Locations:
Search IconSearch

What Are Karmic Relationships?

Don’t let the romantic terminology fool you: Karmic relationships are dysfunctional by definition

yin-yang-type hands in black and red

Turn on the radio, and chances are, you’ll hear a song about a relationship that transcends time. A love that’s written in the stars — for better or for worse.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

In 1999, Savage Garden vocalist Darren Hayes sang, “I knew I loved you before I met you.” In 2011, Christina Perri declared, “I have loved you for a thousand years/I’ll love you for a thousand more.” In 2020, Taylor Swift mused, “All along there was some/Invisible string/Tying you to me.”

Love songs like these have primed us to connect with the concept of karmic relationships, which — like the related concept of twin flames — is having a moment right now. It sounds deeply romantic in theory. But what do karmic relationships look like in practice? Are these relationships healthy?

We asked registered psychotherapist Natacha Duke, MA, RP.

What is a karmic relationship?

Defining a karmic relationship is tough. It’s not a clinical term with specific signs or symptoms — and both karma and reincarnation are deeply tied to religious beliefs.

Karma is a principle of causality, ethics and, in some cases, rebirth, that originated in Hinduism. Karma also plays a defining role in Buddhism and Jainism. But the concept has also been popularized (and secularized) in the Western world over time. Many people now use the word “karma” to describe the idea that you “reap what you sow.” That our actions have consequences we’ll face eventually — whether in this life or the next.

Most people who believe in the idea of karmic relationships describe them this way: A karmic relationship is a connection forged over multiple lifetimes. These preternaturally intense (and volatile) partnerships have an almost addictive quality. They’re bad for you but the bond is so strong that leaving feels almost impossible. In theory, karmic relationships teach us lessons, help us atone for mistakes or facilitate personal growth. Not every person who uses the phrase “karmic relationships” necessarily believes in karma or reincarnation, but they likely do see their love lives as spiritually guided in one way or another.

That’s how people who believe in karmic relationships describe them. But how do mental health providers see it?

“I think that, in the psychology world, we would talk about these situations as dysfunctional or unhealthy relationships,” Duke says. The closest equivalent she can think of is a pop psychology term that’s slowly gaining ground in clinical spaces: trauma bonding.

“Karmic relationships are connections that are very quick to start and then fall into a pattern,” Duke explains. “It’s a cycle where you argue, you make up and then it gets very passionate and intense again, until the next intense argument. So, it’s high highs and low lows, which is never really good for anybody.”

Duke isn’t surprised that this way of understanding relationships is gaining steam right now.

Advertisement

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been so much loneliness, anxiety, depression and hardship,” she reflects. “And sometimes, when people have insecure attachment styles — or there’s attachment difficulties due to childhood trauma or past unhealthy relationships — these ways of thinking can draw you back into relationships that are unhealthy or abusive.”

Sure, it’s possible to fall in love at first sight. But that sudden rush of emotion can also be a trauma response. And trauma has been particularly abundant since 2019.

Stages of karmic relationships

If you search for information on karmic relationships, you’ll probably read that they unfold in three, four or even 10 steps.

Duke isn’t a fan of that framing.

“One of the things that we know in the psychological community is that stages are often nonexistent,” she continues. “Because our lives and relationships aren’t really linear or neat in that way.”

She points to the five stages of grief as an example. Created in 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ model claimed grieving is a process, that to grieve a loss you have to move through a series of reactions to your loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, eventually, acceptance.

“But now we realize that grief can be all over the place — there’s no order to our feelings,” Duke explains. “I think it’s the same for anything, including relationships. We’re not all the same, so we’re not going to go through things in the same way.”

And she is quick to note that if you were to construct a model for understanding dysfunctional or abusive relationships, it’d probably be cyclical, not linear.

Instead of trying to figure out what stage your karmic relationship is in, Duke urges you to think about why that question matters to you — and what you’re hoping to learn as a result. Here are some questions she recommends you to consider:

  • How are you feeling about your relationship?
  • Do you want to be at the end of it or the beginning?
  • Are you trying to determine how long your relationship will last? If so, why?
  • What purpose does knowing what stage you’re in serve?

Advertisement

Answering these questions will bring you far more insight than reading about stages or taking a quiz ever could.

Signs you may be in a karmic relationship

There’s no diagnostic manual you can follow to determine if you’re in a karmic relationship because the concept is spiritual, not clinical. And — as has suggested — the most useful question you can ask yourself isn’t, “Am I in a karmic relationship?” It’s, “Why am I asking this question, and what am I hoping to hear in response?”

Instead of looking for signs of a karmic relationship, Duke recommends assessing the overall health of your partnership.

“I personally believe it’s important to look for balance. Balance both in a relationship and balance in your thinking,” she states. “When we’re thinking in dichotomies — thinking in an all or nothing, overly positive or overly negative way — that’s probably not healthy. The same goes for relationships: Really high highs and really low lows aren’t a great sign.”

Duke isn’t saying that relationships should be free of conflict. Conflict is a necessary and healthy part of close relationships. But in a healthy, functional relationship, partners respect each others’ feelings and boundaries. When they disagree, they do so in a way that doesn’t foster resentment or leave either person questioning their self-worth. And while occasional moments of euphoria may feel great, healthy relationships often have fewer peaks, too.

Abusive relationships happen when one partner (or in the case of mutually abusive relationships, each partner) asserts power and control over the other. Trauma bonding is a common consequence.

“Even though the behavior is abusive, it becomes comfortable. It establishes a kind of bond,” Duke explains. “Trauma bonding is especially common if someone has a history of being abused. That unhealthy bond is so familiar, it’s actually mistaken for love.”

Advertisement

In those situations, labeling a relationship “karmic” can do serious harm. Concepts like karma, destiny, fate and reincarnation can be a source of strength and spiritual fulfillment. But they can also be used to:

  • Justify unacceptable behavior. “I must have done something to deserve this treatment.”
  • Stay in a toxic situation. “The relationship will end when it’s meant to end.”
  • Isolate from other people. “They just don’t understand us.”
  • Maintain co-dependency. “I’m nothing without you.”
  • Avoid seeking professional help. “This relationship can’t be fixed.”

“Looking for lessons is common and, psychologically, can be really helpful,” Duke says. “Looking for growth, or a bright side, can lessen the pain when we’re going through something hard. But does that growth mean that we should then stay in a relationship that’s harmful to us? No. And we shouldn’t seek out unhealthy bonds for the sake of personal growth either.”

The connection to twin flames

The idea of karmic relationships often gets tied to the new age spiritualist concept of “twin flames,” popularized by Elizabeth Clare Prophet in 1999. Working through karmic relationships prepares you to meet your twin flame — your other half, basically.

While this idea isn’t new, its dark side has been in the media a lot recently because certain self-proclaimed spiritual leaders have allegedly employed these kinds of concepts to establish cult-like followings and exploit vulnerable people.

The concepts of karmic relationships and twin flames can be a healthy part of your love life. But only if they’re serving you.

“There isn’t any harm in believing in karmic relationships, soul mates, past lives or twin flames,” Duke clarifies. “The harm comes if those ideas convince you to get into or stay in situations that aren’t benefiting you or prevent you from building new, more meaningful connections.”

Healthy relationships teach us more than unhealthy ones

Yes, trauma can be a teacher. And yes, we can emerge from toxic relationships in a better place. But the emerging part is crucial. Romanticizing an unhealthy or abusive relationship can have devastating consequences.

If you believe you’re in a karmic relationship, ask yourself why, and think deeply about what needs to change to move past it. If you feel trapped in the relationship, seek support from family, friends or a mental health provider. If you’re being abused in any way, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website to learn about the different community organizations and resources that can help you.

Whether you believe in karmic relationships or not, Duke wants you to remember that we learn from every relationship we have, good or bad.

“It’s oftentimes the healthiest relationships that help us to find our truest self because when we’re in them, we’re not only responding to wounds,” Duke says.

So, be sure you’re advocating for your highest and best every day. Because destiny won’t do it for you.

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Health Library
Attachment Styles

Related Articles

Male with arms outstretched toward hunched over female, with broken heart and holding hands wreath around her
June 10, 2024/Sex & Relationships
What Is the Cycle of Abuse and How Do You Break It?

The cycle of abuse is a simple theory for understanding relationship violence — but the model might not fit everyone’s situation

Happy couple sleeping in bed together, holding hands
June 3, 2024/Sleep
The Scandinavian Sleep Method: A Surprisingly Simple Fix for Couples Struggling With Blanket-Hogging

Sleeping with separate blankets can help you get the ZZZs you need — without fighting for covers all night

People volunteering at a food drive
June 3, 2024/Mental Health
How To Make — and Nourish — New Friendships When You’re an Adult

Look to activities you enjoy — or try a new hobby — to help foster meeting new people

Partners sitting at breakfast table on their phones
May 31, 2024/Sex & Relationships
What It Means To Be ‘Aromantic’

This romantic orientation involves little to no romantic attraction to others and exists on a spectrum

Person observing a loving couple
May 15, 2024/Mental Health
Resentment: How It Can Creep In and Take Hold

The key to letting go of resentment is unpacking complex emotions and learning how to express them

Teen lying on bed holding cell phone up reading it
May 9, 2024/Parenting
Sexting: The Risks and How To Talk to Your Children About It

Sexting has become all too common among kids, putting them at risk for bullying, blackmailing and human trafficking

Two caregivers, with one holding a child on shoulders, walking happily outside
May 1, 2024/Parenting
Our Safe and Responsible Guide To Co-Parenting

Keeping open lines of communication and working together as a team for your children are key to co-parenting

person standing on exclamation point holding up a No. 1 finger, wearing cape and mask in front of crowd
February 1, 2024/Mental Health
How To Make the Most of Your ‘Villain Era’

It’s not about embracing your dark side — it’s about showing up for yourself

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad