your trust issues and boundaries.
If you ever feel annoyed that you didn’t listen to the voice in your head sooner, just remember that intuition is fostered through life experiences and building trust within yourself, which takes time. If you’re someone who fears your partner is being unfaithful every time you go out, it’s important to remember that thinking about something doesn’t mean that it’s happened. However, whether it’s intuition or insecurity, it’s integral to our wellbeing to sit with ourselves and examine where the thoughts are coming from. We can’t break up with a partner after every infidelity dream, just like we shouldn’t jump off a roof the morning after dreaming that we could fly.