Top 4 break-up nightmares: how does YOUR brain process heartbreak?

Image by the fantastic Stuart F Taylor

I’m having a lot of nightmares at the moment. Don’t feel sorry for me, if I were to write posts purely to gain sympathy I’d find far more interesting things to pin them on. I think the nightmares – like clockwork, at 4am, unless I take a sleeping tablet – are a way of processing a lot of break-up sadness so that during the day I can get on with being my proactive, practical self. They are horrible, but they’re also good in a way because when I wake up I realise that the world holds far more promise and possibility than my dreaming brain would have me believe. I also reckon I’m not the only one who has struggled with some of this after a break up so I thought I’d get some decent content out of ranking them from best to worst. Here are my top 4 break-up nightmares.

I am fully aware that it’s boring when people tell you their dreams. Break-up nightmares, while a niche genre, are still dreams and therefore dull to most people. But even though everyone knows this, we talk about our dreams nonetheless. Maybe the value lies not in the hearing but in the telling? Giving voice to the things in our heads – opening up about weird sex dreams to work out if they mean anything, or spitting nightmares into the world to find out if they’re as scary as they seemed when they woke us at four in the morning. Tell me your break-up nightmares in the comments, if you like. Spit them into the daylight and see if that makes ’em less frightening. (No promises)

4. All the ones involving my other ex

I’m thinking a lot at the moment about my other ex. The longest and most intense relationship I had before this guy. I’m listening to playlists he made me and reacquainting myself with bands we both used to love, in those long-ago times when I was in my early twenties. If I were to slam some pop-psychology down here, I’d guess it’s because thinking of my previous ex helps cleanse my mind of thoughts of this one. Remembering the intense power of my feelings for him, and how I managed – eventually – to put most of them aside, makes me feel more positive that today’s pain might one day dissipate too.

My favourite nightmare is the one which involves the ex-ex: I am following him around somewhere, trailing him and his current partner and trying to find out why he and I didn’t work. I know why we didn’t work when I’m awake, but when I’m asleep I forget, so my whining, cringeworthy begging feels purposeful. You’ll note this as a running theme: the begging.

Not particularly terrifying, of course – it’s not like I get eaten by bears. But then I’ve never really been one for nightmares that feature bears or monsters. The ones which wake me up in cold sweats at 4 am are less about being crushed in powerful jaws than being crushed like a teenage girl getting turned down by boys at a disco.

The moment in this nightmare which slams me into the ground, and eventually wakes me up, is when the begging congeals to a point of no return…

“Didn’t you love me?”

And he – my ex ex – laughs.


That’s the moment I wake up, drenched in horror: he, my current ex, and all the other exes that came before – they were only ever in it for a joke.

In at number 3…

3 His friends/relatives come to evict me

It’s not my house, it’s our house, and although I am very keen to stay in it, I am fully aware that it’s his right to order me to sell it and move on if he so desires. I will still be fine, of course: you’ll note that I own at least part of a house in London, which makes me a lucky motherfucker. I’ve made peace with the possibility that I might have to leave by letting myself get excited about other possibilities instead: run-down flats or nomadic adventures visiting incredible friends and family. Except… you know… Coronavirus.

In my nightmares, though, I am screaming and wailing and falling to my knees to beg mercy, as relatives and friends of his walk past me with sneers, on their way towards the kitchen or the bedrooms to clear out piles of my stuff. Isn’t it extraordinary, how much life two people can accumulate? Books and Lego and pictures and pots and pans and drawers full of sex toys and bedlinen and tools and stockpiles of pasta and tinned tomato soup. I’ve been compiling an inventory of our lives this last week, and it’s breathtaking how much crap there is. How even the most mundane of crap comes weighed down by memories and sadness. Some stuff still smells a little bit like him, and I have to hold myself back from seeking it out and huffing it like a creepy obsessive.

I digress. In this nightmare, the house is being cleared, and I am powerless to do anything but (yep, you guessed it!) beg.

The falling-to-my-knees is an interesting touch because sometimes when I do this I am naked. I know exactly why this is: it was a strategy I was tempted to employ at the very end of our relationship, when I wanted him to hear something I needed to say – and say right. I approached him while he was in the bath, and he told me ‘can we talk in a second? I’m the definition of vulnerable right now.’

I left him alone, and we talked when he was dressed. Ever since that evening, though, the dramatic part of me has wondered if it would have gone better had I just stripped down to nothing and fallen to my knees, and given him my rehearsed speech as naked as the day I was born. Would it have made a difference? Probably not. It’s the one thing I’m obsessing over right now though: if I’d done that, would this have gone differently? It doesn’t matter, because I didn’t, and time only moves in one direction.


2 He doesn’t love me, has never loved me

When I discuss all the practicalities of the break-up with him, I am cautious about getting sucked in to deeper chats. Partly because I don’t want to go over old ground that might hurt him, more likely because I can’t bear him to remember me as this nagging, whining bitch who couldn’t let go.

The main reason I avoid the deeper chats, though, is because of this particular break-up nightmare. In this one, I am usually interrupting him at work. I walk into his office (which doesn’t look like his real office, of course – it’s a huge, cathedral-like space filled with workers running busily around) and go to his desk. I come to him with some minor point of admin – “We need to close the joint account.” “I need your signature for this.” “I wondered if you wanted to keep this gadget?” – so very very proud of myself for being a measured grown-up.

As he starts to get frustrated (because obviously, he’s busy) his coworkers crowd round to listen to what’s going on. With a sense of ugly dread, I feel the next part coming, like vomit lurching up till it reaches your throat. And I try to stop myself from giving it to it. Try to hold it down, to swallow and smile, but I can’t hold back: I get angry.

Yelling at him about why he has to do this now, he owes me, he’s being cruel. Perhaps it’s one of the worst break-up nightmares because in it I’m being a bitch.

Anyway. There usually comes a point when I drop my arguments and appeal, instead, to emotion. By which I mean: BAM! Begging’s back!

“But you loved me once, can you help me now? I love you. I love you. I love you. Don’t you love me? Please love me!”

I think you can probably guess the answer.

1 Not actually a nightmare but totally a break-up nightmare

When I drafted this post there were only three break-up nightmares in it, but a shiny new one appeared last week and blew every single other out of the water. After such an incredible last minute addition to the misery-club film festival that my brain is putting on (again, please don’t pity me – they’re fun to analyse and I’ll be absolutely fine and sadness makes very good content) is one which doesn’t technically count as a nightmare at all.

I’m lying on my side on the sofa in a tiny flat. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the one I had before I met him, but smaller and more cluttered with piles upon piles of weird stuff. I’m watching TV: listless and warm and confused and frightened. Somewhere in my head there’s an echo of a fight, and my heart hammers with knowledge that I can’t quite put my finger on: I know he is angry with me, but I cannot remember why.

Then he walks in.

And weirdly there are no traces of the nerves I would have if that happened in real life: the awkward worry that I’d say something wrong or make the wrong face or accidentally fall to my literal knees and say ‘I miss you I miss you oh God fuck I miss you please just hold me.‘ In real life I am strong and powerful and full of resolve, and I can literally walk away from him if I need to.

In my dream, though, when he tells me…

“We’re just gonna forget this for tonight. Can I cuddle you?”

… I say ‘yes,’ because dream-me can. He climbs onto the sofa, spoons up behind me, puts his big arms around my chest and grabs my wrists and holds me tight. He strokes me and whispers that it’s OK, and he loves me, and for now we’re allowed to just lie here like this. Pretend that nothing happened, for an hour.

When I woke up I was stroking one of my own arms, crying like the tears might make a difference, remembering the weight of him round my shoulders and trying to conjure memories of his scent.

The nightmare this time isn’t the sleeping bit, but the hours spent afterwards: awake and haunted and afraid.

No begging, though, so that’s a win.


Feel free to share your own break-up nightmares in the comments. And honestly, truly, genuinely, I did not write this to try and summon pity. I am fine, and I will be fine, but it’s my literal job to write blog posts, and I enjoy writing the ones which tackle tricky emotions just as much as I like writing the fucklust. Writing is good, talking is good. Final and most important point: my ex is not responsible for the things my brain spits out when I’m sad, please don’t be mean about him in the comments. 


  • MariaSibylla says:

    When I am stressed out about something, I often have what I call “rage dreams” but really, they are me in a situation where I feel I have been misunderstood. They often involve an ex, but not always. I am crying and shouting myself hoarse, and yes, begging, to be understood, to set the record straight to make him or them see the truth. If I could just explain the situation correctly. Sometimes I’m not misunderstood, I’m just shouting at my ex, all the ways he wronged me that I didn’t say at the time. In both cases, I’m so unbelievably angry, I wake up furious and anxious.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ohhhh I know this one so well, my commiserations. The ‘misunderstood’ thing is definitely a theme in a lot of the begging in my ones too. Also in real life, I suspect =) There’s that ‘but if you could only SEE how much I LOVE YOU you’d understand!’ going on. Sorry you get these, and thank you for sharing <3

  • Oxyfromsg says:

    In my late teens i had a bad break up with my older girlfriend. Shouting, pushing, crying. She walked off and then later that day i found out she had been killed in a car crash.
    Since then ive had reocuring nightmares which start as normal dreams but then she will appear in the dream and it causes such a panic attack in me that it wakes me up, usually having leapt to my feet, heart racing and body shaking.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Oh my god, that is awful – I am so so sorry, that must have been completely devastating, and I am so sad to hear it haunts your dreams still. Thank you for sharing and I hope one day these nightmares fade. xxx

  • Heartbreak nightmares are the worst nightmares, a far cry from the recurring one I used to have in my youth about a mechanical hand which would try to force me into a cold bath and spray me with “naughty gas” if I refused.

    Most – if not all – of my nightmares involve being cheated on. I had one about my second girlfriend in the middle of our relationship, and they didn’t stop there. My (fairly frequent) nightmares usually involve her – it’s always her – being unfaithful to me, and gleeful about it, to boot; it’s my brain playing on my fear of not being good enough, I think.

    I never felt good enough for my second girlfriend. It seemed like she encapsulated everything that I wanted to do, but better. She went to a better university, whereas I got rejected from all but one. She got asked to be on University Challenge, but refused. I applied, and was rejected. She had plenty of people who fancied her, including a girl with the same name as someone I once fancied; I had nobody but her. She had incredible anger and would shout and scream and lash out a lot, and I felt like I deserved it. This wasn’t an abusive relationship, but I always felt like I wasn’t deserving of her and her beautiful life. I was lucky, lucky, lucky, and I knew it.

    So I still have the nightmares about her cheating on me. We haven’t been together for almost a decade now, but I still have the nightmares. I’ve never had one about my first girlfriend (who actually did cheat on me, repeatedly), or my third, or my fourth. Whether or not I felt secure enough about them not cheating, I don’t know. I think there’s a sense of closure that I’m lacking from my second girlfriend (number one is dead, and number three made me endure a lot for ending our relationship, so I’ve paid my due there), plus my constant fear that she had another crush who she would leave me for, that makes them manifest in my mind.

    So, yeah. Those are my break-up nightmares. They’re not about being broken up with – they’re about being cheated on. But they’re so vivid, and so recurring, that every time she appears in my brain – whether it’s a memory or a dream at night – I’m sure she’s going to end up sleeping with someone else, maybe right in front of me, while I cry and whimper and she giggles and teases.

    She never actually did that, but my brain tells me she could have, and that’s what keeps me awake at nights.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Oh mate that sounds absolutely horrible I’m so sorry – I totally get the ‘gleeful’ thing too. My most common break up nightmares about my *ex*-ex involved him cheating on me and me walking in on a situation and catching him, but instead of being apologetic/sheepish he would shrug his shoulders and tell me it didn’t matter.

      Your University Challenge ex sounds absolutely horrible as well- you deserve so much better, you deserve to be treated with the astonishing kindness with which you treat other people, and I am angry that someone could be so appalling to you.

      Sending love, and I hope that these nightmares fade in time. xxx

  • Beth in Arizona says:

    I’ve never had a relationship break off and then have nightmares about it. However, I have had many dreams in the past 34 years of being married to the man I love where he is cheating on me. These are horrible dreams to be sure and in every single one of them he is so aloof and mean to me. The two of us really and truly love each other so it’s bizarre that I have those dreams and he just looked at me like I’m an alien when I tell him about them. So I know what you mean about having those kind of dreams. They are not pleasant and they haunt me for a couple days. I’ve actually Googled what that meant and it just comes back that I’m insecure?

  • Saudade says:

    Amateur psychologist alert!
    I might be wrong, but I’m picking up on some self worth and confidence issues here, which are all very expected and normal in the aftermath of a break up right?
    I dont really have a share I guess. Almost all break ups suck; and for a multitude of reasons, some will feel worse than others.
    But maybe our recovery and these lingering symptoms that are manifesting in the form of vivid dreams,
    can be linked to a bigger issue that may not have been acknowledged or recognized yet.

    I’m not gonna attempt to get too specific about exactly what any of those are for anyone, but it might be something worth exploring. I’d guess a professional therapist would be the best person to do this with, and to do it regularly. Not just when we’re smarting because of a break up.

    These shares are all quite traumatic and sound painful, which I’m sorry to hear. I hope you can all make peace with this stuff and work through it.
    I just think it’s a real shame when we have stuff holding us back or not dealt with that continues to fuck us up . Ok feel I’m rambling now. Stay safe all, Love X

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ah thank you Saudade <3 Yeah there's definitely a LOT of self-worth stuff wrapped up in this, and it's tricky. I'd love to be able to do some therapy at some point although unfortunately now that we've broken up I can't afford it. I have lots of awesome friends who are holding my hand through it though, and I am lucky to be surrounded by astonishing people here online as well <3 Thank you for your kind words, I really appreciate them xxxx

      • Saudade says:

        Its definitely a worth while investment. But no, they’re usually not cheap and good ones will be hard to find, with a minority who really understand the sex-positive lifestyles some of your readers (I’m assuming here, but include myself) engage in.

        A tight group of good friends is great, but in my experience they either dont understand the nuances involved or are bias in a way that doesnt really help tackle the issues in a constructive way. A good friend doesnt always make a good therapist, unfortunately (IMO).

        Final point and then I’ll give it a rest…. time alone and really going over stuff (sorry to talk in broad stroke cliches) has been immensely helpful. I was doing some of this pre lockdown anyway, but just forcing myself to sit and chew over stuff, stuff which makes me uncomfortable, for many many months will slowly start to pay off.
        I’m talking about cutting out all porn use, really taking a sabbatical on all types of relationships, however casual or serious, less drinking, or even better, zero drinking, exercise, SLEEP. Basically getting rid of anything which actually wasnt helpful to me or my recovery.

        I’ll save you the effort; and big surprise…. a litany of no-strings encounters and “play” didnt help. Not long term anyway.
        The same way knocking back a couple bottles of red doesn’t help. But feels pretty good at the time.

        sorry if this all comes off as a load of digressive wellness garbage but I think a full physical, emotional, mental and spiritual detox is crucial in getting to grips with awkward stuff we dont like and may well have been avoiding.
        This is all just from personal experience and is free to be ignored/torn apart as you see fit.
        Also, I’m by no means now at some kind of elevated place of smug enlightenment haha… still a total fuck up, but hey, I’m trying not to be.

  • Peril says:

    Not really a breakup nightmare, but a nightmare I still have nearly 4 years after the fact.
    I am wondering why we split up. It was her choice. I never wanted to. It’s been ages since we spoke. I wonder if she’s met someone else. Do I have a chance to win her back?
    I decide I should send her a casual text just to ask how she is. Just to open a channel of communication. Just to see.
    Then I wake up just as I remember we didn’t break up. It wasn’t her choice.
    She died of breast cancer.

  • Constant Reader says:

    When I went through my most serious break-up (years back), I was seriously worried about dreams. My entire life had suddenly changed without my permission or knowledge, and I felt totally lost.

    The one thing that helped was feeling in control, and avoiding anything that made me feel otherwise. I’d go out with friends (including one who did not take my ‘I don’t want to socialise’ for an answer, and I remain thankful), but avoided drinking for a while. I didn’t want to be drunk in case my mind wandered or I fell asleep.

    Hell, I just didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to dream. The dreams themselves weren’t necessarily bad, but it was easy to dream that things hadn’t changed. I slept in the living room, with a lamp on, for about a month.

    It’s not the time you’re doing stuff and your brain is busy that’s the difficult time. It’s when you switch off and you’re just left with you.

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