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How to be human: what do dreams about exes mean for my relationship?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hi Leah,

Recently, my husband told me that he had been thinking about his ex girlfriend (this was five days after it started). He said he was at work when out of nowhere, he just started thinking about her. And then that night he dreamt of her, but he couldn't remember his dream. He said he had been thinking about her a lot, like every day, and every night he would remember she was in his dreams, but not remember the dreams. He told me he was lost and confused. He didn't understand why he had been thinking about her, especially so much.

It's been seven years since they last spoke, and almost as long since he's seen her. He messaged her on Facebook about a year and a half ago, to say sorry for the way things ended between them, and I guess she said she was sorry too. But that was it, nothing else. And now, out of nowhere, he's been thinking about her a lot. He told me he guesses he misses her, but he doesn't know how he misses her. He said he was so confused, so I looked some stuff up to try and help him. I asked him, are you unhappy with me, do you wish you could be with her, different scenarios. He said to be honest, he wasn't truly happy with me. That there was something missing, but he didn't know what it was. We went through a rough patch about two years ago, but have been together since the beginning of last year working on our relationship. He says I make him happy, just not as happy as I used to.

All the questions I ask him about her, he doesn't really answer. He just says I don't know. Then he told me, "all I know, is that I love you and I want to be with you." But I can't help but think if he's thinking of her, whether he's at work, when we're together, when we're intimate, and if he's dreaming of her. I told him, if he doesn’t have feelings for her anymore, then stop thinking about her all the time. We can control our thoughts. He says she will always hold a spot in his heart, which I can kind of understand. But he's my husband, his heart should belong to me. And if part of it is for her still, than I don't have his whole heart, and that hurts me. It's so bad my mind wanders constantly, my heart hurts, and I'm constantly feeling sick to my stomach. I guess my question is, do I have anything to worry about, and how can I help him. And why after seven years is he suddenly thinking about her?

Not The Past

Hey NTP,

Let me make something super clear: I do not think your husband is a special kind of asshole. I don’t think this is happening because he’s a man, or because he’s an inherently bad person. Maybe those things are true, but I can’t know that based on your letter. But what I do know based on your letter is that he’s not being honest, not with you and not with himself, and he’s trying to make his feelings your responsibility. That’s no good.

NTP, I don’t for a second believe your husband started thinking about his ex out of the blue. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence he messaged her on Facebook shortly after (or even during) your rough patch. How do I know? Because your husband is doing something countless humans have done in similar situations. He’s using his ex as a crutch.

The story he’s telling you is one that gestures at the truth without technically lying but also without being truthful. Using his ex as a proxy for his feelings about your relationship is shitty and unfair. It takes the heat off him. Rather than confront his own feelings, he’s making you confront them, as well as your fears. Is he thinking about her? Does he love her more? How can you help him? Is it something you’re not doing right? Why don’t you make him as happy as you used to? What if she made him happier? What if you lose him?

It’s now about her vs. you. Oh look! There’s your husband, sneaking through the ropes and heading out of the ring.

Your husband says he’s lost and confused. I believe that’s true. But your husband is also an adult who’s capable of doing things like making choices and using the internet. It’s so interesting how you looked up ways to help him work through this and to better understand what he’s going through. That was smart of you, and thoughtful. It also means your husband could do this too, for himself. Yeah, I know, it’s hard to confront feelings or to talk about them. It’s hard to find help you can trust, a friend or therapist you feel comfortable opening up to. It’s easier to have your partner do it for you while you think about and even talk to an ex. That’s a person who knows you already. Better yet, you can project your needs and feelings onto them and imagine them as the one who could have made you happy, while you conveniently ignore all the issues that caused you to break up. This is why it’s so tempting for most of us to look at or contact exes when we feel shitty about relationship stuff (whether or not we’re in one). In these situations, we don’t see exes as actual people. They’re ideas, composites of our own feelings, desires, and needs.

Your husband is unhappy for whatever set of reasons. And like a lot of unhappy people, he’s looking to get lost in a fantasy. I mean this literally: He told you he’s been dreaming about her every night! That’s fucked up of him! It’s one thing to say "I had a really weird dream about an ex" to your wife, with whom you regularly have open, honest communication. It’s another thing to say "I’ve dreamt about my ex every night, and I can’t stop thinking about her in general." Honesty doesn’t mean sharing unnecessary, hurtful details. Plus, the dreaming-about-her-every-night thing isn’t even honesty. He’s struggling with some serious feelings, and he isn’t able (or willing) to deal with or take responsibility for them. Dreams are a neat way of saying "gosh, this crazy thing is just happening to me, what can I even do about it."

You two need to find a therapist who can help you talk things through. When you do find someone, there are two things I want you to think about and work on. Specifically you, NTP, regardless of what happens with your husband. The first is the idea of controlling thoughts. A lot of thoughts are hard to control for a lot of reasons. Brains are weird. I think what you want is not for him to control his thoughts, it’s for him to make better choices. Your husband is choosing to find ways to think about his ex, like contacting her on Facebook. He’s choosing to tell you about his feelings for her in this unfiltered, unsupportive way. These are bad choices.

I talk about control vs choice in my columns a fair amount, which is why I think this idea of "controlling your thoughts" is important to address. Same goes for the idea that your husband’s heart "belongs" to you. The idea of someone "belonging" to someone else is nice when it’s the lyric to a song, but in real life it’s deeply wrapped up in the need for control. If someone belongs to you, then you can control them and the situation, right? You can also make sense of what’s happening with your husband and his ex by applying logic and rules. But that’s not how people or relationships work. It’s not how hearts work. I say this not only as an advice columnist but as someone who’s learned the hard way on both sides of the control equation.

Hearts have room in them for a lot of love, and that love takes many forms. Sometimes it’s threatening and scary to think about the idea that your husband or wife or partner still has a place for an ex in his or her heart. Yes, I know, "a place for an ex" can be shorthand for "I don’t know how to let go of people" or "I’m afraid to have anyone think poorly of me" or even "I want to keep all my options open." It can also be shorthand for "I use feelings about my last ex to express feelings about my current relationship."

But people can sincerely love their exes as human beings with whom they shared a lot of time, human beings they got to know and cared about deeply. This isn’t romantic love. It’s familiar, familial love. Being comfortable with this and understanding it requires deep trust and communication. You and your husband made a commitment. You need to trust one another, and to be able to communicate in a way that’s fair to both of you. You have trouble trusting him. Maybe that’s because of the current situation, or maybe he’s never been trustworthy. For all I know, you have deep fears related to trust and, like many of us, are good at finding or creating situations in which those fears come true. Similarly, your husband has trouble communicating honestly with you. Rather than tell you he’s not happy, or ask you to work on this with him, he’s using his his ex as a way to gesture at the truth of his feelings.

You are two people who have a lot to learn about yourselves and about each other. In particular, you need to learn if your husband is willing to work on your relationship in good faith, rather than dumping things in your lap and then not dealing with them. You both have a lot of choices to make, and I hope you find a trusted therapist who can help you make the best choice for you.

Lx