I Thought I Was Over My Ex. So Why Do I Still Dream About Him?
Most of us have had recurring dreams at some point or another. Who hasn’t dreamt about falling, flying, or losing one's teeth?
Growing up, my sister often dreamt that snakes covered the floor of our shared bedroom. I used to have frequent nightmares about Voldemort’s bare feet. The dream world is often strange, sometimes scary, and eternally perplexing. What does it all mean?
Surely, dream interpretation can’t be an exact science. I read that snake dreams indicate a suspicious presence in one’s life. Someone told me once that dreams about losing one’s teeth indicate that the dreamer doesn’t feel in control. Last week when I dreamt all the bananas had spoiled, Google informed me that this likely meant I would run into trouble at my job. I have no hopes of piecing together what those dreams about Voldemort’s feet meant, though.
But not all scary dreams are fantastical ones. In my experience, sometimes the scariest dreams are the ones about people we hope to forget. For years, I’ve had dreams of former friends and ex lovers. No matter how little I think about them during the waking hours, they creep into my dreams. I have trouble getting over people, no matter the context of our relationship and its ending. I’m a lingerer. My subconscious lingers even more. The dreams about my ex are rarely romantic and never sexual; we see each other at a party. Oftentimes, he apologizes. Others, we both seem to have forgotten the betrayals between us.
The ex that haunts my dreams is barely an ex. We had a relationship of a sort, but in name it was friendship only. It's simple — I loved him, but he didn’t love me. Our time, however, was complicated by our co-dependence, his addictions, each of our nagging bouts of depression, and his undeniable personality disorder.
The part of my mind that tells me to miss him isn’t the part that I make a habit of listening to. The truth is, I don't really miss him. I miss the illusions and the moments of fleeting validation. I don’t miss the lows, the instability, the trespasses. Somehow though, the dreams trick me into missing the idealized version of him.
Usually I wake up from the dreams with a cold sweat. I remind myself of the hundreds of miles between my ex and me. On better days, when I successfully cultivate an infallible strength of will and peace of mind, the dreams become bleary in the clarity of day, and I’m able to shake the feelings left behind.
But then there are the other days: when my brain chemistry works against me. On such days the unease successfully sinks its claws into me, and I carry it into the light. Sometimes an even uglier feeling lurks behind the anxiety: the feeling that I might want him back.
In the wake of one of these strange dreams, I made the mistake of looking up my ex on LinkedIn, seemingly the safest of social media sites. As soon as I glimpsed his workplace, I regretted my decision. Not only did my brain get a refresher on his face, but I learned that his new company is based out of the same metro where I currently live.
This incited its own kind of panic: oh my god, will I have to worry about seeing this person around every corner again? In my waking hours, this is an anxiety-inducing possibility, but when I run into him in my dreams, he is the nostalgic version of himself — the version I miss.
Even the slightest touch of longing instigates guilt and confusion. Why am I tricking myself into missing him? What is he doing in my dreams?
Psychologist and dream analyst Dr. Ben-Ari asserts that, like the snakes and the rotten bananas, my ex might be a symbol of something else. These dreams don’t mean I want my ex back, and they may not really be about my ex at all. He says the person in the dream “is a reflection of an inner part within the dreamer that needs attention.” Unfinished business, so to speak, or something that I have failed to address sufficiently in my waking life. Perhaps, in dreams when my ex apologizes, I should understand that I need to forgive myself for allowing our relationship to happen and fail.
Dr. Ben-Ari also encourages dreamers to resist feeling guilty when we dream about those from our past. She suggests against my waking impulse to shove the dream to the back corner of my mind and force it to go away. Closure can’t be achieved by ignoring the messages my brain is trying to send me.
Rather than forgetting the dream, she suggests that I relive the dream in my waking life. I should sit with the symbol of my repressed feelings, even if they come in the form of someone who embodies the Taylor Swift line, “I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to.” In other words, spending more time with the dream version of my ex means spending more time with myself.