Originally published on The Huffington Post
“I had the dream again last night,” a client tells me with a slight tone of shame in her voice. “You know, the dream where I’m having sex with my ex. Every time I have that dream I wake up feeling horribly guilty. Here I am in bed with my partner and I’ve practically had sex with my ex. And it was good sex, too. What does this mean? Does it mean I’m still in love with my ex and I don’t really love my partner?”
That would be the most obvious and understandable interpretation, especially when the client describes that when she wakes up she’s filled with longing for the ex. She says it will usually take her about ten minutes to pull herself out of the magnetic dream state and remind herself that she’s not actually with her ex. And then it’s a hard thud down to the reality that her everyday feelings for her partner could never compete with the ecstatic and consuming feelings in the dream.
I invite you to pause here to ask yourself what you’re thinking: Are you thinking that she’s with the wrong guy, that if she were really in love with her partner then she wouldn’t be having these dreams about her ex, that the dream is a message that she’s unfulfilled sexually by her partner and a harbinger that her marriage is doomed to fail? Or do you understand that dreams are signposts to the soul and that the images in dreams are metaphors for aspects of oneself that need attention?
I’m guessing you’re thinking the first, as it’s the most logic and obvious interpretation. But here’s the clincher: Dreams aren’t logical! Have you ever had a dream that all of your teeth fell out? Was the dream a sign that your teeth were about to fall out? Not likely. Or how about the archetypal dream that you’re walking around the supermarket in your underwear? A sign that you’re going to forget to get dressed that day? I don’t think so. We generally understand that dreams are bizarre, illogical, and sometimes downright absurd, yet why are we so quick to assume the obvious and logical interpretation about an engaged woman’s dream about having sex with her ex?
I now invite you to suspend your attachment to the logical interpretation and go along for a ride on the wings of Jungian dream interpretation. From a Jungian perspective, sex dreams have nothing to do with sex at all and everything to do with expressing the soul’s journey toward wholeness and uniting with the underdeveloped aspects of ourselves. According to Jung, when a woman dreams about having sex with a man it’s an indication that she’s needing to connect with the masculine aspect of herself, referred to as the animus. Likewise, a man’s inner feminine is his anima, also known as his muse or siren. When we connect with this opposing energies inside of ourselves, we’re also connecting to our creativity and spirituality.
Because of our cultural obsession with romance, we immediately understand sex dreams as indicators of actual urges toward the opposite sex instead of symbols of inner needs or drives. As Robert Johnson writes in We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love:
“Romantic love is the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche. In our culture is has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy.” p. xi
And on anima (for men) and animus (for women):
“For men, the symbol of soul is the image of woman [the symbol of the spirit is the image of man]. If a man is aware of this and knows when he is using the image of woman as the symbol of his own soul, then he can learn to relate to that image as symbol and to live his soul inwardly… Until he learns to confront the motives, desires, and unlived possibilities of his own secret heart, he can never be complete within or genuinely fulfilled. That power within, which constantly urges us to experience our unlived possibilities and values, is the most awesome force in human life. Anima is that force for men: She is the soul. [Animus for women: He is the spirit.]” p. 65
Now let’s examine the dream now through this new lens, remembering that every element of a dream represents some part of the dreamer’s unlived life. This is how I guided my client:
“How would you describe your ex?” I asked
“He’s very outgoing, extroverted, intelligent, charismatic. He’s also a jerk and not someone I could ever build a life with.”
“Are those positive qualities things that you would like to have more of in your own life?”
“Yes, definitely. But I end up projecting them onto my partner and wishing that he was more social and extroverted.”
“Yes, that’s easy to do. If you could peel the projection off of your partner and recognize that these dreams are your soul’s yearning for wholeness, to grow these underdeveloped parts of yourself, you wouldn’t feel so disturbed by them. How are you feeling in general in your life right now?” I asked.
“Pretty bored. I don’t love my job and I know I need to think about a career change. I’ve been feeling pretty bland for a while now.”
“Do you notice any correlation between when you’re feeling bland and bored and when you have these dreams about your ex?”
“Well, yes, now that I think about, I usually have a dream like this after a particularly boring day at work, and the thought I have is, ‘Really? Is this it for the rest of my life?’ I have the urge to blame my partner for my boredom but I know it’s not his responsibility to make me feel fulfilled and happy. I thought it was but now I know better! I just don’t know what else I would do with my life.”
“That’s a great question to explore,” I responded. We spent the rest of the session talking about her passions and interests, and how many of those had fallen away in recent years. We talked about how she could access the more social, extroverted parts of herself. As we spoke, the intense power of the dream fell away and she could see the dream figure of her ex as a symbol for uniting with parts of herself that are longing to grow.
It can be particularly disturbing to dream about sex with an ex during an engagement. This is when many of clients and e-course members find their way to my virtual doorstep and one of the first topics of conversation often centers around an ex. It can take a lot of time and attention to understand that the dreams are not an indication that they’re with the wrong guy but an indication that – as transitions always are – it’s an opportune time to grow the underdeveloped aspects of oneself, whether a deeper connection to one’s creativity, spirituality, aliveness, fulfillment, or connection with the world in a meaningful way. When my client can approach the dreams through this lens, they embrace the opportunity of their transition into marriage and take a strong first step toward the person they want to become on the other side of the wedding day.