Ursula Ferrara

Relationships

What Dreams May Come: Your Subconscious and Your Sex Life

It had been more than three years since we broke up, and I was still having dreams about my first love. She used to just occupy my daytime thoughts: I would wake up and think of her. I would crawl into bed and think of her. I would have sex with other women and think of her.

Our relationship had been cyclical: We’d break up, then make up, and seal each reunification pact with sex. Eventually, life moved on. I dated new girls, casually and carefully. I graduated college and got a job. I moved out of New York City and back to Cleveland. I stopped smoking so much weed. I didn’t think about her as much, some days not at all. I began to feel like I had overcome her memory.

Little did I know, like matter in the universe, memories can’t be destroyed. They can only be forgotten—sunk into the sludge of the subconscious, where they merge with other memories to create monsters of the id. And in the nightly submarine expedition of a dream, they come roaring back into view.

The first dream was in autumn of last year. I can barely remember the specifics, but it took the form of a phone call. I’m not sure whether we said “Let’s give it another try” or simply “We’ll always be friends”—words we said in the best of times—but it was a reconciliation. I opened my eyes. As the particles of the dream world trembled off me, I realized that no reconciliation had happened. It had been three years since we broke up, and one year since we last talked. Reality was still the same: un-magical, hard, with no happy ending.

The second dream came a week later. It began with a heartbreaking piano loop—uh oh, I thought. I found myself watching myself from above. It was the night that my ex-girlfriend and I broke up. I observed myself go to her room, sit on her bed, have our final conversation. “No,” I tried to scream. “Say the things you should have said, admit the things you should have admitted.” Instead, I watched myself get up, say goodbye and walk out the door.

A study by Binghamton University found that women “tend to recover more fully and come out emotionally stronger” from breakups, but men, in many cases, “never fully recover.”

I woke up sweating. I checked the time: 3 a.m. I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. No way. Against my will—like a movie projected on my eyelids—I retraced the entire timeline of our relationship. What I could have done differently, where it all went wrong. I didn’t go to sleep again that night.

Every week or so after that, I would have a dream about her. Each dream would ruin my morning. I would sit in traffic on the way to work, fuming with misery, unable to listen to music, focus, or even justify the value of doing anything. Japanese folklore and the Hebrew Bible have something in common—they both emphasize the incompleteness of man by himself. Without a partner, life felt meaningless.

I didn’t understand why I was still dreaming about my ex. Maybe it was because I had stopped smoking—vivid dreams are common after quitting weed—but there was clearly something unresolved here. What made it harder to square away was the fact that I didn’t feel attracted to my ex. Whenever I thought about a future with her, my mind fuzzed over with TV static.

I wasn’t alone in my dilemma. One study by the website DreamsCloud found that nearly 30 percent of people still regularly dream about an ex. And men, particularly, pine for longer—a study by Binghamton University found that women “tend to recover more fully and come out emotionally stronger” from breakups, but men, in many cases, “never fully recover.”

I didn’t want to live as a bleak statistic, nor did I want the net effect of my first love to be this tortuous. So one morning, after a particularly troubling dream, I resolved to do something. Maybe, I darkly entertained, she was still the one for me. So let me see her, I reasoned, as she was now. We weren’t in the same city, but I could do something else. Something that no rational human being should do.

I checked my ex’s Instagram.

I logged onto the app and typed her name. Her face appeared. I clicked on it. My heart racing, I started scrolling through her pictures, one eye shut as if bracing to see something awful. I scrolled and I skimmed. I opened both eyes. I skimmed some more. Then I exhaled. And laughed a little. And put down my phone.

Young love is an intoxicating mix of endorphins and adrenaline and oxytocin and dopamine—emotions that, because of my own self-erected armor, I had never come close to having since.

There was nothing to be afraid of here. She was doing older versions of the things she’d always done—spending time with her boyfriend, working on art projects—in the way that all of us change but never really change. I was relieved. No dormant love or jealousy had stirred in me. In fact, as I was looking at her pictures, I felt a sense of wonder as to who I would eventually settle down with.

I went to sleep that night with peace in my heart. And that night, there she was again. I felt anger in a thousand directions. I wished that I had never met her. That I could, like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, make every memory of her disappear. I wondered: Was this my fate? To forever live in the aftermath of a first love? It was a close friend, as it often is, who saved me. We got lunch and I told him about my problem.

“Your dream is holding a mirror to yourself,” he said. “You’re remembering how you felt and how nothing has matched up with it since. And that feeling is coming into your dreams first, and your mind is giving it a name and a body.” “You’re not missing her,” he said. “You’re missing a feeling.”

As soon as he said, I knew that was it. It was like the howling of my subconscious stopped. I realized it was why I dreamed in my feelings. Young love is an intoxicating mix of endorphins and adrenaline and oxytocin and dopamine—emotions that, because of my own self-erected armor, I had never come close to having since.

After my ex-girlfriend and I broke up, I had refused to let anyone get close to me. I had hooked up with a lot of people, but I hadn’t even been on a proper “date” in years. I had never asked someone to be my girlfriend or told them I loved them. But instead of protecting, I realized, all I had done was play myself.

But I still had time to fix it. I needed to draw a line of symmetry in my life: to find love in my future as I once did in my past. And what did I know about love? Only one facet—intoxicated, infatuated young love. But it was still a taste of it. And because of that, I finally felt grateful for my first love. I wasn’t a wanderer—I had a memory, like the North Star, to guide me for the rest of my life, to new and more wondrous places. It’s been over six months since I’ve had a dream about my ex-girlfriend. I know that even if she does come up again, in this world or the dream world, I have a mantra to defend myself: “It’s not her, it’s the feeling that I’m missing.”

It may take a long time, especially in a generation that has secularized romance, but I know that I will eventually find the person I am meant to be with. And while that belief may be as irrational and anachronistic as a 21st-century belief in God, like my own belief in God, it gives me hope, it gives me happiness, and it gives me the strength to keep going.

"Young Love, Hard Times" is a new monthly column by Zach Schwartz, a 24-year-old writer who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, that is all about finding love in the age of dating apps and evolving norms.

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