Signs Of A Karmic Relationship, And How to Use One For Spiritual Growth
Know the signs, and how to use them to catalyze your development.
Human relationships are largely mysterious. You might be able to point out certain traits you like in your friends, shared values, or why you enjoy the way they make you feel. But there’s a certain “something,” an invisible glue, that allows for some relationships to blossom, and others to stagnate. Two people could have identical traits, but one could become a close friend, the other, an acquaintance you enjoy talking to, but don’t develop a deeper relationship with.
When viewed with a certain perspective on life — you could call a growth mindset or, if more spiritually inclined, that life constantly offers you opportunities to learn and grow — relationships take on a new dimension. They’re opportunities to learn and grow. And no relationship offers a greater opportunity than a karmic relationship.
What is a Karmic Relationship?
Karma is a Sanskrit word that originates from eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. It usually refers to the cycle of birth and death, where a person’s “karma” is dictated by the actions and decisions they make through life, or a past life. As a cultural term in the West, typically, karma is linked to cause and effect and often said lightheartedly. If something good or bad happens, it’s the result of an earlier action.
When life is viewed as an opportunity for spiritual growth, or personal development, karma is the curriculum. It sets out the patterns and themes that are at the deepest core of your being. Karmic relationships, then, are relationships that “act out” these lessons, in order for each person involved to integrate, understand, and move beyond certain patterns of behavior.
Keep in mind, this is a framework or philosophy that explains common experiences in relationships. The further into spiritual or esoteric movements you go, the harder to prove with our conventional models of logic or objective observation. Proving whether or not the concept is “true” is less important than viewing relationships as opportunities for learning and personal growth.
Misconceptions About Karmic Relationships
There are misconceptions to clear up before we continue. The first is that karmic relationships are always romantic. Not all soul mate relationships contain a sexual quality. That’s not the case. Anyone in your life who has a particular draw, someone you feel magnetized to, or experience rapid growth around, may qualify as a karmic relationship. The common idea of a passionate and turbulent romance does fit the criteria of karmic relationship, although they’re much more broad.
Alan Watts’ explanation of karma rectifies common misconceptions and highlights its nuances. The eccentric philosopher explained that it is not the commonly understood Westernized version of “cause and effect,” but is much more complex. He says the “devil of omnipotence” comes from believing the ego invites karmic experiences when in truth, karma is beyond conscious control. Watts warns:
“If you think, then, that everything that happens to everybody is what they really want to happen, then you can absolve yourself from any qualms about being unkind to someone, because you could say, ‘Well, the unkindness I did you is what you really wanted, wasn’t it?’”
In their nature, karmic relationships are challenging and sometimes emotionally exhausting, because they reflect core wounds or powerful limitations. They can be mostly positive, or negative, depending on the dynamic. But abuse of any kind — be it physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual — is never tolerable. It’s important to avoid the temptation of normalizing this type of behavior as a “learning opportunity,” or victims as complicit or responsible for these experiences.
Signs You’re in a Karmic Relationship
The best approach for spiritual growth is to view all relationships as teaching opportunities. As Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki said: “When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.” No person, or even animal, is unable to reflect and teach valuable life lessons. However, karmic relationships are particularly catalytic. Signs you’re in this type of relationship include:
1. You have an instant connection
Within the mystery of human relationships is also the mystery of why you are immediately drawn to certain people, and not others. A big sign of a karmic relationship is feeling an ineffable pull, or attraction, as if it’s intuitively clear early on that this relationship has something valuable to offer. Theories as to why this is will depend on a person’s worldview, but what’s important is noticing this instant connection.
Be cautious, however, of the role of psychological projection in this type of relationship. In an intense and instant connection, whether with a potential lover, friend, mentor, or guru, there’s a very high likelihood that there is an emotional or psychological “hook” that needs to be looked at.
2. You experience intense emotions or ‘triggers’
If a relationship is designed to allow you to witness parts of yourself, it stands to reason that the relationship will surface deep emotions. Karmic relationships can “ignite” what feel like lost parts of the self, and for many, this experience is often conflated with falling in love. You may experience strong emotions such as awe, excitement, or even anger, resentment, or frustration. If you find someone particularly triggering, it’s likely because they’re reflecting something that is unseen in your psychological makeup.
3. You experience a push-pull dynamic
There’s an intriguing dynamic in karmic relationships, where people may feel equally fascinated and repelled. One on hand they may experience a strong pull to the relationship, as their deeper intuition understands the value on offer. On the other hand, the fear of witnessing lost parts of the self, or resistance to doing challenging emotional work, may create a sense of fear. That can create a push-pull dynamic, where either or both people move close to each other and then create distance when things become too intense.
4. You act in ways that “aren’t yourself”
Over years of adjusting to meet the needs of caregivers, or peers, everyone suppresses parts of themselves to various degrees, consigning them to the shadow. The nature of the shadow, as highlighted by Carl Jung, is that it remains unconscious, although it surfaces in indirect ways. A big sign of a karmic relationship is acting in a way that “isn’t how you’d usually act.” This is usually a sign that suppressed parts of the shadow are surfacing, and are asking to be integrated.
A word of warning, however. This process can be exploited by people who claim that certain responses are part of an integration process, in a way that justifies abusive behavior. If you find yourself becoming incredibly angry about what you perceive as harmful behavior, it could be that the behavior isn’t okay, and your anger is justified. Trust your gut.
How to Use a Karmic Relationship for Spiritual Growth
Karmic relationships thrive on accountability and the willingness to explore what your life experiences are here to teach. This requires curiosity and open-mindedness because the conventional model of reality would say that what happens to us is random, and that we choose meaning. Whether you agree with the philosophy of this type of growth isn’t too important. You can still make great strides in your progress if you shift your mindset, and allow for the possibility that all relationships have something to teach.
So how do you use karmic relationships for spiritual or personal growth? Below are a number of steps to make sure the lessons presented to you are identified, understood, and integrated.
1. Notice common patterns
The first step in a karmic lesson is to detect patterns. That could be patterns in behavior, emotions, thoughts, or a particular dynamic. Your approach and mindset towards this makes all the difference. The human brain is exceptionally gifted at pattern detection, but it’s easy to create links between things that aren’t accurate. Finding balance with this requires an approach of openness.
The pattern itself is interpreted, rather than a pre-existing belief being verified or unverified. To highlight the difference between the two, let’s say you have a belief your partner is untrustworthy. If you developed this belief based on trauma from childhood, you may enter a state of vigilance and attempt to “find clues” that prove this belief. Like a detective, however, it’s crucial to remain as objective as possible when noticing or interpreting patterns.
Keep the focus on yourself. Is there a pattern that surfaces in multiple relationships? Does the dynamic playing out in your karmic relationships remind you of a relationship from childhood? These are all indications of a karmic pattern at play. Always remain conscious of your own psychological becoming entangled in any conclusions you arrive at.
2. Deconstruct the mechanics of the pattern
Once you’ve spotted a pattern, the next step is to increase your understanding. What are the finer attributes of this pattern? Take the example of people pleasing. You may identify a pattern of guilt in certain relationships. As you deconstruct this inner dynamic of people pleasing to avoid guilt, you may see how it all links together. When you feel you upset someone, you feel guilty, and then adjust your behavior in order to avoid the person feeling upset.
Applied to a karmic relationship, you may notice that the person you’re in relationship with has certain guilt-tripping tendencies. This is a prime example of a karmic relationship, where two people come together because of compatible distortions or psychological defenses. Part of the process is to communicate, maturely and gently, if you perceive someone else’s behavior fuelling your own, as well as taking full responsibility for your role.
3. Consider ways you can behave differently
The opportunity for growth in karmic relationships comes from the way in which you navigate the lessons it reflects to you. Again, karmic relationships tend to bring people together who can mutually benefit from unhelpful or unhealthy dynamics being exposed, seen, and understood. It’s not always the case that two people work together on tackling such issues — you may have to do it alone — but the rewards of those dynamics are huge. The most common form of this is a twin flame relationship.
Continuing with the example of people pleasing, you may start to understand the impact this has on your life. Perhaps you suppress your true desires or needs. Perhaps you feel restricted or frustrated at always adjusting to appease others. At the other extreme, you may also consider what the rewards would be if you didn’t act in this way. Perhaps you would feel more fulfilled, more authentic, and live life on your terms. Perhaps you’d even benefit from more authentic relationships, based not on appeasement but mutual trust and compromise.
4. Practice, practice, practice
There’s a common misconception that the insight is the change. In truth, the insight is just the beginning of change. The real work is noticing whenever you fall into old habits, or follow the usual path of behavior, and then choose differently. The real work is noticing when feeling guilty, noticing when someone is exploiting that guilt, and instead choosing not to act from that feeling of guilt, but instead communicate truthfully about how you feel.
Karmic relationships don’t come with a set timespan or obligation. Often, the lessons are learned through the relationship ending, although that doesn’t have to be the case if two people are committed to change. The “lesson” on offer never looks the same, either. Sometimes the lesson may be in setting boundaries and expressing what behavior isn’t tolerable. Sometimes the lesson may be having the courage to walk away from a dynamic that isn’t good for you.