Dreaming about your ex? A psychologist explains what it really means

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What do our dreams really mean? In Stylist’s Dream Journals, we’re working with psychologist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari to reflect on some of our most puzzling bedtime visions – and figure out how, if at all, we should respond to them in our waking hours. This week’s anonymous journal comes from a woman who wants to know why she keeps dreaming about her ex.

If you’ve ever dreamt that you’re back with your ex, you’re in good company: it’s a really common dream. It’s also, however, one of the most personal – which explains why we can wake up feeling unsettled and upset the morning after.

It’s especially uncomfortable, however, if you’re hit with a dream about your ex when you’re happily dating someone else. 

The many interpretations of dreaming about an ex

Google what it means to dream about a former lover, and you’ll be inundated with different theories. Some say it’s because you are experiencing a similar relationship or situation which makes you feel unhappy and uncomfortable. Others opine that it implies that you are subconsciously repeating the same old patterns from that relationship to your current one. 

And there are those who believe the complete opposite, suggesting the dream serves as a metaphor of how you have let go of the past and are ready to move on and fully devote yourself to new relationships.

The psychology of dreams

Psychologist and therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, however, believes that there’s more to it than that.

“Dreams are the soul’s way of directing and guiding us beyond our conscious stories about ourselves,” she says. “They are very personal and can be understood only by conversing with the person who had the dream. If there are more specific with details of the dream, then it can be more clear as to what it symbolises.”

And so, using her skills and unique understanding of the unconscious mind, she has offered her interpretation of our anonymous dreamer’s unique bedtime visions about her ex.

The dream

Our anonymous dreamer says: “For some reason that I cannot explain, I keep having recurring dreams of my ex-boyfriend. We were together for seven years and lived together for five years. We were a couple that our friends and family would say they really believed in – one of their favourite couples, actually – so everyone took it really hard when we broke up.

“It was such a shock to everyone as they, and admittedly I, thought that we were going to get married one day. We were close to each other’s family, and our breakup was a very difficult time for me as I was very much in love with him. It came as a huge shock when he ended it.”

She continues: “We’re never alone in the dreams: there are always other people around us. We’re together, and we’ll always embrace at some point, which feels very intimate and very familiar. Eventually, though, he will do or say something that is hurtful.

“Sometimes, he flirts with another girl in front of me, then tells me it’s over and he no longer loves me. Other times, he’ll just say something mean – which is strange as, in reality, he was actually a kind person and never verbally abusive.”

A stock photo of a woman dreaming in bed
“Dreams are very personal and can be understood only by conversing with the person who had the dream,” says Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari.

The dreamer finishes: “Whatever the specifics, the dreams always end with me feeling broken hearted. And I’m always relieved to wake up to my husband and realise it was all a dream and in the past.

“I am so much happier now and very much in love with my husband: we have such similar interests and desires, so I feel much more supported, fulfilled and myself around him.

“What is extra strange to me is that my ex and I broke up almost nine years ago, so I cannot fathom why he still haunts me in my sleep. We both have moved on and I know are so much happier in our lives, so I’m wondering what my mind, body and soul are holding onto?”

What does it all mean? A psychologist offers her interpretation

A professional headshot of Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari
Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari says “dreams are the soul’s way of directing and guiding us beyond our conscious stories about ourselves.”

Dr Ben-Ari says: “This dream is not necessarily about your ex-boyfriend per se, but about what he represents. Often the person/situation or object is a representation of a feeling, longing, need or a reflection of a part within the self. It is a reflection of an inner part within the dreamer that needs attention.

“I wonder if something happened in the relationship that you might have bypassed as you were happy, and then shocked by him wanting to break up. I would ask which parts of yourself or in that relationship you might have ignored or repressed?”

Dr Ben-Ari continues: “There is no need to feel guilty. Firstly, our dreams are about parts of ourselves not others, and we have little control over them. But given the dream comes back again and again, it may suggest that there is part of yourself which requires more attention. For example, is there a different relationship with a colleague or a friend where you feel guilt? 

“Alternatively, it might represent an integrity issue in another area of your life, where your actions conflicted with your values. The part of yourself that requires attention might feel particularly ‘devastated, mistreated and hurt’. Then, you describe that there is something intimate, after which he tells you that he does not love you and leaves. And you wake up feeling guilt.

“I would wonder if there is a part of yourself that you have an intimate relationship with, but you do not love or accept? Is this is resonating with your family history in any way? I wonder how connected are you with the element of ‘fire’ within you, and how you approach boundaries? We sometimes project our fantasies onto the dreams. There is something that needs to be understood, embraced, accepted, let go of, and loved with its full complexity.”

Dr Ben-Ari finishes: “I advise that you try to relive the dream in your imagination, stay a little bit longer with your ex partner. Look into his eyes, let go of the fear, and allow an intimate conversation to unfold. At the end of the day, there may be a part within you that you might want to develop a relationship with.

“Let go of fear, be still with the uncomfortable feelings, stay curious and let your imagination guide you.”

Psychologist and author Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari has worked as a therapist for over 20 years, specialising in child development and mental health – which means she’s particularly adept at understanding the unconscious mind. She has a Masters in Social Work, focusing on Clinical Child Development, and a Doctorate in Psychology from the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at the University of London. 

She has written two very successful parenting books and teaches a parenting programme at her clinic in Hampstead, London. Her expert comment and advice on mental health, fear, anxiety, and relationships is regularly featured in the UK press, and she recently launched a brand new online community, Get The Village.

You can follow her on Instagram at @Dr_Kalanit.

Images: Ami O’Callaghan/Belle PR/Megan te Boekhorst/Unsplash

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.