If you’re in a relationship and have a dream about breaking up, it can be understandably unnerving. Whether the dream featured your partner dumping you or you as the one calling it quits, this type of vision can feel ominous—does it mean that a breakup is imminent in real life? Is there something secretly wrong with your relationship? Are you missing something consciously that your subconscious is picking up on?
We spoke with two psychotherapists who use dream analysis in their counseling practices to understand exactly what dreams about breaking up mean and what to do about them.
Do dreams matter?
Scientists and scholars have been trying to understand why we dream for centuries and whether these dreams have any significant relationship to what’s happening in our waking lives.
Rest assured (ha), plenty of neurologists believe dreams are simply a random, meaningless side effect of the brain’s natural memory-related processes that happen while we sleep. According to a report by counseling psychologist Dr. David B. Feldman in Psychology Today, the brain’s process of sifting through memories and deciding which ones to keep “triggers sensations, emotions, and memories, all of which are essentially random.” He continues, “Given that we’re meaning-making creatures, however, our brains assemble all of this underlying activity into a story. But this story doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s simply an attempt to make sense of the neural activity that has taken place. This is why dreams seem so illogical and strange.”
But many psychologists and psychiatrists disagree. According to their line of thinking, even if sparked by nighttime neurological activity, the stories produced can be based in our emotional reality. Hilda Burke, a U.K.-based integrative psychotherapist and couples counselor, tells HelloGiggles that dreams can sometimes be a continuation of the work you’re doing during the day, whether literal, job-related projects or emotional work. “Part of your brain is just still doing that thing,” she explains. “Dreams can also be a sort of wish fulfillment. Sometimes we have kind of fantasy-type dreams. We’re having sex with our favorite movie star, or we’re getting that promotion we’ve always wanted. It’s really a kind of thing we might daydream about almost.”
Cathy Pagano, a Jungian-trained psychotherapist, adds that our subconscious brain might be relaying information about our experiences and our emotions that our conscious selves may not be acknowledging. She describes dreams as “the right brain processing what’s going on in your day or in your life.”
“The right brain is the more imaginative brain. It speaks to us in feelings,” she explains. “We perceive things in a certain way, but we are picking up so much more information. And also, we might perceive [something consciously] but have emotional things going on that we don’t want to pay attention to. So the dreams show us this bigger picture. … One of the things we often say in Jungian psychology is dreams compensate for our conscious attitude.”
What it means when you have dreams about breaking up
To answer the burning question you probably have in your heart: Yes, Pagano confirms, a dream about breaking up can mean that there are problems in your relationship. It might either be that you subconsciously want out or that you’re subconsciously recognizing that your partner is showing signs of disconnecting from you. You may think you’re happy together right now, but some part of yourself recognizes that something’s wrong.
This isn’t always the case—after all, a neuroscientist might tell you that your brain is just connecting random nonsense messages together that have no bearing on your real life—but Burke explains that if you find yourself really worried about a breakup dream when you wake up, it likely does speak to some real-world anxieties you’re harboring. “The kind of dreams that are harder to shake off during the day, they typically tend to mean something,” she says.
But, Burke adds: “The meaning may not be, ‘I’m going to break up with my boyfriend’ or ‘my boyfriend is going to break up with me,’ but it may have a more symbolic significance. It may not be so obvious.”
For example, certain people in our lives may carry certain associations for us that don’t necessarily have to do with how we feel about that person, Burke explains. “So let’s say you met your partner at a time in your life when you were partying a lot. You met them out clubbing. That was your thing, you love being in that scene, and maybe you really connect [the two—your partner and the club scene]. Maybe you’re not doing that as much anymore, but you really connect [your partner] with that part of your life. So looking at it in that way, I would look at the associations that the person has with their partner—when they met, what kind of stage in their life they were in, were they happy or sad—and go okay, maybe your partner symbolizes that night-clubbing, partying lifestyle, and maybe there’s a part of you that wants to end that now … So it’s not about the partner at all. It’s about what you connect with [them], the kind of roots of that relationship and that scene.”
She also points out that the idea of a breakup itself might not necessarily be a negative thing for everyone. To understand how this might work, Burke uses the example of dreaming about a loud, barking, angry-looking dog. “For a lot of people, that’s anxious. That’s danger,” she explains. “But if I ask a client, ‘What are your associations with barking, loud, potentially vicious dogs?’ And they might say, ‘Well, actually my first pet was an Alsatian, and people thought he was really vicious and dangerous, but actually he was really loving towards me. So I feel really safe when I’m around that kind of dog.’ So what for one person means something, for someone else can mean something totally different.”
Consider what associations you have with both your partner and with the concept of breaking up. Your dream could have more to do with something related to your partner, and your subconscious is just using your partner as a physical representation for that thing. Or your dream might be telling you that your subconscious is sensing or seeking something breakup-like in your life.
“It could symbolize, okay, I’m having this dream about this breakup, but maybe actually what it means is there’s something ending and something beginning,” Burke says.
What to do next
1. Spend some time really interrogating your emotions and your situation.
You can do this through journaling, writing about your dreams and your emotions around them, and taking time to really think critically about what’s going well and what’s not in your relationship right now.
Burke also suggests trying to meditate on the dream: “Bring the dream to mind, bring it in, without judging it and going ‘oh no! it’s a breakup!’” she says. “Just let it drop in like you would look at a picture [or] look at a candle to start your meditation, and shut your eyes and see what feelings come up. See what direction you get from your higher self, your more spiritual side.”
2. Talk to your partner about it—carefully.
“You two need to sit down and have a really good talk because there are things that aren’t really working, and the parts of you that aren’t being fed want to go away,” Pagano explains. “You need to talk and say, ‘I wonder what it is about our relationship that isn’t working because this is a crossroads, and we should pay attention to it.’”
You’ll want to talk about what issues might be eating at each of you right now. But remember to proceed with caution and kindness as you have the conversation: “If you have a very secure relationship, you can probably talk about it and probably laugh about it,” Burke says. “But maybe if one party is feeling insecure anyway, like say it was your partner who was feeling insecure, maybe you saying ‘I’m dreaming about breaking up with you,’ that can really spur anxiety.”
It’s always important to share what you’re going through with your partner. If it’s important to you to keep the relationship going strong, you’ll want to make sure you’re reassuring your partner that you’re not trying to signal to them what’s to come. You bringing up the dream with them could be as unnerving as it was for you to have it, so make sure you’re both offering each other support and empathy as you work through what’s going on and what changes might need to be made.
3. Consider therapy.
If your dream is really staying with you—whether it keeps occurring night after night or you simply find yourself really agonizing about it—both Burke and Pagano suggest seeing a therapist with experience in dream work if you have the means to do so. If the situation is very close to your heart and stirring up a lot of intense emotions, it can become difficult to clearly decipher what’s actually going on because our judgment might be clouded—we might desperately not want the breakup such that we ignore the red flags, or we might be so predisposed to relationship anxiety that we see smoke that’s not actually there. Talking to a professional can help you get to the truth of what’s really happening.
4. Seek security.
No matter how you feel about the strength of your relationship, if your subconscious is telling you to be wary, it might mean you need to find ways to make yourself feel safer and more stable.
“Even if it doesn’t have to do with your relationship, it might be your own security in the relationship,” Burke explains. “The relationship could be fine, but you have a fear of being broken up with and being dumped. You had a bad experience with that. So I think if there’s the kind of emotional hangover from it, then it’s probably something to be looked at. Not in the sense of, oh, is my relationship okay? More like, am I okay within the relationship? Am I feeling secure, and what do I need to feel more secure?”
Maybe that’s asking your partner for some extra support for a little while, or maybe it’s reconnecting with your friendships and family relationships to remind yourself how much abundance you already have in your life. Do what you need to do to make yourself feel secure again, whatever that might mean for you.