Please get out of my dreams!
November 30, 2009 7:20 AM   Subscribe

Help me stop dreaming about my Ex!

I was in a relationship for 11 years. I left him just over 2 years ago because he still was not ready for marriage. We were better friends than lovers, but we were best friends for sure. Looking back, the things we wanted out of life were too different to have ever had a successful marriage, so I am grateful now that we didn't get that far. We still talk on occasion, but not as often since I met my current beau.

Three months ago I met a wonderful man whom I love very much. He is really everything I hoped I would be lucky enough to find in a partner. He feels as strongly for me as I do for him. We are making plans for our future and I know this will include marriage and children eventually.

Suddenly, in the last 2 weeks I have had dreams about this ex I was with for 11 years. Several dreams. This happened at the same point- the three month mark- in the last relationship I was in too (I wasn't in love with that guy though- so I welcomed the dreams because they were better than the relationship I was in at the time).

Now I wake up in the middle of the night after these dreams and I am like WTF! Go away! The dreams are of the OMG! I am so happy to see you! It has been so long! He is always happy to see me too. We consider getting back together, sometimes we kiss or just hang out. They are pleasant dreams at the time and give me a soothing feeling- until I wake up. Once out of my fog, I feel so thankful to have woken up and see the man I love sleeping next to me. I am so much happier to see him next to me than I was to see my ex in my dream.

Why am I having these dreams and is there anything I can do to stop them?
posted by MayNicholas to Human Relations (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Dream management! Fun.

Diet affects dreams for me, so if you eat spicy food for dinner, your dreams may change dramatically. (Or if you already do that, see what happens if you stop.)

Falling asleep listening to music can also mess up your dreams. Worth a shot.
posted by rokusan at 7:26 AM on November 30, 2009

My first instinct is that you need to reconnect with your ex. Not in a "let's get back together kind of way" but in more of a "how are you? how's your life? what's new? here's what's new with me" kind of way. Since the dreams don't sound sexual and you don't attempt to break up with current SO in your dream to get back with your ex why assume it's a malicious dream? You probably just miss the guy. One reason it might always happen after three months is because that might be the point in a new relationship at which the initial "omg I need to spend every waking moment with you" fog lifts and you realize you've been ignoring your friends. It's worth a shot!
posted by kthxbi at 7:28 AM on November 30, 2009

My friend has a theory that we you dream about an ex that means you've stopped truly caring about them. They've really just become part of your past.

Your ex could still be present in your mind but with just 'symbolic' value: either reliving past happy memories (without any other overtones such as a desire to get back with your ex) or your ex means something else to you now perhaps stability in a relationship, a way to remember what commitment is like and so accustom yourself to the new responsibilities in your new relationship.

I know dreams about exs are really unsettling because the immediate reaction is "am I still in love with them?" but it rarely if ever means that.
posted by litleozy at 7:29 AM on November 30, 2009

I think the dreams will go away the minute you become comfortable with the appearance of these dreams. They mean exactly as much as you want them to.

What's apparently bothering you is that you also had these dreams in the failed relationship as well. I'd suggest you're afraid that you'll lose interest in this one too.

You have nothing to fear from these dreams. You probably feel guilty for enjoying them too.Don't. Emotions (and emotional dreams) are not messages from the future or predictive. They are things to accept.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:31 AM on November 30, 2009

not a doctor, but i hear avoiding vitamin B12 (or melatonin) around dinnertime might make dreams less vivid .
I also do not advocate using antidepressents or psychodysleptics but those are guaranteed to suppress dreaming; however dreaming will be back as soon as you quit..
posted by 3mendo at 7:31 AM on November 30, 2009

I am not a psychologist, dream therapist, ombudsman or purveyor of fine chocolates. However, my understanding has always been that dreams were as much metaphor as anything else. Your dream of your ex may not be your mind subconsciously longing for the past, but rather a metaphorical acknowledgement that the companionship you have with your ex, you now have with your new SO--i.e., "hello again, feelings of happy contentment; I associated you with the ex, so you're visiting again in that form. How nice to see you!"
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:32 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

antidepressAnts (SSRIs actually, dont know about other kinds)
posted by 3mendo at 7:33 AM on November 30, 2009

11 years. That's not a jump, skip and hop to the next level without some fallout. Apparently there are some unresolved issues with him that you need to sort out on your own. It's kind of like when you're ready to release him, on your terms, in your mind, heart and soul - and you feel closure, that's the moment when the dreams will stop. It's simply your unconscious self telling you that x, y, and z need to be examined and healed. So - start a dream journal, write in it as soon as you wake up and look for any re-occurring themes. That will give you the clues and keys you need. Good luck.
posted by watercarrier at 7:38 AM on November 30, 2009

Wild guess, but maybe you're having these dreams because the feelings you're currently experiencing remind your brain of the last time it experienced those feelings (which was with your ex). You did have eleven years to burn those neural pathways, after all. (On preview: what the Admiral said.)

If you were trying to get over your ex, I'd recommend against any kind of contact, but it doesn't sound like that's the case. I tend to agree with kthxbi—it couldn't hurt to see your ex. Sometimes that's just the thing to help yourself (or part of yourself) move on. Just make sure you're honest and communicative with your current beau, to make sure he's comfortable and understands what's going on.
posted by ixohoxi at 7:44 AM on November 30, 2009

I'm in the same boat! I just met someone great after a pretty crappy divorce, and BAM. There is my stupid ex in my dream. My issues are clearly different, because in my dreams I break his stuff, scratch his face, and push him off balconies.

Just a wild guess here -- your dreams are simply your psyche processing the remnants of your feelings for your ex. I see no need to contact him at all -- your brain is just giving itself closure so it can clear out the cobwebs and fully accommodate your new love. And it seems to be in a peaceful way. If your waking mind does not dwell on your ex or your past relationship, then those emotions just get processed when you're asleep. I think it will pass.
posted by motsque at 7:48 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you ever have dreams where your arm is a flower and then it becomes a filing cabinet? Or where you are dating your grandparents?

I mean, dreams don't have to mean anything. I think they usually don't. I think making life decisions based on dreams (dreams you have at night, that is) is kind of insane.

There was an article in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago about people who are chronically hounded by horrible dreams (so much so that they are afraid to go to sleep) and how they are learning to reprogram them. Might be worth reading.
posted by sully75 at 7:53 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've always considered these a normal part of the neurological processes of wiring up new associations and memories. It happens to me with new jobs and new languages and every time I've moved, as well as in relationships.

It doesn't MEAN anything. You're not cheating on the new guy, you're not meant to be with the old guy, this isn't a harbinger of fate. It's just your brain doing brain stuff, and the feelings that get triggered can be incredibly sharp and poignant, but in all likelihood this wave will pass shortly and you'll be back to your regularly scheduled nighttime absurdity.

You actually probably have warm-happy-feeling dreams about all kinds of people, but they don't stand out because they don't feature that ONE PERSON who makes the whole thing extra awkward when you wake up. I had one last night, it would have made me a little uncomfortable if it had featured an ex-boyfriend (or boss, coworker, customer, or other OH GOD NO person). Instead, it was a gay celebrity 20-some years my senior who i am unlikely to ever meet and certainly isn't a threat to my relationship. So it's just funny and kind of embarrassing.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:01 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is the abstract of the article in the New Yorker sully75 references. The article would suggest that before you go to sleep you envision the recurring dream, but change the story so that it more fits with where you are in life....i.e. imagine telling your ex how happy you are with your new partner.
posted by extrabox at 8:02 AM on November 30, 2009

Well there is no way even if I wanted to, to see the ex. I moved about 600 miles away. I have thought about giving him a call just to say hi and see how he is, but I don't really want to. When I got into this newest relationship he stopped taking my calls. I last spoke to him 2 months ago. I texted him on thanksgiving just to say happy thanksgiving and he responded and left me a facebook post, but other than that doesn't really seem to want to talk. That is fine.

I don't want to tell my bf about these dreams because I don't want him to think anything of it. I am afraid though- what if I start talking in my sleep and say the ex's name? I have no desire to be with the ex. I do miss him as a person, but I am not a fan of being friends with one's ex. I know he hasn't dated anyone seriously since I left. I know I would feel a lot better if I knew he were in a relationship and as happy as I am. Maybe I am feeling guilt for leaving?

-and to be clear, I never lost interest in him when I left- I just needed to know we were heading in the same life direction. He was unsure and I knew I wanted a family. It was the hardest move I have have ever made in my life.
posted by MayNicholas at 8:04 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you don't want to see your ex during your waking hours, then don't see him. End of story. There's something in your language that sounds like you have maybe slightly mixed feelings about not seeing him. So maybe clarify that with yourself. But I wouldn't let your dreams interfere with your decision making process at all.

It sounds like you think you really shouldn't see your ex. So I'd go with that. But also stop obsessing about him, at least during the day.

No idea whether to tell your BF about the dreams. I'm going to say not. Because they are meaningless, so there is not much need to tell him. Unless you guys are sharey like that and he won't be freaked out.
posted by sully75 at 8:28 AM on November 30, 2009

You might think of these dreams as your way of really saying good-bye.
posted by fullofragerie at 8:35 AM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

You could try doing things to encourage lucid dreaming, so that when the ex pops up, you can tell him to take off. It's pretty easy to do.
posted by orme at 9:02 AM on November 30, 2009

I went through the same thing, about six or seven years after leaving a relationship, and well into another relationship. Leaving the first relationship was also one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. Here is what I did:

1. After a few years of the dreams happening, I went to see a homeopath to address a chronic physical symptom. Not everyone's cup of tea, I realize, but within a month of taking a remedy, the dreams permanently stopped after having gone on for years.

2. I realized that the reason I kept dreaming of the old boyfriend was because he embodied an important characteristic I was missing in my current relationship. It's not that I wanted him back, specifically, it's that he represented a deep emotional connection I was missing with the new guy.

3. In the last year, I dreamed of the old boyfriend exactly once. The dream was that he had been married for a short while, divorced, and then lost his job. A friend ran into him not too long ago, and that is exactly what seems to have happened. So, don't discount the possibility you may simply be picking up on what's going on with him, especially if you had a very strong emotional bond.

P.S.: I didn't tell my SO about the dreams. Didn't seem like it would help anything.
posted by Atrahasis at 9:20 AM on November 30, 2009

I'd say motsque is on the right track. 11 years is a long time and it's only been two years since the end (and only two months since last contact). I don't think it's unhealthy for your mind to want to process some of those memories as it becomes clear they are now definitely the past, no longer possibly the course of your life interrupted momentarily. Your subconscious is just exploring or playing with what felt like a real option for some time, simply due to familiarity, even if it was clear on conscious levels that you'd made a choice. But now that it's more and more clear all the way through that the past is the past, and you're embarking on a new course, it makes sense to me that part of you would want to look over "what might have been."

Honestly I'm impressed you don't have passing thoughts or random semi-fantasies when you're awake - I feel like when I make big choices I can't help vaguely imagining how things might be if I'd gone another way, and I know those thoughts aren't very meaningful except as evidence that the choice I'm making is significant. When you imagine other people (whether sleeping or awake) just remember they're your projections of those people, so they may have little to do with the actual people. There could be an aspect of someone that you want to think about, and in the dream that's all they are.

For instance, in a new relationship, you may dream about a recent ex because you had already built up a level of comfort you don't yet have with a new person. Or in any relationship you may dream about an ex because they had a particular characteristic that is lacking in your current relationship - but that doesn't mean taken in full that they would make you happy, just that they are a stand-in for that quality for the moment, so your subconscious can explore the importance of that quality. Or in your case, you may dream about someone you spent a major portion of your adult life with because you are now considering the remainder of your adult life.

It does not mean you wish to return to an old relationship. Sometimes it means something worth thinking about, sometimes it means something very subtle that you can let your brain work out on its own, sometimes it is probably more or less nonsense. My guess is that the best way to stop dreams like these is to stop trying to stop them and even to write about them in a dream journal or whatever as if they're ordinary, non-worrying dreams, and maybe to let your mind wander a bit around the idea of the final, absolute letting go of that 11 years (which I know you already did, but still, it was a big part of your life, and it's ok to do it again as it becomes even more official). They will dry up on their own as your new life begins flourishing and memories become simply memories. Good luck!
posted by mdn at 9:49 AM on November 30, 2009

I have an ex that I still dream about, 15 years later. It comes in spurts - sometimes I'll have 2 dreams about him in a week and then nothing for months. He was the guy I dated in high school, and it was very much puppy love. The dreams I have are much like you describe: pleasant, enjoyable, and a little guilt-inducing upon waking. I used to be squicked out about them, but I've come to just take them for what they are: an enjoyable dream that means little or nothing. Also, sometimes, it's a nice fun break from reality (and nothing more!).

I have chosen not to mention the dreams to my husband. No need to let insecurity creep in about what my brain makes up in the middle of the night.

I think if you happen to say his name in your sleep, your new boyfriend will understand that someone you spent 11 years with is occasionally going to pop up in your unconscious.
posted by chiababe at 10:18 AM on November 30, 2009

I can't answer why but I can tell you what to do. See the Tetris Effect.
posted by chairface at 10:50 AM on November 30, 2009

I feel the need to mention that I don't give this any thought on a daily basis. I just thought I would pose the question because it happened last night for the fourth time in the last 2 weeks. I recall it happening with the last guy I was dating so I thought I would ask.

Thank you for all the replies.
posted by MayNicholas at 11:00 AM on November 30, 2009

I'll agree with chiababe and motsque on this one. I have dreams about relationships that broke off and people who died over 15 years ago. Say "that's interesting," have a cup of coffee or equivalent, and get on with your day. I suppose you could look up stuff on lucid dreaming, but I suspect it's like trying not to think of elephants.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:07 AM on November 30, 2009

Someone upthread has stated that maybe the dreams aren't because they're about the ex, maybe they're about the situation-- you know, "the last time I got up to this point in a relationship was WITH ex, and now I'm in that situation again, and here's the last person I saw when I was in this situation." I'm inclined to agree it's more about a situation than a person, so I wouldn't worry too much.

But you also had a practical question I think I can help with --

I am afraid though- what if I start talking in my sleep and say the ex's name?

In my experience, talking in your sleep isn't something you spontaneously start doing late in life. It'd have to be something you always did, even when you were little.

But even if, by some freak fluke, you do suddenly start -- I think people know that people say messed-up stuff when they're asleep -- I've heard of people grumbling things like, "Andy Warhol is so fucking POINTY!" or asking "are banana wafers valid integers?". You're just as likely to say "no thank you, I already own a penguin" in your sleep as you are likely to say your ex's name, so even if you do say his name in your sleep and your current boyfriend hears you, it can be plausibly laughed off with an explanation like "oh, God, it was so weird, I dreamed he was marketing a new brand of cheese-flavored sodas" or something like that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:10 AM on November 30, 2009

This has happened to me many times -- with one particular ex. I'd wake up simultaneously missing him and feeling pissed off. I finally just told myself that I wouldn't dream of him anymore. Make it your mantra for a little while: "I won't dream of ______." See if that works. Simple, but it worked for me.
posted by bunny hugger at 11:35 AM on November 30, 2009

How about some iffy speculative science? Dreams, some posit, arise out of what your brain does to process memories. Most of what we dream probably has little narrative meaning and we recall only a fraction of our dreams. Right now you are in a mode where you are getting serious about a new relationship (perhaps this was true about the last one as well but you were getting serious about it not being "the one") and it is stirring up your serious-relationship memories, which is showing up in dream time. In this sense it could very well be seen as a positive signal - you're having good relationship vibes. You wake up and feel better because your current relationship has the positives of your past one but not the negatives.

The illusion is that anything needs to be done about it. If you say your ex-lover's name in your sleep and your boyfriend hears it and asks about it all you have to say is that you must have had a dream about him. I mean, you were together for 11 years. Some gentle ribbing about carrying a torch may ensue but it won't be any big deal because your boyfriend is a good guy, right? But it won't happen anyway.

If there are things you might be doing to help you sleep through the night without waking that's one pragmatic thing that might reduce your recollection of the dreams. Probably not worth trying to stop the dreams. Put it out of your head, it isn't important and it will go away on its own.
posted by nanojath at 11:39 AM on November 30, 2009

In my experience my dreams are usually my brain's way of sorting out the things going on in the back of my mind that I haven't dealt with or processed fully. When I left my ex I pretty much spent most of my time trying to cope by acting as if he never existed, I never loved him and he didn't completely rip my heart out - I just wanted to be over it asap and get my life back, thank you. And for the most part, I dealt with it pretty well, but every now and then I'd have a dream with him in it and be a wreck the following day. Eventually I had to process the feelings and issues to do with him and how I was when I was with him etc and so far I haven't had another one, even after I had to go to his home town for work. Of course, I expect there may be some more, but probably less now that I've let myself actively go there rather than leaving it unresolved in my subconscious. You had to make a difficult choice, so part of you doesn't know what to do with the leftovers - your dreams are probably your brain's way of sorting through what happened and clearing away any leftovers.
posted by Chrysalis at 12:37 PM on November 30, 2009

For what it's worth, I have never, ever, ever had a dream about an S/O while in the relationship.

After the relationship is when the dreaming starts. Ex girlfriends, ex-wives, all of them surface at some point in dreamstate. Sometimes the dreams are sexual, sometimes they're just characters acting out some strange role.

I've never understood it, but I also know that I cannot control my dreams, really, and thus, I don't beat myself up about it. It's just something that happens.

Don't worry about it so much. Your s/o might occasionally have dreams he's not proud of - we all probably do. My present S/O and I, every morning when we wake up together, talk about what we dreamed the night before. Some of it is weird, but more often it's funny.
posted by Thistledown at 3:23 PM on November 30, 2009

This episode of Radiolab about how dreams work might make you feel better and understand what's going on in a more scientific way. The short of it is that anything you spend a lot of time on, or anything that seemed significant during the day, is something your brain will treat sort of as a problem to solve while you're asleep; it starts thinking about anything that's related, and as more time passes, it has to go further and further out to make connections. So if you burned dinner one day and were upset about it, you might dream about stoves and ovens, and from there your brain might make the association of irons being similar to ovens so you dream about those for a while, or it might go in a different direction and have you dream about other kitchen appliances, and so on. When you wake up all you might remember is having a dream where you put your hand in a blender, or if you sleep much longer, that might morph into simply getting any limb cut off for any reason. It might not seem to have anything to do with burning dinner when you wake up.

Every now and then I'll have pleasant dreams about a boyfriend I broke up with eight years ago, even though I don't like him at all and I never found him that attractive. You were with your ex for eleven years, so when your brain starts cycling through the day and making associations, he's bound to come up a lot. I don't think there's much you can do to stop that, but don't feel bad about the dreams. If you spend a lot of time thinking about it and feeling bad, then that's the sort of thing your brain will dig up while it's asleep because it will be something that had significant impact on you during the day. So really, worrying about the dreams could only make them more frequent.
posted by Nattie at 11:24 PM on November 30, 2009

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