Romance Or Red Flag?
Karmic Relationships: What They Are & When To Leave, According To Experts
“There’s a toxic element to every karmic relationship.”
It sounds like a romance straight from a movie: you meet and feel an instant connection, almost like you’ve known each other before, and suddenly you can’t bear to stand a minute apart. You fight with them more than you ever have with anyone else, but you also feel more in love than ever before. This is what some people call a karmic relationship — the idea is that the universe or some higher power has brought you two together to learn a lesson from each other (these love stories are never meant to last long). And much like soul ties, karmic relationships can tend to turn toxic.
What is a karmic relationship?
For starters, the term “karmic relationship” isn’t a medical or psychological term, so there isn’t any research on the topic, says Dr. Cortney Warren, Ph.D., a Chicago-based clinical psychologist. “The term ‘karmic relationship’ is sometimes used in mainstream media and pop culture to describe romantic relationships thought to be spiritually destined to teach you a lesson. It is often used to describe turbulent, intense romantic relationships that are short-lasting. There is a focus on the belief that this relationship was ‘meant to be’ because there is some deeper learning you needed that will emerge because of it.”
“It’s more of a spiritual term people are trying to make practical,” says Dr. Gregory Kushnick, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City. “A karmic relationship is a temporary relationship involving an unbelievable magnetic connection, but the bond is fueled by a toxic push and pull of passion, drama, and pain, and you constantly feel baffled by how perfect and horrible it can feel even in the same moment.”
Dr. Kushnick adds that many people don’t identify their relationships as karmic until after they’ve ended, when they can look back on it and realize the lessons they learned, and then ascribe the “karmic” meaning.
Wondering how to know if you're in a karmic relationship, and how to know if it's toxic? Keep an eye out for red flags that signal a karmic relationship that’s turning unhealthy.
What are the signs of a karmic relationship?
If you’re wondering whether or not you’re in a karmic relationship, these experts say there are plenty of red flags you can identify that will make it clear.
“Karmic relationships are inherently not healthy, but it may take time to arrive at that conclusion, because there’s so much reward that goes with the punishment,” Kushnick says. “There’s a toxic element to every karmic relationship — although, every toxic relationship is not karmic.”
There’s immediate chemistry.
There’s something wonderful about having a spark with someone, but be mindful not to get so swept away you miss the signs your relationship may be unhealthy.
“This kind of instant connection occurs in a karmic relationship where from the first encounter, you feel like it’s nothing you’ve ever felt before,” Kushnick says. “The bond is so strong, you start to develop this belief you almost can’t live without this person.”
Warren points out that any lack of respect for you and your autonomy is a sign of a toxic relationship. Whether you or your partner, or both, feel like you can never be apart, it’s worth asking yourself if it feels healthy.
“Both partners are unable to let go, despite the emotional intensity and disagreements, and once a massive disruption takes place, both people can’t resist the reunion despite the advice of their most trusted supporters. It functions like an addiction,” Kushnick describes.
There’s a one up, one down dynamic.
If your partner is always putting you down, or making you feel worse to build themselves up... red flag alert.
“Similar to narcissistic abuse, the relationship is one-sided where one person does all the work to make the other person happy, while the other acts entitled or plays on their partner’s weaknesses or disempowers the other. That’s a big sign,” Kushnick says.
“If you don’t feel validated, listened to, respected, or that the person only likes you when you’re a certain way, not when you’re being vulnerable, or your vulnerability leads to abuse, that’s a sign,” says Dr. Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., LCSW, psychotherapist based in New York City. “I think very often there’s a narcissistic component to a karmic relationship. You’re attracted to the dazzle of someone, really, and it takes a long time to realize the person doesn't have anything inside, or can’t reciprocate in a way that is healthy.”
Emotions are always running high.
Does it feel like you’re always either madly in love, or being driven mad? Take a closer look at that pattern.
“There’s a push and pull that generates heat, energy, and high emotions in the karmic relationship. It follows a model of disruption and repair — you break up only to make up — and that push-pull strengthens the bond. It has much more drama than other romantic relationships, and when things go wrong, it feels like all is lost and you’ll never love again.”
“Some people think drama is the soul of life, but it does not work in relationships and makes them very difficult,” says Smerling. “It’s a lot of up and down, discomfort, and tears. That’s really not what a healthy relationship is about.”
They bring out the worst in you.
Your partner should never ask you, verbally or by coercing you with their actions, to behave in ways that are upsetting to you.
“If you find yourself acting in ways that go against your better judgement, they make you feel desperate, discouraged, or exhausted, that’s a red flag,” Kushnick says.
Nothing is improving in the relationship.
If you’ve had the same fight every month and never seem closer to resolving the issue, Kushnick says that’s a sign of a toxic karmic relationship.
“The communication isn’t improving, and you’re not learning from mistakes together. The relationship has this repetitive quality where you’re having the same argument over and over again without growing together,” he says.
You fear the end of the relationship.
Do you feel hopeless about your love life, like this partnership is unhealthy, but nothing else after it could ever measure up? Kushnick says that’s a red flag that this situation is toxic (and says not to believe your thoughts — healthy love is out there).
“There’s little vision or connection to the idea that life would be better without your karmic partner. That compels you to make desperate attempts to fix the relationship and makes the cycle repeat,” he explains.
Can a karmic relationship be your soul mate?
According to Dr. Kushnick, that’s a big fat no. “Your soul mate would not be in a turbulent relationship or generate that push and pull connection. Soul mates make you feel a sense of completion, self-worth, and value, and they’re whole-heartedly invested in your well-being. With a soul mate, there’s synchrony. There’s support and an added sense of value as opposed to going through deprivation, conflict, or struggle,” he says.
How to end a karmic relationship that has become toxic
Even if you’ve seen the signs a karmic relationship is ending, actually breaking it off can still be difficult. Kushnick says the best thing you can do is accept that this breakup is just going to suck.
“The relationship will end horribly, and you can’t expect a peaceful ending. Accept that it’s going to be a disaster,” he says.
Next, you’re going to want to get your friends and family in your corner. Yes, even the ones you’ve been hiding things from. “You have to access as much support as you can. This is the nature of abuse: you feel shame about the relationship, which makes you cut off your biggest supporters, so the idea is to identify those people and have the courage to share what’s going on. Usually those people are the game changers who will help you move out of that relationship,” Kushnick says.
Kushnick also recommends cutting out the person completely by blocking their number and social media accounts to make it easier to heal. Finally, it’s time to invest in learning about yourself again.
“In karmic relationships, people tend to find themselves acting in ways that are foreign to them, so to be able to identify what you’re really about will help you identify red flags going forward. Then comes the process of learning to set boundaries and be vigilant about keeping them,” he says.
As for how to care for yourself post-breakup, Warren suggests you:
- Practice lots of self-care, like eating nutritious foods and getting enough sleep.
- Seek lots of social support by reaching out to trusted friends and family.
- Find a good therapist.
- Stop having sex with your ex, and maybe even other partners for the time being.
- Focus on yourself, exploring what you learned from this experience and what you want next.
- Avoid checking on your ex via social media.
If you are in a physically abusive relationship, leaving can put you at a greater risk of being harmed. Reaching out for help may be key to getting out of an abusive relationship. Organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help. Call 1-800-799-SAFE or text ‘START’ to 88788 to reach an advocate 24/7.
Dr. Cortney Warren, Ph.D., board-certified clinical psychologist based in Chicago
Dr. Gregory Kushnick, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City
Dr. Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., LCSW, psychotherapist based in New York City