What a Karmic Relationship Feels Like — and How to Handle It If You're In One

Whether or not you believe in the concept of past lives, karmic relationships are an opportunity for personal growth.

Couple Holding Hands
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Perhaps you remember the movie Dead Again starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, which follows the young couple as they fall in love. It's the story of an amnesiac woman and a detective investigating her identity. They gradually discover (spoiler) through some very stylish black-and-white flashback scenes, that their present-day relationship is a karmic slate-cleansing of their shared past. They discover through hypnotherapy that they have reunited to avenge the murder of Branagh's character in his past life. In the context of a movie, it creates some fantastic (albeit confusing) dramatic storytelling; In real life, however, karmic relationships can be rough.

What is a karmic relationship?

The term karmic relationship is used to define intense and often turbulent relationships, which some people believe are a direct result of actions in a past life that manifest as an opportunity for growth in the present day. "A karmic relationship is a connection of intense learning, meant to create an accelerated experience of working through old issues," says Cassady Cayne, relationship coach and author of The Universe Speaks, Are You Listening?

It might be difficult to overcome those relationship issues, though. "The purpose of a [karmic relationship] is to work through those old wounds and ultimately heal," says Cayne. "But a lot of people get stuck in cycles [in relationships] of repeating the same trauma. You might struggle with a karmic partner, not realizing that your deeper self is working to show you that you may not have loved yourself enough or have not set boundaries with other people [previously], for example," she says.

What are the effects of forming a karmic relationship?

Maybe you think the concept of karmic relationships is all a load of woo-woo wellness. Maybe you tell yourself that you don't believe in karma, you don't accept that people put in your life as a direct result of something in your past, and your inner work is adequate, thanks. Okay, fine, but, no matter what level of woo-woo you believe in, there's no disputing the idea that you can learn and grow from the good and bad in your relationships, according to psychiatrist Stephanie Hartselle, M.D. Positive aspects from past relationships give you "clarity to see the exchange of this love and generosity," says Dr. Hartselle. If you gain more self-awareness during a relationship, "you can be more open to seeing the things for which you can be grateful" in future relationships, explains Dr. Hartselle.

You may not gain this kind of perspective about a rocky relationship immediately. However, identifying negative patterns in relationships over time can help you put an end to those cycles and experience emotional growth, says Dr. Hartselle. Seeking the guidance of a mental health professional can often be helpful.

It is important to note that the work of being in a karmic relationship can feel depleting because it's tough to undo deeply engrained patterns in relationships, and in some cases, it's best to end the relationship. There are some telltale signs it may be time to walk away — whether you label your relationship as karmic or not — including if your basic needs aren't getting met, you're feeling threatened and unsafe, you have poor communication or a lack of love and emotional intimacy. These are all signs you're in an unhealthy relationship, as Shape previously reported. It's key to identify when the hard work necessary in relationships is no longer helping or is, in fact, harmful, says Cayne. "Of course, you have to step away if a person is abusive," she says.

While they may seem exciting to watch play out on the big screen, karmic relationships IRL can certainly wear you out. On the bright side, a karmic relationship — or any relationship for that matter — is a meaningful opportunity for growth.

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