Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

“Significant Others” in Dreams

I often dream about my partner, Holly. Sometimes, she is very much like herself in my dreams, and sometimes she is not at all like herself. I suppose that you’ve had similar dreams about those closest to you.

two cupsWe all tend to project key aspects of ourselves onto our “significant others.” For instance, I see Holly as an extremely capable person—and she is extremely capable—so she tends to end up coping with a lot of the practical matters that I find difficult. As long as she is capable, I don’t have to be! I often see myself as lacking some of the practical skills necessary for survival in the world. But in fact, when Holly’s out-of-town (as she was recently), I have to step up and be capable. And I really do manage just fine. So, I’ve been projecting my own capability (or copability—the ability to cope) onto Holly, rather than “owning” it in myself.

Typically, in dreams, our significant others end up carrying certain qualities we don’t identify with in ourselves. Just as in waking life, Holly in my dream is usually a capable person, but sometimes in an exaggerated way that forces me to take some sort of action (either to be capable myself, or resist her with my stubborn incompetence). Dreams can exaggerate the qualities of our partners and spouses, maybe just so we get a good look at our own projections. Often, the dream context forces us to own up to those projections one way or another.

But it isn’t always that simple. (There are no absolutes in dreamwork.) More often than not, Holly is just my companion in my dreams. We do things together in the dream, just as we do things together in waking life. When she is with me in the dream, it is almost like having a second self, who keeps me company, and helps me to experience the dream through “her” eyes as well as my own.

Here’s what I think: Our partners and spouses are simultaneously the closest beings to ourselves, and the most “other.” We identify really strongly with them, and expect them, in some ways, to be extensions of ourselves. But, on the other hand, they confront us on a daily basis with their differentness.

Dreams are all about paradoxes, so dreams love to bring in our partners, and to hold that particularly significant paradox—closeness/distance, self/other, mine/not mine, together/separate—right there in front of us, or beside us, so that we can experience it more fully than we might in our habitual, day-to-day interactions with the actual person.

This self/other paradox applies almost as well to former “significant others”—who can be just as significant in our dreams as they were when they were with us. It can also apply to parents and children, though with them it’s more likely to be weighted on the side of “self,” because we generally have an even more difficult time distinguishing ourselves and our projections from our parents and kids than we do from our partners (or ex-partners)!

Finally, I think what we see in dreams is a reflection—like in a funhouse mirror that makes one part of the body huge and the rest tiny—of our close relationships in waking life. We see one or two characteristic qualities of the other person exaggerated, but basically, the person is still recognizable. My dream-version of Holly (even if she’s ridiculously over-capable) shares the experience of the dream with me, and she is also the one who is not-me, and so gives me perspective on what I am experiencing.

This leads, eventually, to another level of dreaming, where I (the dreamer) can experience the dream from the point-of-view of any other character in the dream. Often, I see things from dream-Holly’s perspective first, and this brings on the realization that “I” am not the dream-ego (the “I” character within the dream) at all, but something larger that includes all of the dream-perspectives at once. I am the dreamer of this reality, and thus connected to every aspect of the dream. Similarly, I believe, we are not as separate in our waking reality as we believe ourselves to be. But this is a whole nother subject, so it’s time to stop.


  1. traviswernet

    Yes Kirsten, this feels so clear and helpful and I am appreciating the encouragement to see my partner in my dreams from a variety of angles, as well as paradoxically as part of who and what and how I am… I find it especially helpful to remember that the dreams may exaggerate the qualities so I will be sure to notice them, which can be tricky when I see my partner in my dreams, because she is so familiar to me, and yet so unknown (both due to my projections!)

    Another great entry here – Many Thanks, Travis W

  2. Sandy Labyris

    you put it so well: the function of me/not-me perspectives in dreams; the paradox of my partner being so like me and so different at the same time. siblings are like that, too. i’m hooked–sign me up. i want more!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thanks, Sandy, it’s great to hear from you! Yes, siblings are definitely a good example. In my own dreams, I find my sisters are usually kids–sometimes very young, sometimes early teens. I’m sure in my case that’s partially because I haven’t spent much time with my sisters since we’ve been adults (except by phone and e-mail–we live on opposite coasts). I wonder if you or anyone else whose siblings (or some of them) are close enough to see on a regular basis have more dreams of them as adults–or if there’s still a kid emphasis because we grew up with them and childhood experiences make a big impression on the psyche.

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