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The Essential Five


A client asked me to read When Good People Have Affairs, by Mira Kirshenbaum. It’s a great book and I’ve already recommended it to a couple people. It’s unusual in that it’s written for, and from the point of view of, the person having the affair (rather than the victim—the person cheated on), and from a very non-judgmental and fresh perspective.

Why is this noteworthy? Think about a time you found yourself in a position of being involved with more than one person, or talked to a friend who is. Usually, the shame is so huge it can be hard to discern what to do or make any kind of choice. Kirshenbaum takes this dilemma head on by diving beneath the shame, helping the reader sift out what is really going on, how they got into the dilemma—and then how to compare apples to oranges in making a decision about what to do.

But there’s something else I really like about the book. It’s about choosing a partner, period.

In my work, I encounter folks unhappy in relationships and unhappily single looking for relationships. They’re often mystified why things don’t work out for them, and they blame themselves for being problematic, boring, or just somehow wrong and unlovable. Maybe you’ve felt this way.

But what if the issue is simply chemistry, and no one’s ever taught you the basics of good relationship chemistry?

There are 5 ingredients, Kirshenbaum says, that make up good relationship chemistry. Essential chemistry. If even one of the 5 is missing, the relationship is doomed. As Kirshenbaum states: “The bad news is that you need all five. Though you don’t need a lot of all five, you do need a passing score for each.”

I say the good news is that once you look at your relationships through these 5 ingredients, you’ve got a big leg up on developing clarity about how, when and where to invest in a relationship—and that’s huge!

The 5 are:

* Easy Connections

* Fun

* Safety

* Mutual Respect

* Physical Chemistry

Take a moment to reflect on your relationships, current or past, through the lens of these 5 ingredients.

Easy Connection

It’s as simple as this – do you feel comfortable, at ease, cozy with this person? Can you be yourself? Do you relax in their presence? Does being with them create an environment where you feel that more of yourself can come out and play? Or do you feel tense, on edge, and careful around them, afraid to say or do the wrong thing?

What about talking? Can you speak easily, does conversation flow? Can you talk about things that matter to you? Can you talk about hard stuff? And vice-versa—does your partner have the same ability, feel comfortable as well?

Kirshenbaum puts it this way: “Too often we have only one or the other in a relationship. Things are easy, but we don’t connect. Or we connect, but things aren’t easy. When you have the ingredient of chemistry, you have both.”

Look for both. That’s the key.


Life is hard and stressful for many. Forget fun–most of us are happy if we can just take the stress down a few notches, right? But in truth, fun is the glue of relationships. Here’s the question: in the absence of manufactured fun (like a party, a vacation, a concert, an event) or intensity (great sex, emotionally intimate conversations) – can you and your partner reliably find ways to spend time together that are enjoyable? How much do you really like each other’s company? Kirshenbaum clarifies that it doesn’t have to be fun all the time, or a big deal in any way. It can just be a glance between the two of you, a shared moment, an inside joke. But regular doses of fun, and the feeling that fun can spontaneously emerge, regularly, is essential ingredient #2.


We’re not talking about fear of physical abuse (a deal breaker if that’s in place). We’re talking about emotional safety. Trust, respect, feeling included, comfortable and cherished by your partner.

Do you rationalize away the things that erode safety? I’m talking about the so-called “little” things, like a pattern of not calling when they said would. Making a cutting comment (or a joke that feels cutting) if you put on some weight. Dismissing your suggestions. Asking for advice and then rejecting it. Creating an ordeal if you bring something up to talk about. Putting you down in little ways. Getting really mad if you make a mistake. Or creating an atmosphere where you just don’t know where you stand or what is going on with the other person.

It’s not that you should feel 100% safe all the time. People screw up and step on each other’s toes. Once in a while, they might say something mean in the heat of an argument.

Intimacy can be unnerving, and as my clients always hear me say: “There is no intimacy without conflict and vulnerability!” But in general, you need to feel safe, comfortable, and that you can reliably bet that you won’t be put down, belittled, misled or lied to.

The question is—do you feel safe from being hurt emotionally? And especially when you feel vulnerable—do you feel your partner gets that and takes care of you and your feelings? Emotional safety is essential ingredient #3.

Mutual Respect

Kirshenbaum says that at the heart of respect is whether you believe your partner makes good decisions.

It’s easy to blow this one off, especially if you fall prey to the illusion that your partner has amazing potential. But without respect in the present, your relationship can’t survive.

Your partner doesn’t have to be THE most brilliant and capable person around. But you have to basically like what you see. Today.

Right now: Is your partner a solid person? Capable, smart, reliable and kind? Do you like the decisions you see him/her make? Not just in your relationship but in his/her life? And does he or she treat you as if you are a solid, responsible, kind and smart person just as you are, instead of hoping you’ll change?

Without a yes to those questions, here’s what happens: the relationship can limp along for a while, but you’ll eventually marginalize your partner or they you. So without a yes — keep looking. You need a partner you respect. Period.

Physical Chemistry

Sometimes people congratulate themselves on not being superficial and “not caring” about their partner’s looks or the physical side of the relationship.

But if you make the mistake of minimizing the importance of your physical chemistry, you will be unhappy. It’s not that they have to be the most beautiful specimen or that the two of you have to have the best sex you’ve ever had. But you have to like your partner physically. You have be pleased to look at them, like the way they smell, the way their skin feels against yours, and the way they touch you. Even if you have the other 4 – without this basic physical chemistry, you’ll find yourself repulsed eventually. Remember: they don’t have to be perfect. Just right enough for you, and you for them.

So there you have it. The 5 essential ingredients for a happy, successful relationship.

Personally, it was so interesting for me to think back on my old relationships (before I met my husband). Through the lens of this list, it’s more clear to me now why they didn’t work out. And more clear to me than ever why my husband and I are a good match.

What do you think? Is this a helpful list?

For those of you looking – does this seem like a helpful lens with which to view your choices?

I’d love to hear your comments below!


  1. Andrew Twaddle at September 23, 2013 2:31 pm

    This is a good list. I can look at my 50 years of marriage and see all of these elements. I think I would reframe two of them to bring out what I think of as essential.

    What you have as “safety” is all good and true. I would think of it as a relationship in which whatever is going on in your life, it is in a context of love. It is confidence that no matter how negative you and your partner may be in the moment, you both know that the other person loves you. Anger must be contined in love.

    I have a problem with the word “fun”, which suggests a superficial good time. I would put the emphasis on a sense of humor where you can laugh at your own and your partner’s foibles, which are more and more evident and more and more ridiculous the longer the relationship. It is possible to enjoy, and laugh at, the dumb things you say and do and even your physical decline. Maybe “enjoyment” is a better word than “fun.”

  2. Diana at September 23, 2013 10:16 pm

    I really enjoyed your writing. Your perception about all the variables involved in a relationship is spot on…so much to consider as we share our lives with someone else. It’s a choice to share our lives for many, and others, it’s placed upon them and they agree half way or sometimes not at all as they convince themselves, “it’s the right thing to do” belief system.

    This content is illuminating and brava to you for sharing what can go un-noticed for decades inside of a relationship. Looking at these 5 elements and considering what we chose, what we continue to choose and what we intend to do about it or whether we are satisfied or not, this is a nice refresher to consider. Thank you! Diana

    • admin at January 10, 2014 6:05 pm

      Thank you, Diana!

  3. Bonnie at September 24, 2013 4:35 pm

    This is a wonderfully insightful, well written and accurate “essential five”! I am a Life Transformation Leader, and feel this information is authentic core truth. I DO have one thing to add after 28 years of marriage. If you ever DID have the essential five, and have lost it, it CAN be regained. Any of the five CAN be rekindled even after an affair, years of low sex, emotional disconnection, etc. Trust and mutual respect can be regained. Sex can be as good as it once was, and the fun can be reborn as long as both WANT to do what it takes to remove the blocks. If all five USED to be there, then, finding new commitment, willingness to take responsibility and the ability to forgive is key for turning things around. Forgiveness comes from a place of taking responsibility for what both have allowed and what both have done to co-create the situation and responses. Breaking up and starting over with someone new, without working to re-balance and reignite the passionate love that what was already there, only perpetuates the root causes of disconnection, and the new relationship is likely to suffer as well. There is no getting around learning how to give and receive love and create authentic loving communication and connection. It’s worth the journey because the reward is freedom, love and joy! Thanks so much!

  4. Nelle at September 27, 2013 2:28 am

    Great post, Lisa. Looking forward to reading the book now because of your review.

  5. C at January 10, 2014 3:32 pm

    I came across that book by chance while going through a really dark, confusing period in my life, and ended up reading it cover to cover. It gave me clarity to see just how unhappy I was and what to do about it. It quite literally was a life saver. Reading the chapter on the 5 ingredients was the biggest eye-opener for me. Today, over a year later, I have left behind a marriage that met none of the 5 ingredients (I mean really failed the litmus test miserably) and am in a relationship where the 5 ingredients are off the chart, and what a difference it makes. I have passed along the list of 5 ingredients to several other friends going through difficult times, whether related to an affair or not, because they are so simple yet so important. Everyone deserves to be happy and in a relationship that honors them for who they are and what they need. I wish Ms. Kirshenbaum would publish a version of the book titled “When Good People Are In Unhappy Relationships” because the information in the book is applicable to anyone at a crossroads in their relationship, and the original title doesn’t lend itself to being a good coffee table/conversation starter.

    • Lisa at February 17, 2016 7:20 pm

      I so agree, C! I hope she writes that book. If she doesn’t, maybe I will!

  6. admin at January 10, 2014 6:04 pm

    Thanks for your comment, C. I agree–that would be a great title (and a great book…maybe I’ll write it! :)) So glad you’re in a great place now. Those 5 elements make all the difference.

  7. Fekkai at January 29, 2015 9:40 pm

    Nice article, It was helpful.