Q: A few times a year, I dream about my ex with another woman. In the dream, he is either dating someone new or his focus is just somewhere other than on me. In the dream, I struggle desperately against this. I hit, kick, punch, pull, do something physical to keep them away from each other. Sometimes, I hurt him in some way. I try and do something to catch his attention that is being diverted away from me, but the effort is fruitless since he doesn’t return the attention I am looking for. In some dreams, I even hit the other girl he is with. The dream feels very physical. I always wake up feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and sad.
A: Oh, dear. These dreams are the worst. As you say, sad, overwhelming, just… bleh. And they’re so common! You are certainly not the only one who dreams of exes and wrestles at night with the ins-and-outs of relationship woes. I know you’re a little embarrassed about sharing this dream, so I want to state unequivocally that you shouldn’t be. Ambivalence around break-ups is normal, people we love and have loved are hard to let go of, and the confusion around these ups and downs are likely to show-up in our dream lives.
What’s interesting about this dream is the level of physicality involved. You are really exerting some effort with this one! You’re clearly struggling hard around something to do with this ex. The dream is likely reflecting the situation you two are in, but not literally. One possible scenario, is that your on-going struggle and interactions with him in waking life may be hurting him in some way, as you state plainly in your description of the dream that you sometimes do so. I wonder, how is he doing with the current dynamic between you two? How are you feeling about your behavior towards him when these kinds of dreams arise? Are you pushing and pulling him at the same time?
The most plain reading of this dream may be the one most valuable for you: you’re struggling with (or against) the relationship with your ex in some way and would almost certainly benefit from focusing some time exploring your feelings around it (on a deeper level than you likely already). Don’t be afraid to go there. The attention spent with your complicated feelings will relieve some tension that you’re carrying around with you. The first question to begin the explorations for yourself, given the content of the dream, may be simply: How do you feel about the fact that you’re no longer together? What attention do you want from him still? Let what arises with this question arise. Follow the emotion into whatever images and other memories may come-up and maybe even write them down.
There is another layer that could be valuable to explore too if those first questions feel too charged to go into just yet. It’s a harder layer, more complicated, but it’s a more symbolic one, sitting just below all that emotional stagnation. Themes related to union (or dis-union) that show-up in dreams can reflect our relationship to the integration of something within ourselves (think “coming-together”). What I mean by this is that there may be something to do with elements specific to your own psychic make-up, your own feminine and masculine sides in love and companionship, that are in conflict now. They’re your yin and yang pieces. By engaging the subtleties of your feelings around love and self-worth on a regular basis, like a little yoga practice, you may find over time that these dreams soften and the conflict disappears.
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Satya is a therapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in applicable dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and the stage of life between young adulthood and mid-life.