Ex-Wifey Dream Diary

A month before my husband and I split up, I dreamt about a boat. It was the kind of boat that tourists take to look at a city from the vantage point of a river or a canal. In my dream, I rushed to the boat from a supermarket where my husband and I were grocery shopping. I saw two of my friends on the boat and greeted them with a hug—only to be reprimanded by a tanned tour guide for arriving late and causing trouble. As the boat began moving and the tour guide went over safety instructions, I grew fearful and nauseated. I tried leaning on one of my friends, but she signaled to me that she was feeling nauseous too. To our left was the London Eye, the observation wheel located on the South Bank of the River Thames.

My husband (now my ex-husband) was born and raised in London, and the city used to make him sick. In my dream, I became aware of his absence when the tour guide announced a crisis: the boat was about to reach a dead end. The tour guide shouted at all passengers to jump to the sidewalk. I jumped, but all the other passengers stayed onboard. I could see the boat getting further and further away from me. I was in the middle of a construction site, standing by two workers who now stared at me. One of them told me that I had to leave, pointing at a makeshift bridge between the construction site and the street. I crossed the precarious bridge, feeling like I had to look for something, maybe my husband. A sudden rainfall forced me to find shelter at an entrance to an office building. There, I took out my phone and saw that the font on the screen was outdated. Not only was I lost in space; I was also lost in time.

I shared the dream with my husband when I woke up. Neither of us knew, at the time, that we would become ex-spouses mere months later. What we did know was that we were exasperated with one another’s mental landscapes. My husband made an effort to listen yet shifted the conversation to London itself, the city to which we moved temporarily for his job. He said that he had come to like the city; that he had changed his mind about it. I could never orient myself in London, always going about it as if I were a tourist.

Today, my dream about the boat seems to me like one about taking leave of something bigger than just a relationship. Minds change and so do feelings. The dream contained the contradictions that characterized my feelings towards my husband during what turned out to be the final month of our marriage: I wanted to leave and find him simultaneously. At the time, I interpreted the dream as one about perspectives: the boat, the Ferris wheel, my phone. My husband and I had stopped seeing eye to (London) eye—this was the dream’s message to me. I thought that we could work on our marriage; that construction and reconstruction required moments of demolition. But I also wanted to jump off the boat and run away from something, maybe domesticity (the grocery store) or London itself. My husband, too, began articulating, around the time of my dream, his competing desires to end and fix our marriage. He left for New York a month later. He left me behind in London.

I shared the dream with my mother over the phone after sharing it with my husband. She chastised me, like the tour guide on the boat, for being late. At 36, she said, I was not in a position to contemplate divorce. My husband was a good, hard-working man. She instructed me to do all that I could to please him. That he prioritized his job over our marriage was not forever, she wagered, suggesting that I focus on having a child instead of overthinking my dreams. “Marriage isn’t a joke,” she concluded, “it’s work.”

In The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, Freud cites many jokes about marriage. He enjoys, in particular, those jokes about matchmakers – “marriage brokers” in some English translations – that made the rounds in the Vienna of his time. The “faulty logic” of jokes reveals repressed fears, as in the joke about the matchmaker who introduces a man to a potential wife without informing him that she has a limp. When the man complains to the matchmaker, the latter says: “You’ve got it wrong. What if you went and married a woman with sound, straight limbs? Where’s the benefit? You won’t have a day’s rest, worrying that she doesn’t fall down. Then she breaks her leg. And then she’s lame for the rest of her life. And then the pain, the hassle, the doctor’s bill! But if you take this one, it won’t happen to you; you’ve got it all ready-made.” [1] Like dreams, jokes invite their listeners to see what they would rather ignore. “In sickness and in health,” the marriage vow goes, yet both the commitment to care for another person for life and the body’s fragility are easier repressed than confronted.

Freud grapples (in his book about the joke of all books) with the question of marriage as a long term contract. “Among all the institutions the cynical joke habitually attacks, there is none more important, more powerfully protected by moral precepts, nor more inviting of attack than the institution of marriage, which is, accordingly, also the target for the majority of cynical jokes.”[2] Freud then tells the following joke: “A wife is like an umbrella – sooner or later one takes a cab.”[3] I would’ve loved to have an umbrella in my dream about the boat. For Freud, the umbrella signifies the ways whereby we seek protection through marriage. The cab is the vehicle that marks “the temptations of sensuality,” while the umbrella is the reliable tool that ceases, at times, to be enough.

Freud likens jokes to dreams because both contain symbols that need to be deciphered while also acting as proof of the existence of an unconscious realm of thoughts and wishes. As two of his earliest works, Freud’s books on dreams and jokes tackle the concept of the unconscious. As a noun, the unconscious denotes an abstract space where repressed memories and unassimilable truths are stored. As an adjective, it represents both psychoanalysis’ main claim and the problem that it sets out to solve: that we aren’t always aware of what drives us; that we never fully know ourselves.

When my husband and I began arguing about whether or not he should be working as much as he was, a new awareness of the possibility that we might not spend the rest of our lives together emerged from a previously inaccessible-to-us space. For years, we had ignored the option of separation, entangling ourselves in each other’s worlds and sharing our nighttime and daytime dreams. Now, we could no longer joke about anything, let alone show interest in each other’s unconscious terrains.

“In the beginning of psychoanalysis was the dream,” the psychoanalyst Paul Lippmann writes in a manifesto from the early 2000s against the neglect of dream interpretation.[4] Since then, Freudian psychoanalysis has undergone a revival of sorts, yet dream interpretation invokes as much skepticism, at best, or as much dismissiveness, as Freud’s writing about female sexuality (Freud believed that clitoral pleasure was a phase that people with a clitoris needed to outgrow to welcome their reproductive roles—he wasn’t a person with a clitoris). It might be the ancient reputation of dreams as predicting the future, or their perception in some branches of neuroscience as mere memory consolidation aids, that have turned dreams into the kind of material with which few of us know what to do. Dreams cannot even offer what corporate executives call good storytelling: time collapses in them; the past becomes a delirious present. Yet Freud believed that his book on dreams – whose publication date he insisted on moving from November 1899 to January 1900 – heralded a future in which we’d understand ourselves better.

In the months that followed my separation from my husband, I rarely slept through the night. I documented my dreams from that period, noticing how friends and family members appeared in them to offer both comfort and censure. My soon to be ex-sister-in-law featured in a hyper-realistic dream that blurred the boundary between night and day. Dressed in an expensive tracksuit, she stood by my side as I was washing my face in the bathroom adjacent to my London bedroom. She recommended that I reorganize my closet, pointing at its direction. In another dream from the same month, my late grandmother told me, against the backdrop of the Niagara Falls (I’ve never been), that things would be fine. She added that she wouldn’t have married my grandfather, if only she could have.

In my waking hours, I didn’t communicate with the people I’ve lost in quite the same way. I concur with Freud’s 1900 call in The Interpretation of Dreams to honor the ancient perception of dreams as gateways to places otherwise unreachable.[5] A product of a post-Enlightenment age, Freud didn’t see dreams as access points to the future but as one key among others (jokes, symptoms) to the personal and the collective unconscious. Writing in the year 2000, Lippmann feels the pressure to reconcile the concept of the unconscious with neuroscientific approaches to dreams, insisting that one doesn’t have to choose between psychical and physical theories: “Both are intriguing, both illuminate ideas about the dream experience as well as about all of mental life.”[6]

Some of Freud’s ideas about dreams contradict others. In one of his papers on sexuality, he writes: “The ancient interpreter of dreams, Artemidorus, was certainly right in claiming that a dream changes its meaning according to the person of the dreamer.”[7] Yet in examining water dreams and rescue fantasies, Freud argues that they change their meaning when dreamed by a woman or a man: “If a man in a dream rescues a woman from water, it means he is turning her into a mother . . . If a woman rescues someone else (a child) from the water, she is . . . declaring herself . . . to be the mother who brought him into the world.” Freud dubs water dreams common—I had many of them after my separation. Toilet dreams too.

The same bathroom to which I summoned my sister-in-law in one dream became the setting of another. I was on the toilet when my ex-husband flung open the bathroom door. I cried: “Hey, privacy!” He replied: “I have to go!” I asked what happened. He said: “I think I ate a rotten burek.” “Where?” I asked. “At the gym cafeteria because I didn’t have time to go out.” “Rotten burek?” I was skeptical. My ex-husband said that the burek looked fine from the outside but must have been rotten inside. I shared the toilet bowl dream with a friend, who noted that my ex-husband’s needs trumped my own in it. Sharing it with my ex-husband, I felt differently. It was a funny dream; it made him laugh. “You’re obsessed with indigestion,” he rightly pointed out. I didn’t tell him that I saw an analogy between our relationship and the burek. Something had been rotten in our marriage well before we began discussing divorce. We just couldn’t digest it.

In my water and bathroom dreams, I was never in or under water, only close to it. I felt this way about being a wife: while I loved my husband, being his wife was something at which I could only look from the outside. As soon as we got married, questions about child bearing flooded our household. Strangers and acquaintances raised the questions; as did we, my husband and his wife. I was ambivalent about children; my husband believed that it was my decision to make. He tried to free me from the messages I had absorbed from my mother and my country of upbringing: there was no point to marriage without children; there was no point to me as a wife but not a mother.

The Talmudic philosopher Rabbi Eliezer once divided the night into three watches: “In the first watch, the donkey brays; in the second, dogs bark; and in the third people begin to rise, a baby nurses from its mother’s breast and a wife converses with her husband.”[8] Surely the wife tells her husband her dreams; the question is how he listens. For Lippmann, the way we listen to dreams is no less important than the way we interpret them. There’s a hierarchy to dream listening: the dreamer comes first; a partner or a friend often comes second; and the analyst, for those who see one, comes last, if at all. Some of Lippmann’s patients were embarrassed by their dreams; others delighted in them; still others withheld them from him. He located the reasons in his patients’ early experiences (a psychoanalyst after all), or in the manner in which their first caregivers related to their dreams. For Lippmann, it’s useless to tell a child who had a bad dream that it was just a dream.

A few weeks after my husband and I talked about getting a divorce for the first time, my best childhood friend appeared in one of my dreams. I hadn’t seen her in many years, but there she was, aged eleven or twelve. We were in her house in the suburb where we both grew up, a beautiful cottage with a patio full of plants. We watched her mother spray a palm plant inside the patio. My childhood friend apologized for having broken up with me. She explained why she had done so—I was too critical of her, always judging. “I have a flight to catch,” I told her, when out of nowhere my mother materialized looking the way she looks today. “Don’t feel sorry for her,” my mother told my childhood friend, “she and her husband always fly business class.”

Sometimes I feel like my mother and I should get a divorce. I wanted to marry my husband, in part, because he offered me a form of mothering that my mother couldn’t. The first night I spent with him, I dreamt of my mother’s death. I didn’t witness it, but I was on a plane to Tel Aviv to attend her funeral. Tel Aviv looked like Manhattan in that dream. As I walked down one of its streets, a fire hydrant burst out and water began blocking the road. It was unclear whether I would make it to my mother’s funeral. I woke up terrified, drowning. I called my mother right away to hear her voice and share the dream. She liked it. “I’ll have a long life thanks to this dream,” she announced.

The dream about my childhood friend occurred on the other side of my relationship with my husband. If the dream about my mother’s death marked the start of our love, the dream about the childhood friend was a breakup dream. My childhood friend took the place of my husband in that dream, accusing me of excessive criticism of her actions. The palm plant could’ve been my marriage; the flight – a symbol of leaving it.

My mother thought that my decision to get a divorce made no sense, like my childhood friend’s favorite joke: A man tells a girl on the street, “Hi young lady, how old are you?” The girl replies, “I’m not a young lady, I’m a strawberry.” I used to love this early attempt at nonsense. Now it reminds me of Freud’s daughter Anna’s strawberry dream: after a bout of indigestion forced Anna’s caregivers to impose on her a strict diet, she dreamt of strawberries at night. She murmured “staw-bewwies” in her sleep, not knowing that her father was listening. Freud then used her dream as proof of his guiding principle in The Interpretation of Dreams: that dreams fulfill unconscious wishes, revealing the desires that we either hide from ourselves or have no sustainable way of satisfying.

As a wife, I sometimes dreamt about sleeping with people other than my husband. After our separation, the people with whom I slept started populating my dreams like specters of my own conversations with myself about marriage and childbirth. One of these people showed up in my London kitchen with oranges and a dog that he had bought for me. The dog gave birth to dozens of puppies on the kitchen floor, bleeding all over it. Another person, a queer musician, played a sad tune on a piano in the Judean desert. I approached them, asking about the music. “I composed this tune,” they said, “it’s called Kid Royale.” The night before, we had champagne at a bar that served Kir Royale. The musician was also about to get a divorce, and we talked about marriage without children. They could see themselves becoming a parent, but not in a marital context. Their position differed from mine: they could have children for many years to come; they had the right body for that.

My thoughts about children took on a new shape once it became clear that I missed my best chance to have them. I felt at once too childish and too old to be anything other than a childless divorcee. The sad tune Kid Royale reminded me of parts of Freud’s work on narcissism. Accounting for “the primary narcissism of the child,” Freud alludes to a painting that was exhibited in the Royal Academy in London in his time; of a baby being wheeled down a busy street, with policemen stopping the traffic for the pram. “His Majesty the Baby.” Freud repeats the painting’s title to explain that a residue of childish narcissism not only informs our lives as adults, but also resurges when – and if – we become parents. The child’s needs come to matter to the parent as if they were her own; while the child herself, in babyhood, has no notion of needs, waiting for the world to nurture her.

Sleep is a narcissistic state according to Freud: “The egoism of dreams probably fits in very well in this context.”[9] Divorce is narcissistic too: for me it came on the heels of futile discussions of needs, wishes, and their fulfillment. The year before my husband and I split up, I started lamenting the feeling that we had in the beginning of our relationship; that our needs converged. After seven, eight, nine years together, our needs seemed not only distinct but also contrasting to us — I wanted more time with him, as well as more freedom; he wanted more support, as well as a better understanding of his career’s demands — but the language of needs captured little. The babyhood of our relationship got further and further away from us, like the boat in my dream.

I hated that we had grown apart while growing up. My husband accused me of behaving like a petulant child, telling me that I learned the wrong things from my infantile father who never understood why he had to forgo his narcissistic wish for lovers and lavish meals in order to remain both married and alive. My parents’ marriage ended in divorce, and my husband was using it against me. I, too, reiterated the painful truths that he had disclosed to me over the course of a decade of intimacy, implementing some reductive form of Freudianism to both analyze and condemn his behavior. Our love laid the foundations for a new kind of cruelty to which we managed to put an end, together, in a final act of co-mothering.

We parted ways, dividing our belongings. Each of us subscribed separately to the newspapers we loved. Nine months after our break up, I had a dream so transparent, it required no sharing or interpretation. In it, I interrupted my ex-husband while he was reading a newspaper, asking if he could help me “close all the windows” before we left. He rose from the sofa in our London apartment, locating himself in a position that allowed me to mount his back. Then he carried me around the room as I closed all the windows, latch after latch, and put me back down on solid ground.




[1] Sigmund Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, trans. Joyce Crick (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 193.

[2] Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, 289.

[3] Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, 222.

[4] Paul Lippmann, Nocturnes: On Listening to Dreams (Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 2000).

[5] Freud mentions several ancient traditions in his book on dreams, already making the point that modern science should consider rather than dismiss the long-standing human interest in dreams. He even implies that there might never be a definitive explanation of dreams, almost celebrating the proliferation of theories about them: “The belief held in antiquity that dreams were sent by the gods in order to guide the actions of men was a complete theory of dreams, giving information on everything worth knowing about them. Since dreams have become an object of scientific research a considerable number of theories have been developed, including some that are extremely incomplete.” Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York, New York: Basic Books, 2010), 102.

[6] Lippmann, 17.

[7] Sigmund Freud, “Concerning a Particular Type of Object-choice in Men,” The Psychology of Love, trans. Shaun Whitesidec (Penguin Modern Classics, 2003), 248-249.

[8] Berakhot 3a, The William Davidson Talmud (Koren – Steinsaltz), Sefaria Online, https://www.sefaria.org/Berakhot.3a?lang=bi&with=About&lang2=en, last accessed April 14, 2023.

[9] Sigmund Freud, “On the Introduction of Narcissism,” Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick (Penguin Modern Classics, 2003), 12.