12/01/2011 09:56 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2012

I'll See You in My Dreams

I met my friend for coffee the other day. Samantha's* 25 year marriage ended in divorce several years ago, and after a prolonged recovery period, she is making great strides in her newly rebuilt life.

We simultaneously arrived at our destination and after a brief greeting she turned to me with a worried look and announced, "I had the most realistic dream about Brian last night. It really freaked me out. It's been five years already -- why am I still dreaming about him?"

This is a question that is regularly posed to me by friends and clients during and after a breakup or divorce.

It's been over a century since Sigmund Freud introduced his theory on dreams. According to Freud and his contemporaries, dreams represented buried traumas or "neurosis" in our subconscious, which required prolonged therapy in order to analyze and ultimately resolve them.

Today it is speculated that dreams may represent many things, but they can also be fantasy, fiction, and fun; ergo the saying about that cigar.

It is completely normal to dream about an ex -- and most people do. It is unrealistic to think that someone we once cared deeply about, and who took up a great deal of space in our lives, hearts and minds will be erased once the divorce papers are signed. Yet dreaming about an ex can undoubtedly be disturbing -- especially if there are unresolved issues and feelings, or if there was minimal closure during the ending. I've had numerous clients express to me their acute feelings of anguish, shock, fear, guilt and rage after awakening from a realistic dream. This unsettling experience can make you question your reality, your choices, and even worse, agonize that your recovery is in jeopardy.

On occasion these dreams will represent something substantial regarding your ex and your split. If that is the case, it is prudent to spend some time contemplating the meaning of your dream, or what you think the dream represents. The reason being is that it is nearly impossible to reach a meaningful, healthy and full recovery from your divorce without a thorough and honest understanding of your personal circumstances and narrative. And at times, a dream may help you fill in some missing gaps, and that is actually a very good thing.

If your breakup is a recent occurrence, there is a good possibility that your ex will make nocturnal visits a bit more than you will like. Try not to get too rattled and try to make peace with that fact. And if you've been divorced for several years and find that you are having a spell of frequent dreams, perhaps there is something happening in your current life that is triggering these dreams.

After discussing my friend Samantha's dream, we were able to make some astute conclusions. It was her ex's weekend to have their children in his home. Plus, it was Halloween, and she was worried that her teenage sons wouldn't receive proper supervision. After she realized this, she decided to call her former husband (calmly and rationally) to discuss her concerns, and the conversation assuaged her fears. Since then, there have been no dreams about Brian.

Here are some suggestions to help you turn your dreams (and occasional nightmares) into interesting insights:

  • Take a moment to gather your bearings and tell yourself that you have just had a dream, and although realistic, it is a fantasy in your mind, and you are safe.
  • Remind yourself that dreaming about your ex, although unsettling, is completely normal, and remember that you are not alone.
  • If you are keeping a journal (something I highly recommend to anyone grappling with the ending of a marriage) try to recall the details of the dream. Write down what you remember. Even a few bullet points will be helpful. If don't recall much, write down what you were feeling when you awoke.
  • Review your notes at a later date. Perhaps there is material there worth examining? If so, please do.

Alternatively, not all dreams have significance. If you've reviewed your dream and determined it was simply an old memory, or not particularly representative of anything at all, let sleeping dogs lie.

As much as we may wish to erase memories of our ex from our brains (both good and bad), it's simply not possible. Our exes were once a vital part of our lives, and our recollections and feelings, even when we think they have been processed and released, will surface periodically. So try to accept and even expect an unforeseen nocturnal visit from time to time. Once you make peace with that concept, chances are you will have sweet dreams.

*Please note that all names in this post have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.