DEAR DR. JENN,
I am in a new relationship and am truly happy. I rarely think about my ex anymore and honestly feel like I've moved past the relationship. The thing that is throwing me off is that she keeps showing up in my dreams. Sometimes it's sexual, but most of the time it's not. What does this mean? I keep waking up feeling really guilty and confused. —The Ex Files
DEAR EX FILES,
You are not alone. Dreaming about an ex is incredibly common — and it doesn't necessarily mean you have a deep-rooted desire to get back together with him or her. Nor does it mean that you are dissatisfied with your current partner. Dreams and the unconscious mind are far more complicated than that.
Still, it can be unnerving to not know why your former flame is making an appearance. Here, a few common reasons — and how to work through each scenario.
Reasons why you’re dreaming about your ex:
1. You are mourning the loss of the relationship.
Even when a breakup is a good thing, we have to grieve the loss of the relationship and the person in our life. And what does not get worked out during our waking hours gets worked through while we sleep. You may dream about your ex dying, not because you want her to (although, sometimes that happens too!), but because you are mourning the 'death' of that relationship. This is a healthy part of letting go.
2. You are working through a past trauma.
Our unconscious mind is always trying to work through unresolved issues, whether they're from childhood, previous relationships, or some other trauma we've experienced. If there's an unresolved issue in your life, it's likely to follow you from relationship to relationship. For example, if your first love betrayed you, you may dream about cheating on your new love with your ex in order to work through your trust issues. In other words, your ex may simply be a stand-in to help your unconscious work through the larger roadblock.
3. You are integrating the lessons learned from your past relationship into your new one.
The more distance we get from a breakup, the more awareness we tend to have. That means it's not uncommon to process a break up in stages — even long after you think you've 'moved on'. Sometimes dreaming about someone you once loved is a way of helping you take the lessons that you learned in the previous relationship into your new one. Consider it a gift — and a sign that you're evolving and growing.
4. Your ex represents something else significant.
In dreams, people, places, and things are often symbolic. Your ex may symbolize a time in your life or something else important. A good question to ask yourself: what feelings or memories does the person make you connect with when you analyze the dream? This can provide a roadmap for you to better understand what he or she is representing. It can also help you to work through and process whatever it is you need to deal with (that probably has nothing to do with your ex).
5. You need closure.
Sometimes we dream about an ex because we don't feel at peace with how things ended. Whether you want out of the relationship or not, breakups often don't go down as planned. Maybe you wish you said something differently. Maybe you wish that you behaved differently. Maybe something that he or she said upset you and stayed with you. But before you reach to text your ex to get this 'closure', know this: We don't need to actually speak to an ex in order to get what we need to feel resolved with the end of a relationship. Sometimes a dream is a way of trying to work towards that closure on our own.
6. You have unmet needs in your current relationship.
Even if you are happy with your new love, it's normal for there to be some things you wish were different in the relationship. Maybe there is something that your ex did that you wish your current partner was providing, emotionally or sexually. In this case, the dream might be there to help shine a light on an unmet need so you can talk it out with your current partner. (And no, you don't need to share that you had a dream about your ex in order to do that.)
7. You are just not over your ex.
In my clinical experience, this is the least likely scenario. Usually, when someone is not over their ex, they know it and are talking about it in their waking hours. On occasion, there are situations where someone is just very out of touch with their emotional process and is not over their ex, and it shows up in their dreams. If this is the case, you have some soul-searching to do. It's important to look at why the relationship ended, what did not work for both people, and to figure out if it is something that you really want. Keep in mind that people often idealize a relationship once it is over or feel lonely and desperate to get back with someone that is familiar.
How to decode your dreams:
Our unconscious mind tends to code things in our dreams so that they aren't startling enough to wake us up. But they can provide enough information to help us to process the difficult things we need to work through. This is applicable even when your dream is not about someone you once dated. Any time you have a dream that you are looking to decipher, ask yourself a few questions to get to the bottom of what it's really about.
- What do you feel in the dream?
- Is this an old feeling or a new feeling? If it is old, when do you first remember feeling it?
- What might this person, place, or thing represent from your past?
- If there are any numbers that are mentioned in your dream, what do you associate those numbers with?
Our dreams are a pathway to our unconscious mind. If your dreams are on your mind or concerning you, you may want to consider keeping a dream journal so you can look at patterns, themes, feelings, and issues that come up repeatedly. This can help you to use your dreams to work through the things that are on your mind — whether that's your ex or not.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.
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