“We are born with the capacity to dance together but not with the necessary training . . . It is exactly the same in relationships.” -David Richo
We are instinctually drawn to one another through forces of nature. Our biology and evolutionary compulsion to procreate and form lasting bonds are strong, yet many of us are lacking any clear guidance in how to succeed in romantic relationships long term.
Most of us are seemingly making it up as we go. But actually, there happens to be an invisible hand influencing our relational GPS, which has been imprinted upon us at an early age. We are taught how to love by our parents. When all the essential components for love are present, we go on to establish healthy adult relationships. And when they are not, well, we struggle.
In David Richo’s How To Be An Adult in Relationships, he outlines five keys to mindful love: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing. These five elements are not just “nice to haves,” but are essentially the same elements that children need from their primary caregivers to develop a healthy individuated ego.
When we do not receive these gifts growing up, it feels as though something is missing, that we are incomplete, or unlovable. But if you are one of these who were not early recipients of these five keys, practicing them intentionally is all it takes to love mindfully and is what effectively makes you lovable.
“My father turned to me as if he’d been waiting all his life to hear my question.” –J.D. Salinger
What a beautiful expression of what it feels like to be truly heard and valued. When was the last time you felt fully attended to? Where you were the main focus of someone’s mindful consideration. What about the last time you gave anyone or anything your full, undivided attention?
This happens in relationships all the time. It’s like you reach this point where you think you know everything there is to know about a person, so your mind naturally says, “been there, done that,” and you lose the novelty and living experience of that other person as an ever emerging being. They become this static thing that no longer demands that same level of interest or curiosity. You get comfortable because you have predictability.
“The real you is an abundant potential, not a list of traits, and intimacy can only happen when you are always expanding in others’ hearts, not pigeonholed in their minds. (Richo)”
Giving attention means that you have to let go of preconceptions and open up to possibilities. Eager and anticipating what might come next. Hanging on every word, every glance, moment by moment, like listening to music or closely watching the color of the sky change at sunset. You must be present. Attention says, “I am here.”
Acceptance is being received respectfully with all our flaws and idiosyncrasies and supported through them, which makes us feel safe and that we belong. Safety and belonging are our most basic relational needs. If attending is noticing and listening intently, acceptance is embracing, trusting, and encouraging the other to be exactly as they are without reservation or critique.
Nobody is perfect and that should never be anyone’s personal goal. Acceptance takes that imperfection as a given and loves not despite your so-called flaws, but because of them. The very things that make a person who they are are celebrated and affirmed.
I’ve written a good deal about acceptance as a central component of mindfulness. I feel a distinction must be made here that acceptance is not the same as agreeing with or tolerating. Imagine your in-laws were only tolerating you at a family event, and you knew that they were. This is not acceptance. To be accepted is to be included and welcomed. And it’s not that you agree with everything your partner says or does, but you respect them and their pain, and their point of view, even if you don’t agree.
Appreciation builds upon acceptance and promotes encouragement in the other. It’s a motivator. We need to feel appreciated and recognized for what we do, for how we contribute to the relationship, and for who we are in our relationships.
Appreciation also implies gratitude. What are you grateful for in your relationship? In your partner? How does their presence or contribution affect you positively? Tell them! Expressing appreciation regularly is an essential component in healthy adult relationships.
According to relationship expert, John Gottman, Ph.D., the ratio of appreciation to complaint in couples that stay together is five to one. Do your numbers add up? Take an inventory of any complaints, critiques, or corrections and try to limit them to get yourself in that 5:1 ratio. Then look for ways to compliment, recognize, and encourage your partner verbally or in writing. Start with gratitude and make a list.
Affection can take many forms, but they all draw out the feeling of being loved. This can be achieved physically through cuddling, kissing, hand holding, sexual or non-sexual touch. I’m always encouraged to see physical affection from couples in therapy. A husband playing with his wife’s hair, or a wife reaching over to squeeze her husband’s hand while he shares painful emotions, or seeing them outside by their car embracing one another after a tough session. That’s a good sign, folks.
Affection can be achieved emotionally through playfulness, kindness, or thoughtfulness. Simple eye contact and a smile can be a much needed ego boost. A playful teasing or flirtatious look can go a long way to show someone that they’re important to you.
Affection is compassionate and can be a salve for emotional and physical pain. It’s healing as much as it is reassuring. Sadness can be quelled with a loving touch or an empathetic gaze. Even anger can be eased with an intentional, “It’s OK to feel anger and I’m not going anywhere” touch. I often encourage couples to hold hands while they engage in discordant dialogue. It’s grounding and it reminds them they’re on the same team even when angered or hurt.
Allowing is the opposite of control. A healthy adult relationship provides an environment of freedom and trust, not rules and obligations. In an allowing relationship you feel free to be who you are and are inclined to express yourself openly and without fear of punishment or retribution.
We must allow our partners to develop as a unique individual, separate from ourselves, without reacting to fears of losing them. The need to control for many people is not a conscious decision, but has become an automatic strategy for managing fears and insecurities.
Ultimately, allowing is letting go, even if that means honoring their choice to leave. The aim of love has nothing to do with “keeping” the other person, as if we have some possession over them. To love is simply to let be. To love is to trust the other person as an independent creation of their own making, fully capable of being who they are and choosing to love you freely and of their own accord.
So there you have it: the five keys to mindful loving. I would encourage you, if you are in a committed relationship, to assess these essential components for yourself. Most of us are proficient in one or more of these basic elements, and struggle with others. Reflect honestly on the areas that seem out of reach, or make you uncomfortable. Commit to stretching yourself in these hard to reach areas. As children, we learn to love by being loved. As adults, we learn to love by loving.