So you’re in bed with your partner of a few months and things have been going great—really, really great. But then in the middle of the night you wake up panicked and in a sweat. You can’t help but worry: ‘Why do I keep dreaming about my ex!?’
Why am I dreaming about my ex?
Despite the lack of conclusive evidence about why we dream, in his research Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and author of “Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire,” has found one thing to be true: Dreaming about your ex is perfectly normal.
“It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, or with your partner, or with your relationship,” he said. “The people who are most likely to appear in our dreams are people that we are currently romantically connected with or have been romantically connected with in the past.”
But just as plenty of people have had dreams about an ex, many people report having the same types of dreams about their exes. Here are some common dreams about exes and what some experts think they may mean.
Dreaming about cheating on your partner with your ex
Lehmiller made it very clear that these dreams are perfectly normal and don’t necessarily mean you’re unhappy with your current partner or want to get back with your ex.
“I think a lot of people tend to look at sexual fantasies and sexual dreams and say that if you’re fantasizing about someone other than your partner this necessarily means that there’s a problem and that you’re not really attracted to your partner and that’s flat-out not true,” he said.
“It’s perfectly normal for people to be attracted to many other people over the course of their lifetime.”
Dreaming about your ex ignoring you
This could be your brain’s way of telling you to move on. It doesn’t necessarily mean you secretly pine for your ex, but it may be a signal that they’re officially no longer important to you.
Dreaming that your ex is cheating on you
If they indeed cheated on you, this could just be your brain replaying the trauma. But if they didn’t, it may just be your brain’s way of representing some other betrayal.
Dreaming about your ex being abusive
Again, it could just be your mind’s way of grappling with behavior that happened in real life. But it could be a stand-in for any resentment you may still harbor for them.
Dreaming about fighting with your ex
Whether it’s a verbal argument or a physical fight, it could be you fighting with yourself over what you view as mistakes you made in the relationship. The more violent the dream, the more an indication it is that you may finally be “killing off” the relationship’s hold over you.
Dreaming about your first love
Our first loves, usually experienced in adolescence, leave a big impact on our psyches. That makes it a less surprising dream to have than others. The good news is that the ex in this scenario is really just a stand-in for the intense feelings you felt. The bad news is that dreaming about those feelings could mean things aren’t going so well relationship-wise in the waking world.
Your ex is just… kind of there
It’s common to have dreams where you’re doing something normal and your ex is present and/or part of the group—in these dreams, you may not be exes or involved at all. It could mean nothing, or it could mean something. A new coworker may have traits that remind you of your ex, and poof, there they are. But it could also mean you’ve subconsciously noticed something lacking in your current relationship, and your ex represents whatever’s missing.
Dreaming about getting back together with your ex
This may feel like even more betrayal than dreaming about sleeping with your ex. But it’s actually no cause for alarm. Instead of an expression of genuine desire, it’s likely just your brain taking stock of how far your current relationship has come. That’s why it’s usually more common before major relationship milestones, like moving in together or marriage.
Dreaming about your ex missing you
It feels nice to be wanted, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Your ex being in the picture isn’t important, but it may indicate you’re not getting what you need from your current relationship. Or, you’re just starved for attention in general.
Dreaming about an ex from way back
Your first love is one thing, but what about the person you sort of dated for three weeks back in seventh grade? It has less to do with the ex and more to do with trying to recapture feelings of youth or vitality—the ex is just a tangible attachment to that time.
Dreaming about an ex rejecting you
Getting dumped (or even doing the dumping) stings, but getting turned down in dreamland may be worse. But these dreams may serve a vital function: If your heart feels like it wants your ex back, the rejection in the dream is your brain telling you what you really need to hear.
You dream about missing them
In waking life, you’re totally comfortable with your newest relationship (or lack thereof). But when it comes time for some shuteye, you can’t bear to be without them—so what gives? It’s probably just your deeper psyche’s way of working through the breakup. Sometimes, your subconscious mind moves a little slower than your conscious one.
Dreaming about your ex with someone else
Many relationships end because one person got a little too cozy with someone they swore was “just a friend” for their partner’s comfort. But if that wasn’t the case with your ex, why are you having this dream? As it turns out, it has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. Instead, it’s your brain trying to get you to accept that your ex has moved on.
Dreaming that your ex died
Morbid for sure, and possibly even upsetting, depending on how vivid the dream is. But believe it or not, these are actually positive dreams: It’s your brain’s way of expressing that you’ve truly let go of your ex and the relationship.
What does it mean when you dream about an ex?
Again, there’s no agreed upon standard for dream interpretation, and they often don’t mean anything at all.
“I think a lot of times our dreams and also our fantasies often don’t have a deeper meaning and sometimes they’re just defined as somebody having a very, very active imagination,” Lehmiller said.
With the understanding that dreams can be (and often are) random, it’s worth noting that your dreams may not be about your ex themselves, but some aspect of them. Other reasons include:
You thought of a good (or bad) memory
Things that make a big impression on our lives aren’t easily forgotten. Maybe seeing a movie on TV quietly reminds you of the great first date you had with your ex when it came out in theaters. Or, maybe you had a bad breakup in a local bar or restaurant, and seeing their ads on social media brings back the memory.
You saw something that reminded you of them
Maybe your ex had a fondness for a particular brand of shoes, and now all of a sudden they’re everywhere. Similarly, if your ex wore a popular cologne or perfume, even the slightest whiff can send you back in time.
You miss them
And that’s OK! In most circumstances, even ones where things ended badly, your ex wasn’t an entirely awful person. It’s perfectly normal to be content in your current relationship while also missing certain traits that were more present in your ex—for example, a great singing voice, a sharp sense of humor, or talent in the kitchen.
You have unresolved trauma
Trauma can mean a lot of things. An obvious example is having an ex that cheated on you. But think, for example, of having a serious medical ordeal. If you’ve never fully processed the experience, it’s normal to recall the person who helped you through it until you’ve come to terms with it.
You never got closure
While it’s unlikely your ex ghosted out of an established relationship, it’s still possible that you’re unsatisfied with how things ended. That may lead you to try to make sense of things subconsciously while you sleep.
You never gave them closure
Nobody is their best self 100% of the time, and sometimes we’re at our worst during bad breakups. If you dumped your ex in an unsatisfying manner, their appearance in your dreams may be your psyche’s way of providing them the closure you subconsciously believe they’re owed.
You really do want to get back together with them
Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the correct one. This can especially be the case in relationships that ended due to circumstances rather than romantic failings—such as, leaving for college, moving to start a new job, family strife, religious incompatibilities.
Your current relationship is missing something
Even if you’re happy overall with your current partner, you may feel shorted by them in certain areas if the two of you aren’t speaking the same love language. In that case, it’s understandable that your brain looks back to a time when you felt happy and fulfilled, even if that wasn’t the case at the time.
You’re nervous about a new relationship
In general, humans welcome the familiar and fear the unknown. But if you suffer from relationship anxiety, that applies to new romantic opportunities as well. If you’re beginning to get close to someone new, the anxiety may prompt your mind to dredge more familiar, safer feeling memories.
You miss something you used to do with them
Maybe you and your ex loved square dancing, but you don’t think your new partner would enjoy it. If you never bring it up, you may use your ex as a stand-in so that you can continue to enjoy those memories.
Something else is making you unhappy
You broke up with your ex for a reason, so why would you retreat to them in your dreams when you’re unhappy outside of your relationship? It may be as simple as your ex representing the thing you need to “break up with” in life that’s holding you back—maybe it’s time for a new career, or to finally give up a bad habit.
How to stop dreaming about an ex
Researchers estimate that we have three to five dreams per night and they know our most vivid dreams come during REM sleep, a phase of the night with active brain activity. Unfortunately, researchers don’t know how to reduce our dreams, but if we stop ourselves from waking up right after REM sleep we’re less likely to remember them.
One way to wake up less during the night is to tweak your lifestyle by exercising at least three hours before bed, eating a healthy diet and avoiding alcohol or food directly before going to sleep. Stress and trauma may also keep you up at night.
“If your dreams are becoming this source of distress in your life and they’re starting to interfere with the quality of the sleep that you’re getting and you’re starting to become anxious about going to sleep because you don’t want to have a certain dream… that’s the kind of case where it’s probably useful to seek mental health counseling to try and deal with some of the previous trauma in the hope that that prevents it from becoming this recurrent issue in your mind and in your dreams,” Lehmiller said.
Dreaming about being intimate with an ex doesn’t mean you should get back with them. Nor does it mean your current partner—if you happen to have one—is a bad fit. Dreams can be fun to pay attention to and think about, but shouldn’t influence your reality.
“It’s probably wise not to try and over-interpret every dream that you have and think about the deeper meaning,” Lehmiller said. “The science isn’t there to support people using their dreams as a guide or a roadmap for how they live their life.”