Find Out Why You Are Dreaming About An Ex

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated December 8, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

In many cases, dreaming about an ex may help you process your emotions. For instance, if you’ve recently started a new relationship, it may not be uncommon to dream about an ex. Similarly, if you recently saw your ex, then it might make sense to dream about them. Sometimes, your ex may show up in your dreams for no particular reason. If you’d like to further analyze your dreams with the help of a mental health professional, you might seek help from a licensed therapist online or in person.


Why Do We Dream?

If you’re dreaming about an ex on repeat, you might take a step back and ask the bigger question: Why do we dream in the first place? While the exact cause generally remains unclear, scientists and psychologists can offer a few likely explanations.

1. Dreams May Help Us Process Our Emotions

Some scientists believe that dreams offer a simulation of reality and that the heightened emotions we tend to experience while dreaming may help us develop tools to cope with these intense feelings. 

When you’re dreaming – perhaps about your ex or another major person or event in your life – you might experience more intense emotions and encounter unusual situations, which may demand more emotional energy than is typically required in your daily life. This might be your brain’s way of “practicing” the emotional control skills you might need during the daylight hours.

While more research is likely needed to provide support for this theory, scientists are developing a significant body of research on this topic. Most recently, in 2022, a group of researchers illustrated that the brain employs a “triage” system to strengthen positive emotions and weaken negative or traumatic emotions during the REM stage of sleep, when many of us experience our most vivid dreams. 

2. Dreams May Support Memory Storage

During a typical day in your life, think of all the images and information you see and consume. At the end of a long day, where does it all go?

Research suggests that dreams may play a role in organizing, consolidating, and transferring all this information as we sleep, potentially resulting in either short-term or long-term memories. When this information is organized, we generally have cognitive space to continue making memories the next day. 

To illustrate the connection between dreams and memory, many scientists study “post-learning sleep,” when people learn a specific task and go to sleep shortly afterward. Studies indicate that when people dream after learning something new, they tend to dream about the recently acquired skill, encode the memory needed to perform that task, and ultimately improve their performance while awake. 

3. Dreams May Keep Our Brains “Fit” 

A more recent theory suggests that our brains might dream to stay in top mental shape. Dr. Erik Hoel, a researcher who studies human consciousness, uses this theory to explain why you might go to bed feeling “stuck” on a problem, only to wake up with the solution the next morning. 

The human brain can become caught in a repetitive cycle of daily tasks, says Dr. Hoel. All those logistical tasks, like driving to work or filling out your weekly timesheet, can cause your brain to become “overfit.” This generally means that, while may consistently be able to do some things well, your brain might not be as receptive to new learning. 

This is where dreams might come in. As we sleep, they usually break the cycle of monotony and “add noise” to our thought processes, potentially challenging our brains to engage in more flexible or complex thinking. Dr. Hoel compares this process to machine learning, since programmers often introduce random variables (also called noise) in files to prevent artificial intelligence from becoming overfit. 


Why Am I Dreaming About My Ex? 

For the recently single and aspiring dream interpreters, it may be a question as old as time. Why do I continue to dream about my ex, perhaps months or even years after the end of the relationship?

Although the answer usually depends on your relationship history, brain chemistry, and current lifestyle, the dream theories mentioned above may offer some direction. Here are some possible reasons why you keep dreaming about a past love, followed by strategies to process and move on from these dreams. 

1. You’re Processing Old Emotions

Why do I dream about my ex? If dreams are a way to “practice” coping with intensely emotional situations, it can make sense that an ex may appear in your dreamscape! Encounters with a past partner, even if they’re just in a dream, can bring up plenty of emotions, as well as memories of trauma. 

Traumatic memories may include abuse* or even the death of a partner. Regardless of its cause, trauma can resurface in dreams, possibly as the brain’s way of coping with grief. These dreams can be intense, and while only you can “see” the full extent, a licensed therapist can help you navigate these memories and process your emotions in real-time. 

*If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance.

2. You’ve Started A New Relationship 

The beginning of a new relationship may be filled with hope and excitement. At the same time, you may be adjusting to this new partner and connection, which can be emotionally overwhelming. At the start of a new romance, and even well into an established, healthy relationship, your dreams about an ex-partner might revolve around infidelity, jealousy, or other concerns that shaped your previous relationship. 

In this case, these dreams might be your brain’s way of processing past relationships, as well as your current connection with a new partner. Some research suggests that dreams about infidelity and jealousy may reflect the current state of a new relationship, or of a person’s waking behaviors during the daytime. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that dreams are “proof” of dishonest behavior. If anything, dreams about your ex, as well as cheating, jealousy, and other relational concerns, can be reframed as an opportunity to reflect on the health of your current relationship and potentially reach out to a mental health professional for further support. 

3. You Recently Saw Your Ex

If dreams are the brain’s way of consolidating images and memories from your day, it could make sense to dream about your ex-partner if you saw them during the daytime, particularly if the encounter was unexpected or emotional.

In today’s digital era, simply seeing your ex on social media may provide enough content for a vivid dream. If repeated dreams about a previous partner result in emotional pain, your therapist might encourage you to hide or block them on social media to avoid resurfacing old memories.

4. You’re Just Dreaming! (In Short: There’s No Reason)

It can be common to dream about familiar people, and this may include ex-partners. You may have spent months or even years with your ex, so it could make sense that they might reemerge in your dreams. 

A 2015 study found that about 35% of people in relationships regularly dreamt of their current or former partners. In comparison, 17% of single people usually dreamt about their ex-partners, suggesting that people in relationships may be more likely to dream about romance, which could include both past and present flames. 

Not all dreams may be explainable. By slowly learning to accept this reality, you can eliminate some of the pressure of figuring out the “why” behind your dreams. Based on the current science, many dreams can be written off as products of fundamental brain processes, which generally help us encode memories, process tough emotions, and stay mentally fit. 

Ilona Titova/EyeEm

Online Therapy Can Help You Make Sense Of Your Dreams

If you’re looking for someone to help you parse through dreams and begin the next stage of your life, a licensed therapist may have the tools and wisdom to support you. 

Benefits Of Online Therapy

Online therapy may help you connect with a licensed therapist who has helped others with similar challenges. If you’re interested in discussing your dreams with a mental health professional, an online therapy platform may allow you to schedule early-morning sessions so that you can talk about your dreams when they are still fresh in your mind.

Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

Research indicates that online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face therapy. For example, in a study of online cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), researchers found that online CBT-I generally reduced the frequency of nightmares. While more research may be needed to assess the benefit of online therapy for patients with recurring dreams, psychologists normally agree that online therapy can benefit individuals with a variety of mental health conditions. 

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When we lie down to sleep every night, our emotions and memories may not simply disappear. Alternatively, research indicates that our dreams may offer insight into our mental health, memories, and relationships. Dreams about an ex may occur if you’ve seen them recently, have started a new relationship, or are processing old emotions. It’s also possible you may dream about an ex for no particular reason. If you’re moving on from a past relationship, dreams might be a significant part of your healing process. A licensed, compassionate therapist can help you sort through your dreams, resolve old memories and emotions, and pursue a healthier, happier lifestyle – both day and night.

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