What constitutes mature love? This is the subject of an excellent book, How to be an Adult in Relationships by Dr. David Richo, a book I highly recommend. In this book, Richo discusses five characteristics which he believes are the essential ingredients of maturity in adult love. These “five A’s” are:
- Attention: This is the most basic of the five. Every mammal feels instinctively that it needs and deserves full parental attentiveness A mother lion doesn’t attend to her own grooming while she’s feeding her young, or demand that they groom her and wait for their dinner. When a parent is only partially attentive, the child notices and feels anxious. The experience of being on the receiving end of engaged focus and sensitivity to our needs and feelings is the first and most fundamental way we know we are loved. And the most effective way we can show our love is to give our undivided attention to the people we love. This means attuning ourselves to the other’s feelings, needs, bodily reactions, moods, and so on. But this can’t happen if our minds are loaded with judgments about the other person. When we’re full of opinions about what our partner is doing and saying, we’re essentially relating to a “virtual partner”— our own mental constructs, not to the person himself or herself. To attend fully, we need minds that know how to be still and present, which is why Richo recommends regular meditation as an important tool for expanding our capacity for mature love.
- Acceptance: Buddhists have a phrase, “the glance of mercy,” which means looking at other human beings with acceptance and understanding. Acceptance means we’re received respectfully with all our feelings and character traits, and supported through them. Real acceptance means validating someone else’s choices even when we don’t agree with them. It’s the opposite of moralizing. We can’t fully accept our partners until we’re mature enough to understand that they aren’t in this world to live up to our expectations or to meet all our needs. Acceptance essentially means not being disappointed in our partners for breaking a bargain with us that they never made.
- Appreciation: Appreciation gives depth to acceptance. To appreciate your partner fundamentally means to nurture your own faith in his or her ultimate value, and to nurture gratitude for the many gifts of love you receive in the relationship. Research shows that the ratio of appreciation comments to complaints in couples that stay together is five to one.
- Affection: Affection means physical closeness, loving presence, reliable availability, compassion and empathy. Its opposite is abandoning and distancing. In order to be able to be affectionate with our partners we have to have some freedom from the creations of the ego which inhibit closeness – such as fear, demands, expectation, judgment, and control. That, Richo believes, is why the self-knowledge gained through psychotherapy and mindful meditation practices is so important in enabling us to love. As long as we’re unaware of how our egos work, egos are walls that prevent us from connecting with others. But when we’re conscious of our egos, these same limitations become windows through which we can comprehend others and respond to them with empathy.
- Allowing: Just as one finger is not the hand, so affection is not love but only part of it. We all love to be held and made love to, but unless we’re also allowed to make our own choices freely and without blame, all the affection in the world won’t be enough. When immature people find love, they often try to get control of the source of supply by treating their partners more like hostages than lovers. But mature love is non-grasping.
What I appreciate about Richo’s five A’s is that they’re a reminder that mature love is more than just a warm feeling. It’s a way of life. It’s also a set of learned skills which require commitment, patience, deliberate intention, self-reflection, and disciplined action. We grow in our capacity for love by expanding our consciousness. And we do that in two ways: through increasing our self-knowledge by means of systematic and honest self-examination such as psychotherapy offers; and through cultivating mindfulness, an alert witnessing of reality without judgment, attachment, fear, or defensiveness.