The world of our dreams can be a confusing and mysterious place, especially if they’re suddenly visited by someone from your past.
Dreams about a former partner are pretty common, and many of us will have our exes visit our sleeping subconscious from time to time. But even if it’s normal, it doesn’t mean that those dreams can’t be distressing. Exes can be loaded and emotional subjects, and having them pop up in your dreams can evoke a wide range of emotions from sadness to anger and anything in between.
So if you’ve ever woken up from a dream about your ex, you might be wondering: what does it mean? And if they make frequent appearances in your dreams, it’s normal to feel a little concerned and want to dig a little deeper to figure out what, exactly, it could mean.
In this article, we’ll go over some of the potential reasons and explanations that your ex might be popping up in your dreams, plus what it might mean if you can’t easily move on from those subconscious appearances.
What does it mean if you’re dreaming about an ex?
Humans have been interested in the study of dreams for centuries, but the subject is still largely shrouded in mystery, even for experts. As a result, we still don’t quite have an exact explanation of what our dreams mean. However, what we do have are a few different theories as to how our dreams may come to be.
For example, the famed “Father of Psychoanalysis” Sigmund Freud brought into popularity the idea that dreams are a gateway into our “unconscious minds” and reveal our hidden thoughts and desires. His idea was that our dreams show us a different version of our deepest thoughts that we may not even be fully aware of ourselves while we’re awake.
On the other hand, many neuroscientists believe that dreams are a byproduct of our brain activity during our sleep as our mind works to organize and store the information it has received throughout the day. For example, some researchers believe that dreams may be a way for our brains to work through the many emotions that we have experienced during our waking hours, while another theory is that dreams are a way for our brains to consolidate current events, emotions, and information into our long-term memory.
In short, nobody can know for sure what their dreams mean, even though there have been plenty of ideas and hypotheses over time that aim to better understand them. In fact, the “meaning” of your dream can be interpreted in very different ways depending on which theory of dreams makes the most sense to you.
Why might these dreams be concerning?
No matter what theory of dreams appeals to you the most, it can still be distressing or concerning if your ex has suddenly popped up in your dreams recently, especially if it brings some doubt or uncertainty about your relationship status or your feelings.
So if you’re dreaming about your ex, it might be more helpful to think about them in terms of what they might represent to you, rather than what the dream itself “means.”
Therapist April Kilduff, LCPC, LPCC, LMHC, says, “My understanding is that dreams are a way to work out what was going on during the day, or that they’re reflective of things that may be happening in your life.” She explains that dreams are a way for your brain to use its own “vocabulary” to work through these things, so to speak.
So there are plenty of different reasons that your ex might have popped into your mind in your subconscious, and none of them necessarily have to “mean” that you are hung up on your ex or that there is some unfinished business. As Kilduff says, “You could dream about an ex because you’re literally thinking or dreaming about that ex.” This doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you were thinking about them because you missed them or are harboring unresolved feelings — it might be as simple as coming across a picture of them or having been reminded of them at some point during the day.
On the other hand, there’s also the possibility that your dream about your ex wasn’t really about your ex at all. Instead, it might be that your ex was related—if only loosely—to some memory or feeling something that makes them pop up in your dream. “The ex in your dream could just represent something or some quality, without it literally being about the ex,” she explains. “In this case, it’s just a piece of your brain’s vocabulary.”
She gives an example of what this might look like: Say your relationship with your ex was unhappy because they were very critical of you, and now that ex has become a symbol of criticism in your mind. If you have felt really criticized lately in your work or personal life, your ex might then show up in your dream as a representation of that feeling.
What if you’re not able to shake off a dream about an ex?
Ultimately, dreams are mysterious. While they’re probably reflective of some of our thoughts and brain processes during the day, it’s hard to say whether or not your dream alone is indicative of something deeper.
“I don’t think that dreams inherently mean anything at all,” says Kilduff. “They’re neutral, and we can give or not give as much meaning to them as we want.”
However, our reactions to those dreams are a different story.
Some people might not be able to shake off their dreams so easily, worrying intensely that their dreams could mean something important. If you find that you’re still lingering on a dream and what they could mean, or if you are experiencing lingering, distressing emotions after dreaming about an ex, it could potentially be a sign that there’s something else at play.
Because former relationships and ex-partners can be such touchy and emotionally charged subjects, it’s normal to be emotional after having a dream about them, whether that’s guilt, anxiety, longing, or anything in between. If you feel especially emotional after having a dream about your ex, and if it brings up other issues that you haven’t been able to quite let go of, then there is always a possibility that you’re still holding onto some unresolved feelings that are causing them to show up in your dream state.
In addition, intense anxiety about having those dreams and an especially difficult time moving on from them could be a sign that there’s something even bigger going on. For example, there’s a surprising connection between obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and dreams—and it’s very rarely talked about.
How can dreams be related to OCD?
People with OCD live in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive and unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, or images that bring fear, anxiety, and distress. In order to cope with those unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings, people with OCD respond with compulsions, which are mental and/or physical actions that temporarily alleviate the anxiety or are done to stop something bad from happening.
So what does this have to do with dreams about your ex? OCD can latch itself onto many different subjects depending on what a person cares about the most. As a result, many people with OCD will have obsessions surrounding their relationships. In fact, there is a common subtype of OCD called Relationship OCD (ROCD) in which people have specific obsessions around their relationships or their partner(s).
In cases like these, it can be very difficult for someone with ROCD to move on from a dream about their ex, finding it highly meaningful. Kilduff explains that someone with OCD might see their dream as a confirmation that they’re supposed to be with that person. If they’re in a current relationship with someone else, they might interpret the dream as evidence that they are in the wrong relationship and that they need to be with their ex-partner instead.
They might then engage in compulsive behaviors like seeking reassurance from their current partner or friends that they are in the right relationship, ruminating on the subject, or incessantly “checking” their thoughts and feelings for signs that they’re actually in love with their ex.
As a result, people with OCD might be stuck in a cycle of these dreams, obsessions, and compulsions. Because they spend so much time thinking about their specific fears, those fears might make their way into their dreams. Those dreams might then act as triggers that induce obsessions and compulsions, and so on.
How to cope with unsettling dreams about an ex
A dream in and of itself isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. However, if you find yourself having a hard time moving on from those dreams, it might be a good idea to do some self-reflection to better understand why those dreams are so distressing to you. Taking the time to address any unresolved feelings that may be contributing to your discomfort can give you deeper insights into what role your ex-partner may still play in your life.
It also might be a good idea to talk to a therapist if you suspect that your dreams are related to unresolved feelings, whether those be anger, guilt, or sadness. For many people, talk therapy can be a great way to work through their dreams and, more pertinently, their reactions and feelings that having those dreams can bring.
However, if you suspect that you may be struggling with OCD and you’re frequently searching for meaning or certainty about your dreams, traditional talk therapy is usually not the answer. In fact, it can make things worse. The best course of treatment for OCD is a different form of therapy altogether: exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.
ERP involves gradually facing anxiety, uncertainty, and doubt, without turning to compulsions like rumination or reassurance-seeking. For example, someone with ROCD might be exposed to their worries by writing out the dreams they had or coming up with a worst-case scenario about their relationship, while working to resist engaging in compulsions, such as asking a friend if their relationship seems secure. Over time, they learn that their dreams don’t have to dictate what they do, feel, or believe, and they can live in greater confidence in their relationship—despite the occasional uncertainty.
The best news here is that, if you have dreams related to your OCD theme, working on your OCD itself may help alleviate the fear and anxiety. “I’ve seen that, as people work on their OCD and get better, those dreams tend to subside,” shares Kilduff. “Those worries and doubts just don’t occupy as much of their brain.”
Finally, it might be helpful to remind yourself that strange or distressing dreams happen to many different people, and you aren’t alone. It also doesn’t make you a bad person if your ex is popping up in your dreams, and you aren’t betraying your current partner when that happens.
“Dreams can be about and represent many different things,” says Kilduff. “Much like anything else with OCD, it’s just the classic OCD trick of taking something startling and important to you and trying to force it to have meaning. There are plenty of people who are very happily in relationships that dream about their exes from time to time—and that’s entirely normal.”