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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyOctober 12, 2023

Help Me Hera: I keep dreaming about my high-school ex. Should I text him?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

He’s married so I feel icky about messaging him, but it’s hard not to feel a nostalgic pang.

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Kia ora Hera,

Over the past couple of months, I’ve kept having recurring dreams about my high-school ex and I don’t know if I’m trying to read too much into it, but every time I wake up from one, I have a huge urge to text him. I’ve had some great relationships and dates since, but he was my longest relationship (4-5ish years) and I haven’t been in anything that long term since. He got married this year, so I feel icky about messaging him.

I have an inkling this is more about turning 30 and not having settled down, despite having dated plenty of people since (we ended things when we were about 20), but the dreams are so vivid and random, it’s hard not to feel a nostalgic pang!

We’ve messaged very intermittently since we broke up and have only seen each other at mutual high-school friends’ weddings. I honestly haven’t thought about him much over the past few years, but why is he popping into my brain so often as of late?? We have very little crossover in our lives: completely different friend groups, we don’t follow each other on Instagram, etc.

Is my brain secretly trying to tell me that I need to be more open to pursuing things long-term/taking relationships a little more seriously in the dusk of my youth? Or should I bite the bullet and message him?

Thank you Hera!

a line of dice with blue dots

You sound like you’re having a classic, John Cusack in High Fidelity, “What does it all mean” moment! 

I don’t know much about dreams. The only recurring ones I ever have are about gargantuan tidal waves. I don’t know whether they’re a hangover from growing up next to the ocean, a metaphor for loss of control, or whether I’ve been watching too many MONSTER WAVE VS SHIP – THE OCEAN IS EVIL 4K compilations on YouTube. I was always too dumb for Jung. But my theory is I have them because they give me a powerful thrill, and I always look forward to them. 

As far as I can tell, analysing your dreams for subconscious clues isn’t nearly as useful as the way you wake up feeling about them. Recurring dreams are presumably recurring because they invoke a strong emotional reaction. And paying attention to that reaction is about the best you can do. 

There’s nothing icky about hitting up ex-partners. Especially if it’s been ten years since you had any meaningful contact. You obviously meant a lot to each other, and are understandably curious about his life. But if I were you, I wouldn’t send that text just yet. 

The best time to reconnect with an ex is in a spirit of platonic curiosity, when any lingering romantic feelings have been withered by the passage of time, and one day you see a photograph of Andie MacDowell feeding a pig, and are suddenly, forcibly reminded of their intense love for both Andie MacDowell and pigs, and feel compelled to send it to them.

But if he’s recently married and you’re experiencing emotionally ambiguous pangs of nostalgia, I would examine those feelings before turning up on his doorstep and telling him he’s been having cameos in your dreams. You have to figure out what you’re hoping to gain from the experience; and if there’s any part of you which would be annoyed to hear he’s madly in love with his now legal wife, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. 

Honestly, I don’t think there’s any real danger of you having genuine romantic feelings. If you do, you can rest easy in the knowledge they’re imaginary. The person you once knew has been obliterated by a decade of adult life, and any lingering nostalgia you feel is for the ghost of an idea of a person who no longer exists. This doesn’t mean it’s not worth getting to know your ex again as adults. I’m sure there’s still lots of mutual fondness and inside jokes, waiting to be resurrected. But I think your analysis of the situation is correct: this has more to do with you than him. 

A line of dark blue card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Turning thirty is a big milestone, and can feel unexpectedly heavy. It’s also the time of life in which interfering relatives begin to panic on your behalf, and send you well-meaning articles about freezing your eggs, or links to lucrative careers in the banking sector. It’s normal to experience a wave of dread, and start talking about “the dusk of my youth” even if you’re more or less happy with your life. 

I think your persistent curiosity about your ex is actually curiosity about who you might have been if things had turned out differently. When you’re young, life seems impossibly vast and full of potential. As you get older, and your options begin to narrow, it’s hard not to look back and think, “I should never have quit figure skating, I fucked it all up.”

These regrets are obviously dumb, because they’re based on best-case scenarios. Nobody ever thinks, “If I’d only kept on figure skating, I might have had my kneecaps obliterated by my sporting rival’s loser boyfriend.” Instead you think, “I might have qualified for the Olympics!” But just because they’re fantasies, it doesn’t mean they don’t hurt. 

Still, regrets aren’t entirely worthless. They give us clues about what’s missing from our lives. I wonder if part of the reason you’re experiencing this nostalgia is because you’re feeling a little restless and are ready for a big change, but your brain is filling in the blanks with old material because you don’t have anything new to work with. 

I’m not saying you should stamp these fantasies out. Instead of worrying about what they mean, why not temporarily indulge them? Let yourself be a little nostalgic. Look through old photographs and tapes. Put on your Dirty Dog sunglasses and step back into the warm summer air of 2011. Go ham, and imagine obliterating your ex’s happy marriage. You can’t control your dreams, so you might as well give yourself permission to enjoy them. 

Sometimes the best way to get over intrusive thoughts is to surrender to them, without fear or judgement. I think that if you do, you’ll soon grow bored, because what your dreams are actually telling you is that you’re hungry for something transformative and real. 

But wanting something real isn’t the same as “taking things seriously” or “settling down.” Just because you’re thirty, it doesn’t mean you need to start acting like a spinster in a Jane Austen novel, embroidering toilet roll covers and shacking up with the next member of the landed gentry to come along. You’re still impossibly, terrifyingly young, even if it doesn’t feel like it. 

Besides, there is no such thing as “settling down.” Even if you get married and have children, there are no guarantees. One of my evil friends recently said the best period for dating is your late thirties, when everyone’s getting divorced and you can, and I quote, “swoop in and pick the skeletons clean.” Just because people look like they have their shit together, it doesn’t mean they have their shit together. 

Turning thirty is a lightning rod for existential dread and nostalgia. But it’s also a great decade, full of unexpected joys and new experiences. So stop eulogising your youth before it’s over, and find a way to channel that electric, teenage energy towards something new, whether that’s a person, a project or an intensive, two-year culinary arts course. 

And in a few months, when you’re on more stable existential ground, and you see that picture of Andie MacDowell, pick up the phone and give your ex a ring! I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear from you. 

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