“I dreamed that my wife married another man. It was such a vivid dream and I felt very devastated, felt the pain of losing her in that way. What does it mean?”
This plea for help arrived on my desk this week, and as it is such a common and worrying dream theme, I decided to share some guidelines for those of you who know the deep emotional pain this kind of dream can deliver in the middle of the night, and the anxiety its imprint can leave over the next few days.
What makes a dream vivid? Think about the last really vivid dream you had. We may describe a dream as being vivid if it was particularly colourful, or unusually clear, or intensely numinous, or if it offered spiritual comfort, or spiritual discomfort, or if taste, smell, touch and hearing senses were heightened. We may regard a dream as vivid because it was unusually surreal, or because it was totally believable, as if it really happened.
Different people will have different opinions on what makes a dream vivid, but they usually have one thing in common – heightened emotion. That emotion may be uplifting, such as intense love, awe, surprise, joy, elation. Or it may be painful, such as intense devastation, loss, betrayal, fear, guilt, horror, shock.
We feel intense emotions in our dreams when those same emotions have been triggered at some level in our waking life. Remember, dreams reflect our conscious and unconscious experiences of the last 24-48 hours, and it’s the nature of dreams to be dramatic. The man who felt the pain of loss in his dream about his wife marrying another man, was processing feelings of loss triggered by events during the two days before his dream.
It’s most likely that this man felt a prickle of loss in some area of his life, whether that was in his public or private life, whether it was around his work, his personal life, his spiritual life, his sense of pride, his creativity, his finances, his hopes for the future, his physical health, his long-term goals. The list is endless, but the full details of his dream, once interpreted, would reveal the story and the deeper issues underlying his feelings of loss.
The prickle of loss he felt would have been the tip of the iceberg, the full extent of the emotion remaining unconscious. (The intensity of the emotion in the dream informs us that it registered deep in his unconscious.) You might think that feeling it lightly (just a prickle) is a good thing, but it’s not. When we push intense emotions down into our unconscious mind, they grow in power. Our unconscious emotions (and beliefs, and experiences) drive the way we live our lives, though we are oblivious to this unless we pay attention to our dreams.
This man was clearly shocked by his dream. The fidelity of his relationship is not in question. This dream is not about his relationship with his wife. It is about an area of his life that he had regarded as committed, settled, secure (like his marriage), but that felt shaky around the time of his dream. His dreaming mind pictured his feeling of painful loss and devastation as being like losing a treasured commitment, a foundation stone of his life – his wife.
This kind of dream can come up when you feel threatened by a change in your life. That change might be good, such as deciding to give up a commitment to a previous plan (perhaps a career or business) to commit to a new and better option, or it might be more challenging, such as losing a job due to your employer’s changed commitments.
When change requires us to give up something of our old way, or our old beliefs or attitudes, we often need to process a deep sense of loss (or we push it into our unconscious to try to avoid the pain). When we choose the change ourselves, the old self can feel abandoned or betrayed by the new self. When change is forced upon us, that sense of abandonment or betrayal may feel closer to the surface, and we may find ourselves blaming outside sources – the employer, the economy, the system – rather than taking the healing route of processing the pain and letting it go.
This man dreamed his wife married another man. Somewhere in his life, during the 24-48 hours before his dream, he experienced a shift in commitment which triggered feelings of loss and devastation. His best way forward is to acknowledge these feelings, explore them and understand them so that the choices he makes from now on come from a place of growth rather than from a place of loss.