Waking up from a dream about an ex is alarming, and even more so if you happen to be content in a new relationship (or even marriage). These dreams can cause us to question whether all that post-breakup self-work really paid off or if there’s some hidden meaning or missed step in the letting go process that our deeper subconscious is trying to reveal to remind us we actually have more work to do.
The schools of thought on what our dreams really mean drastically varies from expert to expert. Some researchers believe that our dreams serve no real purpose while others believe that understanding the dream state is critical to our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.
In Dr. David Feldman’s article for Psychology Today, “Do Dreams Really Mean Anything,” he writes, “Harvard psychiatrists J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, for instance, proposed that, as various brain circuits become active during the night, this triggers sensations, emotions, and memories, all of which are essentially random. Given that we’re meaning-making creatures, however, our brains assemble all of this underlying activity into a story. But this story doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s simply an attempt to make sense of the neural activity that has taken place. This is why dreams seem so illogical and strange.”
However, on the opposite spectrum, psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung believe that our dreams actually reveal our deepest unconscious wishes and desires. So, depending on who you ask, a seemingly innocent (or in many cases maybe not so innocent) dream involving a cameo by your ex can simply be shrugged off as meaning nothing at all, or it can serve as a reminder to roll up those sleeves and hit up a therapist because there’s still work to be done. If the latter is true, what would dreams about an ex suggest?
Author and certified dream analyst, Lauri Loewenberg, who has also appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, CNN, and The Today Show to name a few, believes that our dreams can always serve as a helpful indicator.
In an article for Harper’s Bazaar, Loewenberg suggests that in general, surprisingly, “Sex in a dream is rarely about sex at all! (Sorry to take the fun out of it.) In most cases, sex in a dream is not about a physical union you want, but rather it's about a psychological union you need or want. It's all about having or needing a psychological connection with the person in your dream or merging a particular quality that person has into your own personality. There's a magic rule to apply when figuring out your sex dreams: Pick three words that first come to mind when thinking of that person. Of those three qualifiers, is there one that would benefit you right now if you were to incorporate it into your own personality? Voila! That's what that person represents and that's why you're having sex in the dream.”
As the resident dream analyst for blog, “Em & Lo: Sex, Love and Everything in Between”, Loewenberg weighs in on the many meanings of dreams about exes. Readers submitted the below dreams for interpretation:
A Dream Expert Interprets Your Dreams
What Dreaming About an Ex Means After He’s Moved on
“My husband and I have been separated for two years now and all of a sudden I am having dreams where we are back together. I thought I was over him and he even has a new girlfriend. They leave me so confused.” -Anonymous
These dreams are not so much about him, but rather what the two of you used to have: Happiness, friendship, commitment. At one point in time you had all of these things together, so he has now come to represent these things to your dreaming mind. One or all of these is missing from your life now, so your dreaming mind is saying to you, “Remember this? We want this sort of thing back.”
Yes, when you look at this dream and try to understand it with your literal waking mind, it can be confusing. But when you can look at it in its symbolic form, it makes sense. These dreams are good for you because they help you realize what you’ve been needing lately. Alas, your ex was not the right man for the job—especially the commitment part—but someone out there is. If you are with someone now, ask yourself if he is capable of providing these things to you. If not, may I suggest brushing up on your flirtation skills, checking out online dating, and maybe even letting your friends set you up?
What Dreaming About an Ex Means When You’re Happy
“I’ve been with my boyfriend for two months. We’re very happy, he’s my best friend, and I’m head over heels in love with him. However, I’ve been having regular dreams about my ex-boyfriend. I was with him for 18 months, and we ended messily after I confessed I’d cheated. I later found out he’d cheated on me as well. In the dreams, we’re either together again and happy, or I’m trying to get him to come back to me, or I’m out for revenge. Why do I still dream about him when I’m happy with my current boyfriend?” -Anonymous
You may indeed be happy with your current boyfriend but odds are…you are not happy with yourself and the way things went down with the ex. You see, the majority of our dreams are caused by unresolved issues and your feelings and thoughts regarding your past relationship are clearly unresolved. Your variety of dreams involving him show us the inner conflict of emotions you still have about the whole thing.
The dreams where you are together and happy are connected to your feelings of wanting to be at peace with the relationship and wanting to remember the good times from it. The dreams where you are trying to get him back are connected to the guilt you have for doing him wrong. And, of course, the dreams where you try to get revenge are connected to your anger that he went and did you wrong too! Whew. I’m emotionally depleted from going over all that!
As long as you continue to have conflicting emotions you will continue to have these dreams. Since you can’t undo it, you may as well learn from it so that your current relationship doesn’t wind up an angry, guilt-riddled mess as well. Simply taking on the mindset of “lesson learned” and “wiser for the wear” is all it takes to make the dreams stop.
What Dreaming About an Ex Means When He Cheated
“My long-term boyfriend cheated on me and I broke up with him. It was the most upsetting thing that ever happened to me and I’m still not fully over it, but it was over a year ago and I’ve tried really hard to move on. However, I’ve recently been having really vivid dreams about him. In them I’m in bed and lying in the same position I’m in; he comes into my room, seeming agitated, and after hesitating for a long time, lies down behind me and just holds my hand. In the dream I am only pretending to be asleep while he does this; I feel annoyed and affronted that he has had the nerve to get in my bed and plan what I will shout at him when I ”wake up”—but I stay where I am and feel like I don’t want to move. It’s so real that I sometimes think he’s actually there. What’s my subconscious trying to tell me after all this time?” - Caroline
Your dream is showing you that, in fact, you haven’t moved on at all. Notice how in the dream you don’t move, you stay in the same position. Your dream has given form to where you are emotionally: There has been “no movement” towards healing or closure, and your “position” on the matter has not changed. You are probably stuck in the mindset of a victim and can’t see past the loss you are feeling; you did say, “I stay where I am and feel like I don’t want to move.” Your dream is showing you that the choice is yours as to whether you remain where you are in misery or actually make an honest effort to move forward toward healing.
In the dream your ex is always behind you; this is your dreaming mind trying to tell you that he is behind you in your past and you need to start looking forward. The pretending you are doing in the dream is the pretending you are doing in real life. You do need to “wake up” and realize what you are doing to yourself. Everything that you are saying to him in your head in the dream, I want you to write that all out tonight at bedtime right before you turn out your light.
You have internalized your pain for far too long and now is the time to get it out of your psyche and onto paper. Take up as many pages in your journal as you need to. Get it all out, curse-swear-scream it all out as you write, get all that pain out. Once you have exhausted yourself, go ahead and rip those pages out of your journal and toss them in the trash. This is symbolic of ridding yourself of the useless pain and frustration you have been holding onto all this time; it is worthless to you, it is trash.
Then turn out your light, go to sleep, and see what kind of dream you get tonight. I’ll bet you’ll have a dream showing your progress! I’ll also bet you’ll wake up feeling a lot better and ready to take on the future. Remember, it is impossible to move forward when you are holding on to what is behind you.
What Dreaming About an Ex Having Fun Means
“I keep having a dream where I meet up with my childhood boyfriend at the beach...we go out to dinner and take a stroll along the beach laughing and enjoying each other’s company...and eventually share the most passionate kiss I’ve ever had. Then the dream ends. I have had this dream several nights in a row for the past three months. What does this mean?” - Anonymous
Since your dream has been happening for about three months now it is connected to something in your life that has been going on for about three months. Your childhood boyfriend is not necessarily playing himself but rather is standing in for either A) excitement and passion because he is the first person you probably ever felt excitement and passion for, even as a child or B) your childlike, carefree, fun-loving self.
Has something been going on for about three months now that has been exciting and made you feel like that young fun-loving girl from your childhood? Is something going on that you’re really passionate about? Or is this something you need to bring into your life? Are you in a relationship that needs to be rejuvenated?
That may be why your dream is using your childhood boyfriend as he could represent a fun, youthful relationship where everything feels new and exciting again. The point at which a dream ends (naturally rather than by an alarm) is the main message of the dream. Your dream always seems to end with a kiss. Kisses in dreams are really about communication in real life because—like kissing—it requires two mouths to communicate. Your cell phone in your dream also represents communication so it seems that you’ve either been communicating very well with someone lately or you need to communicate what you need in order to bring this fun and excitement back into your life.
So, whether it’s a one-off or an incessant haunting, one thing’s for certain when it comes to dreams about exes, you’ve got someone on your mind for one reason or another. So are these dreams just random stories we create in an attempt to make sense of the activity that goes on in our mind at night? Or, are they actually symbolic narratives with a deeper meaning? It’s all up to your own interpretation, but if you have been seeking answers for any unwanted visitors in your dreams, then hopefully this can serve as an introductory guide to dream interpretation.