They can transport you to other worlds, play out your wildest fantasy, or make you confront your darkest fears. Dreams have a way of reflecting our thoughts, feelings, and subconscious like a metaphoric movie in your mind—that may or may not make sense when you watch it.

But dreams aren’t merely there for entertainment value—they can also have some big-time therapeutic benefits. “Dreams can offer a kind of mental sanctuary during times of crisis, giving the unconscious mind the space it needs to reflect on the situation from multiple perspectives and explore possible paths towards health and resolution,” says psychologist Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Dream Database, a digital archive and search engine for the scientific study of dreams, and Senior Editor of the APA journal Dreaming.

As Dr. Bulkeley explains, dreams are like a temporary vacation from the waking world. “In that private, secluded space of dreaming, our minds can sort through our feelings, connect them with previous experiences and times of life, and prepare us for the challenges ahead,” Dr. Bulkeley says. Multiple studies have shown that dreams can help you sort out your feelings, provide insight—and facilitate creative thinking.

How Dreams Change Throughout Life 

In a study conducted by Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, going through a divorce was shown to change dream content. “Any stressful, traumatizing event can disrupt our normal sleep and dream patterns—dreams are very sensitive to our most important relationships in waking life, so a divorce is likely to dominate a person’s dreamscape for a long time,” Dr. Bulkeley says.

If the following dream themes seem all too familiar, you’re not crazy, there’s a reason: According to Dr. Bulkeley, they are some of the most common types of dreams people going through a divorce experience.

Common Divorce Dreams & What They Mean

Divorce Dream #1: Being trapped, paralyzed, attacked, or imprisoned

Meaning: This is an apt metaphor for how people often feel in failing marriages.

Divorce Dream #2: Being alone, isolated, or lost

Meaning: This is reflective of the natural fears that accompany the ending of a close relationship.

Divorce Dream #3: Feeling unsure if the divorce is actually happening

Meaning: This reflects the profound changes to reality caused by a divorce.

Divorce Dream #4: Seeing one’s spouse or ex-spouse with another romantic partner

Meaning: Sometimes dreams are brutally honest about truths we don’t want to consciously face.

Divorce Dream #5: A special person comes to tell the dreamer it’s ok to let the marriage go.

Meaning: Sometimes a dream like this is what’s needed to give permission to move on.

How Dreams Can Help

One key function of dreaming is to help our minds process and make sense of our waking experiences. So, when people have a major life crisis like a divorce, their dreams will help them in a variety of ways: expressing the full range of their emotions, mourning their losses, and imagining new possibilities in the future, Dr. Bulkeley says.

You might wonder how to make sense of it all once you wake up—or even how to benefit from your dreams IRL in the first place. But, Dr. Bulkeley says much of the time we, in fact, process the information dreams give us on an unconscious level, not even knowing they’re helping us. “The information-processing, emotion-integrating, health-enhancing functions of dreaming don’t depend on our conscious recall, but, we can enhance the beneficial effects of dreaming by bringing the images and feelings of dreams more fully into waking awareness.”

So, while there isn’t a magic wand to make the pain of divorce disappear, dreams will come to remind us that change is still possible, that we are not trapped or doomed, but still have the capacity to imagine and create new futures for ourselves, Dr. Bulkeley says. “Those reminders take the symbolic shape of little ‘green shoots’ of growth—an image of a rainbow, say, or an encounter with a strangely intelligent animal, or discovering a new room in a house, or running into a long-lost friend.”

“A big danger with a traumatic life event like divorce is that it can imprison people in the agonizing present and destroy their sense of possibility for a better future,” Dr. Bulkeley says. “Dreams are all about transformation and healing, and we can enhance those energies by simply allowing those hope-inducing images more space and attention in our conscious minds.”

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Last Updated: Mar 5, 2020