Dreams are confusing, fantastical, sometimes terrifying and preferably floatingly comfortable and so fantastic that we don’t want to wake up.
Technically however it is waking up in the middle of a wonderful (or terrifying) dream that helps us remember it, as we typically don’t recall many of our dreams and the ones, we do initially recall, rarely make it to our long-term memory.
On occasion, however, we have a dream that is so emotionally loaded it sticks with us for days or maybe even weeks. This type of dream can also be recurring and leave us with a residual feeling of realism. At this point, one may wonder if the dream really has any deeper meaning and if maybe our subconscious is trying to send us a message.
This can be especially confusing or frustrating when we dream about people we have not thought of for a long time, such as old friends or ex-partners. In this article, we will discuss how to think about dreams and the various theories that have been presented by psychologists and researchers. Understanding these will hopefully help you feel more comfortable with unusual dreams and give you some tools to help put them in the context in your life.
The Evolution of Psychotherapy Around the Interpretation of Dream Imagery
You will be relieved to know that although Freud was the first to publish a view on dreams in the field of psychotherapy this has now been discredited. Freud’s view largely centred around seeing dreams as unfulfilled wishes and with that, any of your dreams about your ex, be they steamy, violent or featuring McDreamy, would to a Freudian dream analyst indicate that your subconscious is signalling a direct and clear desire to you. Freud had some other more complex views about dreams, in which even a mundane dream would have a deep latent content.
Okay so if our dreams don’t exactly match to desires and science has now been able to show this, what are they?
Another Highly prominent psychotherapist whose practice overlapped with Freud as he was one of his students, is Jung. The theories presented by Jung developed on those presented by Freud, although we’re not so literal and constrained. Instead, Jung focused on the fact that giving our dreams attention can be good for us as analyzing them might help us understand ourselves better.
Jung particularly highlights the importance of recurrent dreams as, in his theory, these balance out problems we might be ignoring in our day-to-day life. To apply this to the example of having recurrent dreams about previous partners we consider a few examples:
- It could be that we want to be in that relationship again but haven’t yet processed that thought cognitively
- Our new relationship might be going well, just like the previous one we are dreaming about did, however, we can see some similar signs of strain and so our subconscious is sending us a signal to act
- Our brain could be analyzing why the relationship ended to learn how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future
- We could simply be missing our ex, especially if we broke up recently
In this view, dreams can be a useful tool to help us analyze ourselves without having a direct or underlying meaning. Amazingly Jung was ahead of his time as he also believed that dreams were related to processing new memories. Something which is currently one of the prominent working theories of why we dream.
Our dreams are about us according to the psychoanalytic views accepted today. Each item in the dream, be it a person or a subject, is projecting something about us and our way of thinking.
If you think you would benefit from discussing your dream with someone who values these psychological theories, you could consider seeing a professional dream analyst or a Jungian psychotherapist.
Dreaming About the Ex in Modern Dream Theories
The study of dreaming using scientific methods is known as Oneirology. This branch of science is closely related to neuroscience and concerns how we can apply the current understanding of the brain and its functions to dreaming. This is different to dream analysis as it uses rigorous scientific methods to quantify aspects of dreaming such as duration, type of dreams in the various stages of sleep and how dreaming is related to brain processes such as memory formation.
Sleep is divided into stages however, as it relates to dreaming, there is one significant distinction in sleep type namely Rapid Eye Movement (REM) vs non-REM (NREM) sleep. It was previously thought that we only dreamt during REM sleep however this view has changed. We now know that we dream in all stages of sleep. The type and quality of the dreams is different when comparing REM and NREM sleep. We are a lot less likely to remember dreams from the NREM stages of our sleep and these are typically characterized by much more life-like sequences, unlike the hazy confused imagery we experience in REM sleep.
It is currently thought that dreaming helps us access and reorganize memories as well as organizing the storage of new memories. The current theory is that NREM dreams help solidify the memory of facts and episodes whilst REM sleep helps us process the emotional aspects of memory.
So what does this mean in practice in terms of why you keep dreaming about your ex? We can extrapolate some thoughts such as;
- You experienced some feelings that related to how your ex made you feel that day, for example, you smiled at someone cute in the coffee shop and that was how you met your ex
- Your brain is reorganizing old memories and has come to a section of neurons that relate to your ex in recent days or weeks and you thinking about the meaning of this is reinforcing that there is information that requires processing in those parts of your brain
- You have some unresolved thoughts around your relationship with your ex, that have resurfaced for whatever reason recently and your brain is reprocessing the old imagery and trying to problem-solve around the unresolved issue
Of course, the above are just our thoughts developed through reading around current theories of dreams and are not set in stone. There are a number of interesting resources on dreaming you may wish to read if you want to learn more about the science of dreaming.
Seeking Help in Relation to Dreams About Your ex
Interestingly our dreams are affected by things we experienced even as extremely young children, but not in the way Freud suggested. A study has shown that attachment style can affect how vivid and frequent dreams are. Those with more insecure markers of attachment have more vivid dreams at a greater frequency than those with more secure attachment styles.
Considering that if you have always experienced more vivid dreams you may be preprogrammed to do so. If your dreams are causing you distress, you should consider seeking the advice of a therapist as processing trauma can help ease the symptoms of vivid dreams for some people.
If your previous relationship was abusive, and you are finding yourself having frightening recurrent nightmares, it is a good idea to seek the help of a doctor or a therapist to ensure your wellbeing and that nothing is amiss apart from a few bad dreams. This is especially important if you are experiencing other symptoms such as flashbacks, anxiety or depression.
We hope this article has given you a framework for thinking about recurrent dreams relating to your ex. As you can see, the range of interpretation varies widely, depending on which perspective you choose to view these dreams from.
Hopefully having a variety of views has helped demystify the dreams and just to be clear; it is really common to dream about people from our past – exes included! It does not need to be something you worry about, however, if it is, consider some of the suggestions above.
A final suggestion is to keep a dream diary, many people choose to do this as it is fun to look back on dreams and it might help you see over a few weeks that you do dream of things other than your ex.