Here’s how to recognize karmic patterns, also known as paper-doll syndrome, and how to stop.
Words by Bruna Nessif. Photography by Juan Moyano.
It was my first date post-heartbreak. I was surprised it was even happening. It would usually take me roughly two years to “get back out there” again after the sting of betrayal, but here I was, enjoying wine, pasta and unlimited possibilities with a man I barely knew, years ahead of schedule.
And, then it happened. That recognizable stench of familiarity that sounds off all of the alarms to warn me that I’ve entered a portal into the past. Red flags were being thrown on every play, but this time, I wasn’t willing to pull a Bob Ross and turn them into pretty little trees.
I was paying attention, because this has happened many times before—the energy of an ex from years ago, a man who somehow seems to haunt my life since the day he entered it, was all over this man now sitting in front of me. Same background. Same career aspirations. Same look. Same vices. Same energy.
I used to always say I was suffering from the paper-doll syndrome (dating the same man in different bodies), which only became that much clearer writing book Let That Shit Go: A Journey to Forgiveness, Healing and Understanding Love, where the repetitive cycles and lessons with love became (embarrassingly) louder.
As a mystic and personal development junkie, I knew I was being put in the same situation over and over again for a reason. I don’t believe in coincidences, but what I do believe in is karma–especially karmic relationships.
Author and intuitive energy healer Cynthia Dale describes karmic partnerships as, “relationships based on either previous associations or common issues. These prior relationships are often carried over from past lives and involve an incomplete learning about love.”
She’s well-aware that this might be a little too woo-woo for some, adding that “understanding that idea necessitates believing that all living beings have a soul, or an aspect of them that travels across time and space, and has a sort of ‘deep storage’ of memory inside. We can also attract people into our lives because their issues exactly match our own.”
Meanwhile, relational mentor and love alchemist Kelsey Grant explains that karmic relationships are essentially our wounds trying to find a partner. “I call them woundmate relationships because it’s the wounds that choose, not the truth of the person,” she said. “The wounds are compatible, but the other values or foundations for true alignment are largely missing.”
Healthline recognizes that a “karmic relationship” isn’t a clinical term, yet still finds it something worth digging into as it resembles other well-known relationships. Licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist and founder of Modern Intimacy, Dr. Kate Balestrieri, explains how these relationship patterns can still show up, regardless of spiritual beliefs. “In our adult relationships (especially romantic relationships), we unconsciously seek out what is familiar because during our formative years of development, the way our caretakers treated us was imprinted as love.”
This is largely subconscious. “Physiologically, the more familiar we feel around folks, the more likely we will be compelled to gravitate toward them, whether we consciously want a partner with these traits or not,” she says. “Until we get clear on the challenges or traumas from our past, it is likely we will not be able to intervene.”
Dr. Balestrieri emphasizes on the importance of seeking “greater awareness and consciousness,” as it also helps usher us employ the ability to discern behaviors that lead to our own patterns that land us in the same relationships over and over.
Drea Rowland couldn’t ignore the fact that her new relationship was reminiscent of her ex of five years. “They were controlling, a little manipulative and insecure in some capacity,” she tells me, adding that it highlighted her dependence on external validation.
“We were out at a club with his family. It was a celebratory occasion, so I’m thinking we’ll all have a good time. It was my first time in a city I’ve never been to, so I was excited,” she says. “Everyone outside of our section seemed to be having a great time. I tell my man I want to go out to the dance floor and he says no. I told him I wanted to have fun and he said, ‘I already said no, but do what you want.’”
Rowland recognized this response. “I knew it was a test and the night would’ve ended badly if I did,” she said. “It was a wake-up call, though. I was in a new place with a new person, but I had been here before. ‘Here’ was a place of not being able to act freely and be myself.”
She found herself constantly compromising, unable to freely show up as herself in the relationship and generally unhappy. “It’s also exhausting having to constantly play a role,” she said.
Rowland believes these patterns stem back to her childhood. “I had very strict parents growing up. When I wasn’t rebelling, I was desperately seeking their approval. I think I associate being controlled with being loved and cared for.”
Tiffany B. is no stranger to karmic relationships, either, telling me that “control, manipulation, fear of abandonment and avoidance” are common traits that would pop up with her partner, as well as a mirroring of her father’s emotional unavailability when she was young.
Meanwhile, she’d self-neglect and focus all her energy on trying to “fix” her partner. “I came to realize that I have this continuous narrative that I need to fix and heal these men so that they can feel and experience love in the way it’s deserved, because I didn’t receive that,” she said. “I wanted to emulate that through every relationship by trying to save people. Each time, though, to my own detriment.”
Dale states that this is a very common theme with karmic relationships. “We find ourselves acting out ways of thinking, feeling, and being that we want to give up,” she says. “We respond to the other in styles we don’t really like. We might as well substitute this person and our interactions for an earlier set of relationships or for mom, dad, or someone else from childhood.”
Not only are these partners exhibiting the same characteristics as each other, we keep playing the same role in each connection. “Often relationships form into contrasting themes, such as victim-victor. One person is always the victim, the other the perpetrator. Or addict-codependent,” she says. “One person is hitched on a substance or activity as a primary focus and the other is over-fixated on changing or saving the addict.”
The first step to breaking this cycle is recognizing if you’re in it. “The biggest signs for me are not in my body, not a lot of truth telling, a feeling of uncertainty (but really getting off emotionally on that), emotional highs and lows (not a lot of steady or anchored energy), an addictive pull to be with each other, isolating from truth tellers (usually our closest friends),” Grant shares.
“Love addiction feeds a karmic relationship, which means there is a lot of self-abandonment, usually from both people. There is a panic and desperation that chokes out the lifeforce/creation energy in the relationship,” she says. “Depending on the dynamic, some karmic relationships are really destructive, and others are more consciously transformative.”
If that sounds a little too on the nose, know that not all hope is lost. Grant urges those who might be experiencing a karmic partnership to seek support through therapy, mentorship, shadow work and embodiment.
Dale also advises to go backwards to get to know the parts of yourself and your experiences that turned into these dynamics. “Look into your history, and I mean, all your history. What are your childhood patterns–what did your parents model?,” she says. “Look for that emotional cause and address it. And be gentle on yourself. These are entrenched and complicated patterns, but you can often find that important thread to pull to undo the entire weaving.”