Dear Wendy: “I Can’t Stop Dreaming About My Ex”

I keep dreaming about my first love, in an obsessive, gut-wrenching way, even though I am in a long-term relationship with a man that I really truly love. My current boyfriend is amazing to me and I am really scared I am going to screw things up because of my strange behavior. The dreaming started when I saw my ex for the first time last summer, after not seeing him for three years. In my dreams I am trying to read letters from him that I can never open, or we are having an affair. I always choose my boyfriend in the end, even though there is a part of me that misses my old love. I get that this is a closure issue, but the question is how do I deal with it? Do I seek him (the ex) out to try and make the dreams go away or do I continue to suppress them, which has over the past year only made things worse? I have to do something, because they just won’t stop. — Sleepless in Seattle

Just last night I had a dream of one my ex-boyfriends. He and I dated for four years, lived together for three, and moved from Missouri to Chicago 10 years ago last month. I haven’t seen him in years, but Google tells me he got married a few weeks before I did, and if his wedding website is any indication (I know, I know — borderline creepy that I looked at it, but it was so easy to find and I’m nosy, so … ), he’s very happy and has a lovely wife. And for my part, I’ve never known happiness like I have with my husband. So, why did I dream about my ex? He hadn’t been on my mind recently. It wasn’t his birthday or a long-ago anniversary or any special date or occasion that would trigger thoughts about him — subconscious or otherwise.

I suspect I dreamed of my old boyfriend last night for similar reasons you frequently dream of your first love, SiS: because it’s autumn and autumn makes me nostalgic; because I’m getting older and some part of my subconscious associates my old boyfriend with youth — specifically my youth; because I’ve found the person I plan to spend the rest of my life with and sometimes that’s a heavy notion — the idea that if I’ve got someone I want to grow old with, I’m accepting that I’m really going to grow old — and my relationship with my ex is like this moment in time where I never age; because, thinking about the future is scary and my relationship with my ex represents the past, something I can see clearly in retrospect. The past isn’t scary because I know exactly how it turns out. The future, though … who knows how the future will play out.

The thing you have to remember about dreams is they’re almost always about you and issues your subconscious mind is trying to work through. So, while you might think you’re having these “obsessive, get-wrenching” dreams about your ex, you’re really dreaming about yourself and whatever fears you’re experiencing right now. Seeing your ex last summer triggered something, but it’s unlikely it triggered romantic feelings about him. If it did, you’d have those feelings while awake, too. Do you? If not, the dreams are probably about your current relationship and fears you may have about committing to your boyfriend for the long haul.

I’ve found that my dreams, whether they’re about ex-loves or not, are most intense when I’m at a crossroads in my life or faced with an important decision. Think about where you are right now and the choices you’re making about your future. Focus on those decisions and keep looking ahead for answers rather than in the past. Pretend you’re five or ten years in the future and write a letter to yourself right now. Describe what your life is like and how grateful you are with your younger self for being brave and hard-working and taking the steps to get to where you are. Explain how especially important it is to open your heart, trust your gut and follow your intuition. I suspect you need extra validation right now that you’re following the right path, and envisioning where that path may lead you might help.

Finally, if the dreams about your ex continue, write a letter to him — but don’t send it! Don’t reach out to him in real life at all. In the letter, tell him what your relationship meant to you, what you learned about love and being a good partner, and how those lessons are helping you now. Tell him how happy you are with your current boyfriend and what kind of plans you have with him in the future. And then say goodbye. The closure you think you need can be this simple (and private). Tell him you’ve already learned everything you can from him, and that he exists in your past and you need to let him go. Wish him well and ask him to respect your space by staying out of your dreams. This is the letter you haven’t been able to open in your dreams. If you’ve been struggling with getting the message, finally writing it out and consciously saying goodbye to your past will make it crystal clear. And if it doesn’t, it’s time to look more closely at what’s going on in your present that’s keeping you from restful sleep.

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