Why Do I Keep Dreaming About My Ex?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
Humans have long been fascinated by the meaning behind our dreams. The modern scientific study of dreams dates back to Sigmund Freud’s published research on the topic in 1915, which focuses on the role the unconscious mind may play in what we dream about. According to more recent research, the conscious mind—which thinks, perceives, and learns—is only responsible for a small portion of the total activity that takes place in the brain. The majority of neural activity is non-conscious and characterized by multitasking and efficiency—which is associated with dreaming. If you can’t stop dreaming about a past relationship, then understanding the role of the unconscious mind may help. Below, we’ll explore various frameworks for interpreting dreams along with potential reasons your ex may have showed up in yours.
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Theories about the subconscious

Dreams can often serve as a way to process and understand our emotions in real life. Much about dreaming and the subconscious mind is yet to be understood, so there’s no one, agreed-upon way to interpret distressing dreams. That said, a few different theories have been put forth about dreams. Considering the following dream frameworks may give you a starting point to try to make sense about why your ex may have been in your dream. Remember, however, that there’s currently no way to know for sure why we dream about the things we do. If you’re dreaming about certain topics like an ex, talking to a dream analyst about your experiences may be helpful.

  • Psychodynamic theory. Freud theorized that dreams serve as a window to the unconscious mind. He was a psychologist and dream researcher who believed dreams directly related to waking experiences and could offer meaningful information when analyzed.  Freud’s theories led to many theories on why people have sex dreams, dreams about relationships, love, and connections and how the themes of these common dreams might be reflected in their real lives.
  • Activation-input modulation (AIM). The AIM model proposes that dreams are a response to higher brain function and that the brain can provide a virtual reality model to “rehearse” real-world scenarios. 
  • Neurocognitive theory. According to neurocognitive theory, dreams arise from stored memories. Unique dreams then occur as you process memories and experiences, meaning that settings and people from your waking life will appear in them. However, it posits that dreams are not necessarily tied to specific incidents. 

Possible explanations for why you have dreams about an ex

Dreaming about an ex can leave you curious at best or unsettled and anxious at worst, especially if the relationship had significant issues, didn’t end well, or lacked closure. It’s generally not possible to tell exactly what it means when your ex-partner appears in your dreams, but you may be able to gain some insights about the reasons through the dream interpreting process. Often we assume it’s a wish fulfilment dream, but there are a number of other potential explanations for these dreams. To get started, you might read through a few of the possible interpretations about these dreams as listed below and see if any of them resonate with you.

You miss your ex

One of the most obvious reasons you may be dreaming about your ex is that you could be holding onto the past due to lingering love for your ex or similar wonderful feelings from long ago, even if you’re in a relationship with a new current partner. If you’re still thinking about them during your waking hours, that fixation may follow you into your dreams. This doesn’t mean you necessarily want to get back together with them, although it could. Instead, it could simply mean that you miss some elements of your relationship, or the familiarity and comfort it may have provided.

You want closure

If you have any unresolved feelings about your ex or your current relationship, they may influence your dreams. Perhaps there was a forced end to your relationship, your ex initiated the breakup when you weren’t ready for things to end, and you’re still feeling rejected. Or maybe their words or actions harmed you, and you feel it would be easier to heal if they acknowledged or apologized for them. Sometimes after a bad breakup, without a satisfactory “end” to the story in your mind your subconscious might be left ruminating about the situation resulting in ex-dreams that may reflect your thoughts about your current life.
Ilona Titova/EyeEm

You’re remembering trauma

If you experienced trauma while you were with your ex, such as abuse, your subconscious mind may be attempting to process it through your dreams. This could be happening because you weren't able to deal with your abusive ex in the moment, or because you have fear about a similar situation occurring again with a new partner in future relationships. Note that nightmares can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so if you experienced trauma in the past and are showing other signs of this mental health condition now, it’s typically recommended that you meet with a mental health professional like a certified dream analyst, for evaluation and support.

You recently saw your ex

Sometimes, the reason you may be dreaming of your ex can be as simple as you happened to see them during your waking hours in your real life. Perhaps you ran into them at the store, saw a post of theirs on social media, passed by a favorite restaurant you used to eat at together, or even received a call or message from them. Regardless of whether you have positive or negative feelings about your ex at the time, when this happens, it can bring up those memories, cause you to feel uncomfortable, and affect your dreams.

You’re feeling similar emotions about your ex

Another reason your ex appeared in your dream could be that something you’re currently experiencing reminds you of your time with them. For example, if you experienced low self-esteem during your relationship because of how your ex treated you and you’ve started feeling the same way with a new partner in your current relationship, your mind could be making those connections unconsciously. Or possibly they have a similar bad habit that bothers you. The same could happen as a result of a positive or neutral memory too, like attending an event with a friend or your current partner now that you had previously attended with your ex.

You’re moving on from your ex

It can be helpful in the process of interpreting your dream to think about how you felt while you were having it right after you wake. Were you afraid, angry, upset, confused, or at peace? Analyzing these emotions related to a dream about an ex might give you insight into how you feel about your ex now.

If you felt calm, or like you wanted to get away from them, or indifferent about their presence, these could be signs that you have or are ready to move on from your ex emotionally.

Need to process feelings about your ex?

Therapy with a certified dream analyst

A breakup often represents a significant life change, even if it was mutual and amicable. If there was conflict or trauma associated with the split, it can be even more difficult to move on regardless of your current life circumstances. If you’re having trouble processing a former relationship with a recent ex, are uncertain about a new relationship, or are simply looking for a nonjudgmental party to talk things out with, you might consider therapy. A therapist can help you explore what underlying issue may be causing dreaming about your ex and support you as you move forward with your life. 

Some people find it difficult to work regular in-person appointments with a therapist into their schedule, while others face financial barriers to receiving traditional mental health care. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a viable alternative. Online therapy is often more cost-effective than in-person sessions, and you can look for this type of care via the internet from anywhere without having to commute to and from an office. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can connect with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to discuss the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that online therapy is “no less efficacious” than in-person therapy, so you can generally choose whichever format feels best for you. You can read client reviews of BetterHelp counselors below.

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There’s much that remains to be understood about why we dream and what our dreams may mean, so interpreting one about your ex is not an exact science. If you’re having the support of a therapist may be beneficial.
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