What It *Really* Means If You Dream About Your Ex

Lindsay Geller
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Women's Health

You know how Hollywood sex dreams always come with some kind of “duh!” epiphany for the characters having them? (Lookin’ at you, Kat fromThe Bold Type.) Hate to be a buzzkill, but those kind of lightbulb moments don’t just present themselves at the foot of your bed IRL.

You need to do a li’l work to get to the bottom of them, because every dream comes with a “personal, unconscious meaning” that reflects your specific experiences, says Rubin Naiman, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of medicine and dream specialist at the University of Arizona. A steamy dream with a past flame, for example, could mean a different thing to you than to your friend—it all depends on the associations you have with that lost love or that particular period in your life. Was he the one that got away? Or was it more of a byeeeee, see ya never situation?

It’s a lot to consider before your morning coffee, but there’s a method to understanding the madness. “To interpret your dreams, you need to think through what all the main elements—people, places, things—might symbolize for you,” says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Committee of Sleep. Her go-to technique: Pretend you’re talking to someone from another planet (yes, really), and describe everything that happened—who, what, where, how—as if they don’t know anything. In your description, “you’ll often find language that’s kind of metaphorical,” says Barrett. Were you in tumultuous waters? A dark room? A position of power? A sex dream isn’t always about sex, FYI. Consider this your guide to decoding *those* kinds of dreams.

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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Your Least Fave Ex

“Dreaming is healing,” Naiman says. “It’s kind of a digestive process”—taking difficult experiences, like a breakup, and spelling them out to provide understanding. Maybe everything was going great in the dream until he said something condescending. Hmm…didn’t he do that a lot when you were dating? Oh yeah, next. Consider this dream a way to get closure.

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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The Ex You Kinda Miss

Don’t send an “I miss you” text. Sure, your subconscious might be nudging you to get back together…or this could be yet another form of closure. Depending on your experiences with the ex in question, the dream could also be about qualities you’d like to see more (or less) of in yourself; our significant others have a way of highlighting certain aspects of our own personalities. Did your college ex make you feel spontaneous and fun, and now you’re a more cautious ~adult~ with real responsibilities? This might be a push to find that part of you—not him—again.

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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Your High School Crush

You haven't seen the dude in decades...what gives?! Much like how your college ex might remind you of a more fun time in your life, a young crush might make you think of a simple, more innocent period. Remember: Dreams are more often about you, then the other person.

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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

A Maybe-More Friend

It’s possible you picked up on some vibes without realizing it, Barrett says. "It might be the first time the impulse has consciously registered with you,” says Barrett.

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A Platonic Friend

You love your best bud, natch, but you never thought about making love until…well, you did. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you wanna add some bennies to your friendship during waking hours. “If you know you want to keep things purely platonic, then it’s back to question time: What is this friend like, and how do they differ from acquaintances? What do you like most about this particular pal?

Listing their characteristics might help you unlock a desire to emulate their habits, Barrett says. And how was the sex? Did it feel intimate and comforting? You could be craving that same kind of closeness and itching for someone you can be vulnerable—emotionally naked, if you will—in front of.

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A Coworker

The power dynamics differ when you’re having dream sex with your cubicle mate vs. the head honcho, but hey, you don’t need to worry about HR either way (phew!). While you could be harboring a secret attraction to the person you spend countless hours collaborating with, it’s just as likely you admire their work ethic, ideas, or problem solving, says Barrett.


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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Your Boss (Yikes!)

You could be drawn to their power and want to bring more confidence into your professional life, says Naiman. A sign to take that management course you’ve been eyeing?


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You Cheated

Let yourself off the hook: Dream cheating isn't the same as regular cheating. (Phew.) But it could mean you feel guilty about something. “In my research and experience helping my clients understand their cheating dreams, I have found the main reason you cheat in your dreams is because—deep down—you have guilt or concern about something you’re doing that is taking away from the time you should be putting into the relationship,” Lauri Loewenberg, certified dream analyst, told WH in Your Dreams About Cheating Could Mean A Few Different Things. Are you holding back from your partner in some other way?


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A Romantic New City

New places could have many meanings, so it's important to think about your associations with the place. Is it where you had your honeymoon? A place you've always wanted to go? If you’re in Paris, the capital of romance, it’s possible you’re craving something special from your partner.


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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

A Stressful New City

Again, the same city could mean different things depending on the dream. Were you wandering around Paris lost and unable to speak the language. Hmmm, is there something you can’t talk to your love about?


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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

A Public Place

Your dream features the usual suspects (your S.O., your crush), but somewhere that would be totally normal in any other situation except sex (a stairwell, a mattress store, a public park). Could this be a sign you need to shake things up a little? Sure could.


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A Weird Place

If a public place means you need to shake things up a little, a weird spot—see: the moon—might signal that it's time to shake things up a lot. Try one of these super hot sex positions!

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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Another Woman

So, the hottie in your dream wasn’t the male trainer you follow on Insta but the female one (or vice versa). Is this a sign you’ve been playing for the wrong side all along? Probs not. “Dreams don’t smack you over the head like that,” says Naiman. You might just want to try something new, says Barrett.

To dig deeper, you need to determine the thoughts you have around same-sex ’ships. Do you come from a family that isn’t accepting? Do you feel they’re rejecting you for some reason? Or do you have two coupled-up friends and admire how they support each other? You may be craving a similarly close female connection—clothes on.


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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

A Celeb

Well, there are lots of celebs out there. What are the associations you have with the person in your sex dream? By thinking of what they represent to you, you'll have an easier time analyzing the dream.

"Describe their characteristics, and see if any reflect something you want more or less of in yourself," Barrett says. "But also, lots of people have the hots for celebrities. So it may be more straightforward.” Fair enough.


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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Someone Walked In On You

"Humans have so many anxieties about sex," Barrett says, noting that people often have shame about their preferences and insecurities about their attractiveness. "Our anxieties can come bubbling up in dreams." Did a family member walk in on you? It could signify that you have some more deep-rooted hang-ups.


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Photo credit: Hearst Owned

You Got Preg

Not exactly a sex dream, but we all know how the birds and bees work.

“Pregnancy can be a metaphor for other kinds of creativity,” Barrett told WH in This Is Why You Keep Having Dreams About Being Pregnant. “Babies can represent the new: new endeavors, new relationships. Or, they can represent the vulnerable or immature part of the dreamer.”

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This article appears in the July/August 2020 issue of Women’s Health, available Tuesday, July 7.

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