dude, get out of my head.
August 25, 2022 6:42 PM   Subscribe

Broke up with my ex of 1yr over 6 months ago, and I have done a lot of work to separate myself from him on an emotional level too. I’m doing good with really focusing on myself. HOWEVER, he’s still in my dreams, especially dreams of a more sexual nature, and I think it might be hindering my healing.

He was my first sexual partner, so I’m sure that’s factoring into this. I also haven’t had sex with anyone since our break-up, and I don’t think I really want to right now. I don’t know exactly why - I don’t think it’s a hesitation to “put myself out there”, more that I just don’t feel like I’m in a place for nor interested enough in physical intimacy with anyone at the moment. Also probably factoring into this from the sex perspective: our sex life was okay: not bad, but I think it lacked open communication and vulnerability. I used to pretty regularly have vivid sex dreams about him when we were together, and I remember always feeling like the dreams were better than reality — or like a more perfect version of reality, where he treated me exactly the way that I wanted to be treated.

My dreams often involve replaying sexual moments from our past, and sometimes include sexual fantasies featuring him. They’re very subconscious — even if I’m not thinking about him when I go to bed, which I’m usually not, he’ll still feature in my dreams. It can be very upsetting; sometimes I wake up feeling frustrated or sad, and I tend to have much more restless sleep. I’ve noticed that when I have dreams of a more romantic nature, he isn’t the person I imagine to be my romantic partner (though the person does sort of vaguely resemble him, in like a foggy kind of way). The sexual dreams do often have romantic undertones; he says really sweet things to me, acts in the way that I wished he’d acted towards me when we were together.

In terms of moving on from the break-up: I’m at a point where I don’t think of him often, but when I do, it’s still a somewhat painful thought. It still stings. (He was the one who initiated the breakup, though I do realize now that we weren’t well suited for each other - it hurts to have had that announced to me before I realized it myself). One hypothesis I have is that maybe subconsciously, I’m trying to hold onto him, or what I imagined him to be or wanted him to be. Another hypothesis is that I’m subconsciously processing what our relationship was like. Alternatively, maybe I’m just slotting him into my sexual fantasies because I don’t have anyone else to fantasize about. Maybe it’s a combination of all three?

Whatever the reason, I think this might be one of the last ties binding me to him, and I would really love to issue him an eviction notice from my head. What can I do to stop dreaming about him? (Also, is this normal? Have you had experiences with dreaming about exes?)
posted by cruel summer to Human Relations (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Also, is this normal? Have you had experiences with dreaming about exes.

I broke up with someone in 2016 and just had my latest dream about them last week. I have not really dated in the interim, which could explain the longevity of these dreams, but I also think it has something to do with how long they were a fixture in my life. But yes, I’d vote that this is a normal response of a brain trying to make sense of change/loss, and will probably decrease or stop with time. I will say, if you’re still creeping on your ex’s social media, STOP IMMEDIATELY. That helped me a lot with frequency.
posted by ceramicspaniel at 6:56 PM on August 25, 2022 [8 favorites]

I've had dreams with my HIGH SCHOOL boyfriends in them.* That was 15+ years ago. I've been happily with my spouse for 13. Your brain just... does stuff. Especially pulling from your life. It's just sorting through random thoughts and memories. I wouldn't put much more into it then that.

Give your brain new things to think about, both awake and for sleeping. If you play a lot of Tetris, that will show up in your dreams too. Really! They've done dream studies using that!

*Then sometimes I don't fully realize I'm dreaming but DO realize *gasp* I'm married, and not to my high school boyfriend! And I did I accidentally cheat on my husband with my high school boyfriend?! Then wake up from what turned into an anxiety dream to laugh at how silly it was. On par with working in the mall again.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:31 PM on August 25, 2022 [11 favorites]

Like Crystalinne, I dreamed about one of my exes regularly for like fifteen years, during all of which I was partnered with Mr. eirias. It was disturbing for a while, but eventually I just learned to shrug it off.
posted by eirias at 7:43 PM on August 25, 2022

I did a cordcutting ritual to help me recover from the CPTSD of my super abusive ex boyfriend, I did it a few times and I've been able to significantly sleep better since then. You can look it up and search around until a variation you find suits you! But the key thing I did afterwards was learning to replace my thoughts and habits of thinking about him with other things that bring me joy after.
posted by yueliang at 8:04 PM on August 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

This is totally normal and doesn’t need fixing or suggest you’re not healing or moving on. In fact, conscious, voluntary, intentional sexual fantasies about him would be normal, too. Healing is about what you do, not what your mind churns up in the process.
posted by shadygrove at 8:05 PM on August 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

So incredibly normal that I think you'd have a very hard time finding someone who 1) remembers their dreams and 2) has an ex that doesn't have them appear in their dreams.

I think the issue may be around holding onto the feelings from the dreams once you wake up. I rarely go a night without anxiety dreams. If I'm not careful, I can get completely wrapped up in the dream and it colours my whole day. If I manage to catch myself right after waking and go "Nice work, brain. Very creative" then the feelings dissipate pretty quickly. Acknowledge and put aside (helps with intrusive thoughts as well).
posted by Adifferentbear at 9:06 PM on August 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This does sound normal, and not a sign that you're unduly fixated on your ex. As you said, that's the experience you've had, and from your brain's point of view, sex = your ex.

I wonder if it would help to consciously fantasize about someone else-- a sexy actor? A sexy character from a book? I don't know whether it would translate to your dreams, but I do know that if I've been thinking about a particular person, or seeing them a lot in movies/tv/wherever, they tend to show up in my dreams.
posted by tuesdayschild at 9:07 PM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

We all have dreams about exes, there really isn't much you can do about stopping them from coming on. You can be waaaaaaaaay over an ex and still have one.

The technique I've heard is once you wake up, make up some kind of ending to the dream to your liking to resolve it, and then the dream hopefully doesn't come back.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:47 PM on August 25, 2022

acts in the way that I wished he’d acted towards me when we were together.

Your dreaming brain may seem a little hinky but I think it's right, your waking brain is fully capable of picking up what it's putting down. You know where you're going with these memories, which is "onwards". You'll get there. It's working.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:17 PM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Super duper normal.

I have extremely vivid, memorable dreams. But even at my most wildly imaginative, most of the time anywhere a person would belong in a dream I fill it in with someone from my life who vaguely fits that role. This means that if I’ve played too many high fantasy rpgs before bed and I’m dreaming about some wild quest to kill god or flying on dragons or whatever, I am liable to fight my horrible middle school English teacher, or my mystical companion will look like my old buddy from college, or the potion seller is just the grocery cashier whose line I prefer at the store.

I have romance dreams that involve a boy I was in love with over twenty years ago. My brain has definitely aged up his appearance and the scenarios and all that, but I wake up knowing it was him in the dream. It’s almost like a comfort thing at this point; it’s been so long since I spoke to him IRL and even longer since I had romantic feelings for him, it’s like as I was maturing my brain carved a shape that looks like him and labeled it “squishy nice romance feelings” and now my mind puts this shape in play when I need self soothing.

The best thing for me to do after I have a dream that distresses me when I’m awake is to go through some grounding techniques. I try to pay attention to how the emotion I’m feeling from the dream memory is making my body feel, and take steps to change that. For example, if my chest feels tight from dream anxiety, I will do big chest expanding deep breaths. If I’m grinding my teeth from a dream where I couldn’t say what needed saying, I eat something crunchy and stretch my neck to relax my jaw. So for you, if these dreams you have are troubling you in the daytime, pay attention to how your body feels and do whatever helps to change the feelings you find unpleasant. Maybe stretching or exercise, maybe touching or chewing certain textures, maybe being warmer or cooler (sometimes my feet and hands are very cold after a scary dream and warming them helps a lot), there’s lots of variation between people so you’ll have to figure out what works for you.

If the dreams aren’t really affecting you during waking hours and it’s just a jarring transition in the morning, maybe a better morning routine could help. Like maybe upgrade your breakfasts to something you can look forward to, or find some great music to draw your focus as you wake up.
posted by Mizu at 11:38 PM on August 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Totally normal. I think it’s wise to think of your relationship as multiple experiences. Your relationship didn’t work out but you probably had a few pleasurable sexual experiences and some pleasurable emotional experiences too.

Ending a relationship doesn’t mean everything was a disaster and you can still have good memories about it - they sometimes lead to good dreams.
posted by bendy at 11:53 PM on August 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can try fantasizing about other people during the day, and/or find some porn you like and spend time focusing on that. If your brain wants a sex dream, having additional material for it to draw on might help.
posted by metasarah at 3:28 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

I was have very graphic, very unwanted nightmares and my therapist told me how she helped combat vets “take control” of their dreams.

Every night before I fell asleep she had me say out loud, “Tonight, I will be in control of my dreams.”

I was skeptical, and it didn’t improve immediately, but this actually worked for me and I haven’t been plagued by those dreams for years now. The interesting thing was, before they stopped completely they actually did give me control in the dream. Instead of Unwanted Terrible Thing happening, I prevented it like a superhero. It honestly was very empowering and gave me closure.

Congratulations on moving on, by the way. It’s not easy!
posted by Syllables at 4:55 AM on August 26, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yup, I definitely dream about exes. This is normal.

Here’s another possibility: maybe many nights you dream all sorts of things, but you remember your dreams about your exes more because he crosses your mind the next day.

I do think it might be good if you had some new experiences to fill your head and distract you. This doesn’t have to be dating. I recall you’ve moved to a new town. Are you keeping busy? Filling your head with good stuff?
posted by bluedaisy at 5:04 AM on August 26, 2022

> I think it might be hindering my healing

That's your problem. You're making a something out of nothing. Your subconscious is not under your control. It will do whatever it feels is appropriate and that's only a problem if you make it one. "You are not your thoughts" also works as "you are not your dreams" and likewise "your dreams are not you". Also true for emotions, BTW, those are your subconscious, you didn't choose them so paying attention to them is optional.

Meditation is really great practice for letting go. You sit, and know that you're sitting. You watch your breath and then you notice when you're distracted. You let go of the distraction and go back to your breath. You'll get distracted a LOT, totally normal, and it means you get a LOT of practice letting go. It becomes a super power. You're brain comes up with whatever BS it thinks is important and you notice and you let go. Let's you get on with your life instead of obsessing about sex dreams.

Best luck.
PS. Not an instant fix though, takes a fair bit of practice before it turns into a super power. In the mean time it's calming, so not like you get nothing out of it.
posted by Awfki at 5:30 AM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cultivate a sexual relationship with yourself. Use fantasy or images to figure out what you like alone with yourself, which may be quite different from what you like with a partner. Feed that part of yourself with experiences that don’t involve another person.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:46 AM on August 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Nthing all the advice to start exploring your awake fantasy/masturbation life. It might also help to think about the YOU in those dreams: what is it about HER that you like? Eviction scenarios do help some people grieve, and focusing on getting him out of your head might help! But my personal and observed experience affirms that it’s really, really hard to Get People Out when we’ve loved them - they are now *part of us*, too.

In that line, much of pining for exes (which is one of my strongest skills) is about longing for who WE were when we were with them. Are there qualities of the dream-you in these fantasies that appeal to you, or that you don’t feel like in your awake life?

In observing some of my own pining, I’ve been able to see that I missed feeling desirable, confident, adventurous, excited about my partner’s body and mind. Building up my own independent sexuality has meant spending lots of time naked, figuring out what makes me feel sexy and confident *to myself* (banter, wide-legged pants and tight knit tops, blush, a whole universe of music from jazz to NIN), concocting and experimenting with fantasies, learning about other people’s and thinking about what sounds fun and what isn’t for me, celebrating masturbation as part of a healthy sex life, questioning my desires and attractions and investing effort in un-learning damaging messages that I’ve absorbed about what bodies, personalities, desires are attractive or acceptable.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 1:46 PM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

Here's a funny video I just saw about dreaming about your exes. 😅 Hopefully it gives you a laugh? https://youtu.be/-eBA3qzxvp0
posted by foxjacket at 4:11 PM on August 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

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