The Five Keys of Mindful Adult Relationships
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
We learn to love in familiar ways. The way we were loved when we were little and the models of intimate relationships we observed in our immediate surrounding set the foundations of the kind of love and relationships we are going to seek out later on in life. However, sometimes we were not loved in a way to ensure a secure attachment during early life, which also means that our future relationships may be less than healthy, happy and fulfilling. Hopefully, the more experiences we gain and soul-searching we do, the more we wish to understand how to build healthy relationships in adult life.
But what is considered to be a happy relationship?
Much has been said about what constitutes a happy relationship, or the elements that must be present for the relationship not to fall apart.
In my opinion, a healthy adult relationship is one that feels secure, trusting, holding, inspiring growth, and balanced. A healthy adult relationship requires mutual rather than unilateral effort, is fulfilling for both partners, they are both responsive, engaged and accessible to each other. Such a bond fosters a nurturing space where both partners may feel safe and inspired to develop separately and together- interdependence is favored over co-dependency. A fulfilling adult relationship is characterized by honest communication and the inherent belief that the other “has got your back”; is there reliably to support you, cheer you on, understand you, comfort you- and this of course should be a give-and-take, rather than one-sided.
Though so many theories and ideas are present about what is needed for a happy relationship, the Five A’s especially resonated with me, which is why I wanted to share them with you on this blog post.
Psychotherapist David Richo in his book “How to be an Adult in Relationships” has outlined that there are certain “keys” to a mindful and loving, healthy adult relationship. He refers to those elements as the Five A’s : Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Allowing and Affection. If a relationship is characterized by all those A’s, it may be perceived as safe and nurturing- while complaints of individuals about their partner or relationship usually signify the absence of one or more of those A’s.
Receiving attention from a loved one is vital. Think back to when you were a child- you simply needed to have your parents’ attention. If this was given easily and unforced to you, chances are you don’t find it difficult to seek and also accept attention by your partner as an adult. If you were neglected or somehow your needs as a child were not fully met by your parents, it is possible that you are somewhat more insecure about receiving attention in your intimate relationships.
Growing up, you get close to and wish to bond with a partner in a healthy way. For the relationship to be happy, it is essential that the two partners pay attention to each other. Attention signifies the message ”I see You”- and who doesn’t yearn to feel seen, understood and listened to by an intimate partner? Receiving and giving attention are among the cornerstones of a loving and mindful relationship.
Attention means that your partner is important to you, that they matter to you, that you give your time, energy and effort in order to attend to them and their thoughts and feelings. You are attentive to their whole Being, because you are curious and interested to get to know them as a whole, to understand them. Attention is a prerequisite to attunement, that means mirrored attentiveness between both partners.
Here it is useful to underline that there definitely are healthy and unhealthy needs for attention. Like everything else, there is an equilibrium, a desired balance, for attention as well. For instance, requiring another person’s constant and undivided attention in order to feel content is not healthy, and probably shows that you need someone external to you in order to feel complete.
Mindful and loving attention does mean that when you are in the company of the other person, they do give you the attention you need in order to feel satisfied, seen, safe and not ignored. They do listen to you when you speak, they look at you, they attempt to understand you and accommodate your needs- hopefully similarly to how you act towards them. Mindful attention should also exist in separation between the two partners; it is important to feel that you matter to your partner even when you are not with them to experience it in person.
Acceptance is an equally important element of any healthy, balanced and mindfully loving adult relationship. When I accept another person fully, the message I imply to them is “You are enough and worthwhile to be accepted”. Acceptance of the other means that we completely accept all of their being, flaws, insecurities and also positive qualities as a Whole- as they are.
Our ability to be intimate with another person depends widely on how accepted we feel by them. A sense of acceptance can be present when we are safe to be ourselves. This safety is founded primarily on how authentically we were accepted in early life- by our primary caregivers, our parents and family. If we did not feel accepted back then, if we felt that we should better conceal some parts of ourselves and act as if we are something different than our true selves, in order to please them or adapt to their standards, then experiencing this sense of acceptance may be a pressuring need in adult life- and a challenge to be overcome. Lacking acceptance in childhood may result in feeling inadequate (not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, anything enough) as well as ashamed to express our darker sides. By wishing for our partner to accept us, we hope to get a positive response to the question “Can I be myself with you? Will you understand and respect the differences between us?”
Acceptance means feeling supported, encouraged to be oneself, approved of, validated. Though approval-seeking may be a sign of low self-esteem, especially when the intention to please others becomes greater than the value of oneself (something known as self-sacrifice, that is praised by many although it is not a healthy trait)- needing approval is necessary for our self-esteem.
So, does that mean that there is no room for individual change in a healthy relationship? Does it mean that you don’t accept your partner fully, if there are behaviours that you would rather they change?
Absolutely not- accepting the other yet wishing that they change certain aspects of how they act is definitely ok. A healthy relationship is a lot about mutual agreements and healthy negotiating. In essence, you accept the person as a whole, but may have difficulties with a specific behavior. In a safe and trusting relationship, there is space to express wishes for improvement and together assess whether this specific requested change is possible.
Demanding that the other person changes, is something different entirely. After all, boundaries are your own boundaries- if they are crossed repeatedly, then it is your choice to act accordingly. While negotiation and expressing of needs is a sign of a healthy relationship, in order to find mutual solutions and “golden lines” that can lead to a greater balance between the partners, compromise is something to be avoided.
If you find yourself compromising vital aspects of yourself in order to please someone else and fulfill their expectations, or bending your own limits in order to accommodate another, when the other is not willing to also go out of their comfort zone for you, then there is no space for safety. And that’s not what love is about.
Appreciation is yet another significant component of a healthy adult relationship. It encompasses the message “I admire you, I am grateful you are in my life, I acknowledge you and all of your potential”. To appreciate someone means to encourage them to continue blooming into who they are. The more we appreciate someone, the more we further create potential in them.
Intimacy includes the ability to give and receive, and often showing appreciation for the other means expressing gratitude about who they are, what they offer us, what they do for us. It is obvious, then, that appreciation fosters closeness, since we tend to want to be around those that appreciate us and make us feel good about who we are and what we do. Feeling appreciated has an impact on our self-worth, especially when this appreciation was not granted to us in our primary relationships during childhood.
Feeling unappreciated in a relationship equals being taken for granted. It is not a good sign if this occurs, and it would make sense to want to tend to it as soon as possible. I could not stress enough the significance of expressing appreciation to the other! Expressing appreciation is actually a trait of lasting relationships; research shows that in happy couples, for every complaint there were 5 statements of appreciation.
When think about your own intimate relationship, ask yourself:
Am I grateful for my partner’s presence in my life?
How are they contributing towards making my life better?
What would I like to thank them for?
Do I admire them?
Do I feel proud of them?
How can I express this to them?
Allowing is very relative to acceptance, yet not exactly the same. A healthy relationship is one where both partners are allowed by each other to be who they are- they are allowed to exhibit their less-than-perfect side, allowed to feel how they feel after disagreements and conflicts, are allowed to express their own needs and wishes without judgement, contempt or ridicule from the other.
The concept of being allowed to be who you are starts early on, and manifests in adult relationships as well. If you recall growing up with phrases such as “Don’t be mad/sad”, “Stop crying”, “You shouldn’t have done/said that”, “You should be ashamed of yourself”, if your abilities and accomplishments have been compared to those of another with the aim to diminish you, if you had to conceal your weaknesses in order to gain approval and appreciation, chances are you were not fully allowed to be who you are early on in your life. There were too many “shoulds”, too many rules to abide to. There was neither freedom nor permission to be You.
This can have great implications in adult relationships, since the essence of allowing is also the development of self-esteem, courage to express oneself, and the ability to be vulnerable. Since presenting yourself authentically and vulnerably is a prerequisite to become intimate with another, one can conceptualize what kind of consequences not feeling allowed to be who you are can have in an intimate relationship.
Yet, it is not a given that we may feel allowed to be as we are in relationships. The expectations of the other or their idealized image of who we are may play a central role in how we perceive to be allowed to express ourselves. Though allowing yourself to be authentic may have different manifestations in the early stages of a relationship (“honeymoon”) than later on, it is of uttermost importance regardless the stage of the relationship. In a healthy partnership, both partners can feel free to be themselves without real or feared threat of being criticized or abandoned. Unfortunately though, quite often, control and high demands may take the place of allowing in relationships.
Affection is the expression of love. It is therefore a necessary factor for a happy, intimate partnership with the other. Yet, like Richo writes about in his book,
“Love cannot be defined as universal because our experience of love is ours alone; so there is no love in general, only unique love, uniquely experienced by each unique person”.
In other words, we all love in different ways; we express and show affection in different ways; we expect to receive love in different ways. Being mindful of this very simple fact can often soften quite a lot of heartache and broken expectations.
Affection comes from the word “affect”= feeling. It refers to how feelings are expressed- intimacy both physical and emotional. But everyone is different! One may like to express their affection through thoughtful actions, another may prefer to shower their partner with little gifts and surprises, another may be quite verbal in their expression of affection, even write poems or make art inspired by their partner ; while somebody else may not like to talk about it at all.
Affection is a unique experience, specific to each individual!
What is common between all acts of affection though, is that you don’t have room for doubt on whether your partner cares about you or not. You feel it in some way- even if this means that you see your partner giving you their time and attention, when they could be doing something else. But first, it is essential to understand that giving and receiving affection has a different meaning for each of us.
Bearing this in mind, it is obvious that no partner is a mindreader, regardless of how secure the bond is, how great the connection is, how amazing it feels to be around them. Embracing our in-between differences is a first step in understanding this truth. Learning how to ask for the kind of love you need to feel is an equally important aspect.
Even when you do learn this lesson though, even when you figure out how to ask for what you want, how you wish to feel and be loved, this is no guarantee that your partner can accommodate this need.
Why? Not because they don’t love you enough… But because of what was underlined just now; perhaps their idea of giving affection is quite different from what you have in mind. It can be quite challenging to attempt to do something that you’re not used to. But then again, here comes the whole concept of negotiation is place; both partners can discuss what feels ok and what not, and can assess together whether they can reach a golden line that leaves them both satisfied.
If you are unsure of how your partner would like to be loved, ask them! It may sound funny, but sometimes, the simple statement “Show me how to love you better” is all it may take. Even if it can be baffling to your partner, it can open the path for figuring out what they like and what not, and whether you can/want to provide this to them.
All of the Five Keys require being mindful and conscious in your relationships. This is no easy task, but it is one that gets better the more you practice it. With mindfulness comes wisdom, and awareness increases.
If you think about it, perhaps there’s no happy relationship -similarly to there isn't a truly happy and content individual- , unless there is awareness and conscious exchange. They may say that ignorance is bliss, but I bet that’s not so when we talk about human connection and relatedness.
In retrospective, take a moment to consider:
Do you feel you are receiving the Five A’s in your intimate relationship?
Do you see any of those as lacking?
How can you step forward and show your partner what you need?
Are you providing the Five A's to your partner?
Where can you improve, and how?
Reference / Inspiration:
Richo, D. (2002). How To Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving. Boston, USA: Shambala.