I have a recurring dream that my ex-boyfriend comes around and says he needs to talk and he wants me to go somewhere with him. (I have been apart from my ex-boyfriend for over four years. He was abusive through our entire relationship and still comes around every six months or so.) I tell him that I will go, but this will be the last time I ever want to talk to him, and that I want him to leave me alone from now on.

So we go to a public place, and we are standing there and I start getting my insecure feeling again — like I did every time I was with him — and he starts to degrade me. I feel myself going back into the same rut of letting him control me.

Then I get this sudden burst of anger. I realize this is all wrong and I tell him that I am in love with my new boyfriend and I just want him to leave me alone. I turn around and see my current boyfriend who says to me, “I am here if you need me. Do what you have to.”

So I turn around and go to punch my ex. I try with all my might, but it is as though I almost just poke him with my finger. I keep trying and trying and start crying with frustration. I turn around and my current boyfriend says, “You don’t have to do this. I can take care of it for you.”

This is the point when I make myself wake up because I can’t stand the feelings of insecurity. Can you help? I probably have this dream on average once every two weeks. One time, I had this dream every day for a week straight.

–kim, age 22, engaged to be married, Collinsville, IL

Hi Kim,

It sounds like your ex is one of those relationships that “keeps on giving.” In your case though (like with most exes), all he’s giving you is a headache!

There are two schools of thought about “can’t hit” dreams. The first says that, because the body actually is paralyzed during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep (so we don’t act out our dreams), the dreams really reflect physical feelings of paralysis. When you try to throw a punch and can’t hit, or if you try to run from an attacker but your legs won’t move, what you are feeling is the natural paralysis of your body during REM sleep.

But how then, do we explain other dreams — of running and jumping, flying and soaring, dancing and making love — in which our bodies behave naturally, or in some cases, supernaturally? It’s a fair question — so fair, in fact, that I think we can be suspicious of a simple, “physical” explanation for your dream.

The only time you have difficulty moving is when you prepare to throw a punch at your ex. Is it possible your own good will is “holding you back”? At the beginning of your dream (and, we gather, in real life from time to time) you agree to see your ex again. Almost immediately though, you sense your mistake. He begins to degrade you, and you have fallen into the same old trap.

What’s the message of this dream? It’s time for the knock-out punch, but it won’t be delivered with your fist. Rather, it will occur when you decide in your heart to let your ex take care of himself. You’re not responsible for him anymore.

Charles McPhee is a graduate of Princeton University and holds a master’s in communication management from the University of Southern California. He received his board certification to perform polysomnographic testing for the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders in 1992. McPhee is the former Director of the Sleep Apnea Patient Treatment Program at the Sleep Disorders Center of Santa Barbara, California; the former coordinator of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA , and the former coordinator of the sleep research laboratory at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD. Please visit his website for further information.