First things first: I'm definitely not alone in this slumber-induced phenomenon. "Dreaming about your ex is super common," says Lauri Loewenberg, author and certified dream analyst. It can happen whether you're currently in a happy relationship (as I am) or not. And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, plenty of people have noted that they've had dreams wherein they cheat on partner, sometimes with an ex. But the meaning of any of these dreams to be teased out from them likely doesn't have much to do with your ex, specifically. "The context of the dream makes a big difference in what it means," Loewenberg says. Below, Loewenberg outlines possible reasons as to why you keep dreaming about an ex, and analyzes the meaning of popular dreams during which it happens.
2 reasons you may keep dreaming about an ex anyway
1. They represent something you want (but that something isn't automatically to get back together
According to Loewenberg, it's best to not read too far into it. A big misconception is that dreaming about your ex signifies you want that person back in your life; after all, why else would your subconscious keep visualizing them. But Loewenberg suggests to think less literally: "Usually [the dream] is not so much about your ex, but about what they represent." Of course, this representation can be a whole plethora of things, so working to analyze each dream, which Loewenberg calls our "second brain" may be trying to tell you is key. "[Dreams are] brutally honest with you and try to show you what's going on in your heart and your mind so you can make better decisions while you're awake."
"Usually [the dream] is not so much about your ex, but about what they represent." —Lauri Loewenberg, certified dream analyst
2. You crave a change in your current situation
Loewnberg previously told Well+Good that cheating dreams (which often occur with an ex) can happen when you're spending an inordinate or increased amount of time with a partner, and crave a novel situation. She says this helps to explain why many folks have had cheating dreams with an ex while quarantining with their partner during the pandemic. "The need for an escape gets stronger and stronger, and the cheating dream happens as a means of an escape," she says.
To understand the message your subconscious is trying to send, keep scrolling for intel on what nine different dreams can indicate and what you can learn from each.
9 of the most common dreams people have about their ex
1. When you dream about your first love
The ex people tend to dream about most often is their first love. "You'll dream about them years after you're together—they'll continue to pop up because of what they represent," Loewenberg says. "Your first love represents passion and feeling desired, and someone else always wanting to be together with you. That excitement, the butterflies, that spice that you experience with your first love will continue to show up for a few reasons."
One of those reasons may be that your current relationship is becoming routine, as she says all relationships do. "It's a healthy dream in the sense that it's reminding you that you need these feelings, so think of what you can do in your current relationship to spice it up and make it exciting again." She adds that a first love can also show up in dreams if you're single and seeking a relationship as a way for your subconscious to remind you that you've been in love before and can be in love again.
2. When you dream about an abusive ex
This could mean a few things. One possibility is "you haven't been able to let go of the distrust, the anger, and the resentment that they created," says Loewenberg, adding that part of you may still be allowing the ex to live on in your head.
But, perhaps counterintuitively, if you're having sex with or acting romantic in another sense with this person in your dream, it might reflect good news. "That can be an indication that you have come to peace with that relationship—that it happened, you learned your lesson, and you have forgiven yourself," she says. Even if you're back together in the dream, she notes that it may be more about you loving yourself despite what you dealt with in that relationship. If your dream is making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe during your waking hours though, seek the help of a professional.
3. When you and your ex are fighting
"There's a common dream where you're fighting with your ex—sometimes even trying to kill them or they're trying to kill you," says Loewenberg. "Typically this doesn't mean you're going to be on a future episode of Dateline. What it really means is that you're still fighting with yourself over that relationship and you're still beating yourself up over it." In fact, she adds, murder in your dream might be good news, indicating that you're in the process of successfully killing off the hold that the relationship had over you.
4. When you're pregnant with their child
Don't freak out—pregnancy dreams with an ex are positive. "This means that you have learned something from that relationship, and that lesson—that wisdom—is what's growing inside of you. You've grown from it."
5. When you're just near your ex
There are some dreams in which your ex is just there, maybe in the car or in the background in some other way, says Loewenberg. "Of course, the meaning depends on how far removed the ex is. If it's a recent ex, that's telling you that the ex is still prevalent and something about the relationship is still being carried with you. But if it's an ex from many years ago, then there's something about the ex or the relationship that's going on now in your life…something going on in your life now is reminding you of it."
For example, if you or even a friend is dating someone new, something about this person may trigger a memory of your past relationship. "It's up to you to decide if it's a good thing or a bad thing and whether you need to do something about it," says Loewenberg.
6. When you're stealing from your ex
"This is usually with a recent ex, and you dream about breaking into their car or house, and you're trying to steal something," Loewenberg says. In this case, whatever you're breaking into represents their mind-set, meaning you're trying to get into their head and heart to understand what's going on and what happened to make the relationship end.
7. When your ex wants you back
There can be a significant meaning here. "If you dream about an ex from a long time ago or your abusive ex, and they're wanting you back in your dream, that's just your subconscious giving you a heads up that you might be becoming weak to a current situation that is similar," Loewenberg says. "It's also kind of a wake-up call: You need to have a convo with yourself and say what it is about this person you want back." Obviously, the relationship didn't work for one reason or another, so figure out what about the person is currently intriguing you and then introspect accordingly.
8. When you dream about a recent ex
"If you dream about a more recent ex, one that you would like to have back, then that's you wishing—it's a wish-fulfillment dream," says Loewenberg. Basically, your subconscious is living out the situation it desires—maybe your ex is apologizing or fighting to get you back. If this is the case, but you distinctly don't want to get back together with this person, your subconscious may be saying it simply wants a relationship in general.
9. When your ex is with someone else
Another dreaming-about-your-ex scenario involves your ex being with another romantic interest. "This is another common one," says Loewenberg. "Your subconscious is trying to reason with you and let you know that your ex has moved on and has a new life. They have other things going on and you need to do the same."
What to do if you dream about your ex and you're in a relationship
If you wake up from a dream about an ex while your current partner is snoozing right beside you, rest assured that they can't read your mind. Also know that you haven't done anything wrong, and dreaming about your ex doesn't necessarily mean that you're unhappy in your current relationship. "Happier couples start to realize they miss the excitement of reuniting after a long day's work," Loewenberg previously told Well+Good about couples who have cheating dreams during quarantine.
Ultimately, your dreams at night are not a by-the-book script of your real life. Sure, you' can analyze them to tease out meaning, but they're often not as they seem on face value. If you feel you have an issue going on in real life and your dreams are reinforcing that notion, you can communicate with your partner or seek the assistance of a mental-health professional or therapist.
Originally published April 22, 2019.
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