Why Are You Dreaming About Your Ex?
Nothing ruins a peaceful, restful slumber like an ex-partner making an unwelcome appearance in a dream.
Most of us have experienced it: You go to sleep feeling relaxed and then wake up feeling anxious after a person from your past—often someone you'd prefer to leave in the past—rears their head in a dream, leaving you flustered and confused about what it could possibly mean.
Dreaming about an ex rarely leaves you feeling good, especially when you believe you've moved on from a relationship only to find your midnight fantasies (or nightmares) suggest otherwise.
What does it mean when an ex appears in your dreams? Does it signal that you may have unresolved feelings for them or you're still thinking about how the relationship ended? Does it indicate you may not be fully healed? What if these dreams are happening repeatedly, forcing you to reckon with uncomfortable feelings nearly every time you close your eyes?
"All dreams should be paid attention to because all dreams are messages from you to you, about you, in order to improve you," Florida-based dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg explained. "Repeated dreams or repeated dream themes often mean you're stuck in some area of your life or in some behavior or mindset."
But the precise meaning of the dream, according to Loewenberg, depends on the timing, the specific relationship and the context.
Timing is everything
Dreaming about an ex relatively soon after a breakup is extremely common and par for the course, because dreams are a way for us to process our thoughts, feelings and experiences, according to Emily Simonian, a marriage and family therapist based in Washington, D.C.
"It's natural to have dreams about people we care about or have been emotionally close with, and it doesn't always mean something is 'wrong,'" she said. "Think of the dreams like an emotional aftershock of an intense event like a breakup."
On the other hand, having repeated dreams after a significant amount of time has passed could suggest that you haven't fully moved on from the relationship, or you're holding on to something from it, such as distrust, regrets or words left unsaid, according to Loewenberg.
'You can absolutely have moved on and healed from that relationship, but the fact that the ex is still showing up in your dreams could mean something is going on right now that feels similar to back then.'
The dream could simply have to do with processing lessons learned or wisdom gained from the relationship, she added. It could also have far more to do with what the ex represents than the actual person or the relationship itself.
"You can absolutely have moved on and healed from that relationship, but the fact that the ex is still showing up in your dreams could mean something is going on right now that feels similar to back then," Loewenberg explained. "The ex may have come to represent a red flag for you and they pop into your dreams when you need to be reminded of that red flag, because a current relationship may be showing similar signs. Or you may be starting to behave in a way that you did when you were in that previous relationship."
If a relationship was particularly traumatic, as in instances of abuse, repeated dreams might also be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Loewenberg noted.
Pinpointing the cause
The key to understanding these dreams and how they can serve you is to pinpoint what exactly it is in your subconscious that's causing the ex to appear. Finding the cause can create fertile ground for personal growth, Loewenberg said.
To do this, she recommended writing the details of the dreams on paper and examining them for clues. Do they reflect experiences you're having in real life? If so, the dreams may be serving as a warning to prevent you from repeating harmful patterns from your past.
If the events in the dreams are overwhelmingly negative or traumatic, she said it can be helpful to write out the beginning of the dream but change the ending to one where you're empowered and in control.
Write the details of the dreams on paper and examining them for clues.
"You can even pull out your magic wand and turn your ex into a pile of rotting flesh—it's your dream. You have permission to do whatever you like with it," Loewenberg said. "By rewriting the ending, where you give yourself power and control in some form, you are reprogramming the pattern your subconscious mind is stuck in. It may take several nights of rewriting before the dreams stop, but if you are consistent, you will get results."
A mental health professional might also be able to help you determine what the dreams are trying to tell you, Simonian said. Processing any unresolved feelings with them may put a stop to the unwanted cameos.
As a therapist who routinely uses dream analysis to help her clients move through breakups, Simonian explained that everyone processes grief and loss at a different pace. Just because there might still be a residual emotional or psychological impact, it doesn't mean you necessarily have overt romantic thoughts and feelings for the ex.
She also recommended asking yourself if the dreams represent grieving the loss of your ex or if they might be touching on something else you'd like to work on within yourself, such as self-esteem, feelings of rejection or concerns about being newly single.
"Differentiating between grief and loss feelings versus personal growth issues is key so that you know what you'd like to improve on," Simonian said. "Maybe it's a little of both, and that's OK. All of those feelings are a normal part of the human experience. But feelings aren't fact and they also aren't permanent. It's OK to work on your emotional health at your own pace. There isn't a 'right' amount of time to resolve subconscious issues."