Portland Relationship Counseling: Why the Golden Rule is Wrong

July 23, 2014 by

When you were growing up, you probably had a parent, teacher, or other adult tell you that you should “treat others as you wish to be treated.” On the surface, this Golden Rule makes sense. But in reality, it’s an oversimplification that doesn’t make a very good mantra for a relationship. As George Bernard Shaw once brilliantly put it, “Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

Let’s look at Shaw’s objection to the Golden Rule in a relationship scenario. In this example, one person in a relationship likes frequent physical contact, such as kissing, putting an arm around their partner, and holding hands. However, their partner is more reserved and not as comfortable with physical displays of affection, especially in public places. The person who is more comfortable with touch might think that the best way to show their significant other that they care is to publicly embrace them more often, but this is probably the exact opposite of what the more reserved person wants.

The intentions behind the Golden Rule are good: the saying seems to be getting at the idea that we should respect others if we want to be respected in return. However, the saying becomes more problematic when we take it too literally. When we treat others the way that we personally want to be treated, we’re making the assumption that they are exactly the same as us. We’re looking at them as an extension of ourselves rather than a whole, individual person, and that can cause relationship problems.

Rewriting the Golden Rule

Perhaps instead of saying “treat others as you wish to be treated,” we should modify the Golden Rule to be something like, “Listen to how others wish to be treated, and then treat them that way.” While you and your partner likely have a lot in common, there are bound to be areas where you differ. Rather than assuming that your partner will agree with you on all fronts, it’s important to ask them how they feel and really pay attention to their response.

Want to learn how to get better at listening to and empathizing with your partner? Imago therapy can help teach you how to dialogue for a stronger relationship. To learn more about Imago therapy, schedule an appointment for Portland relationship counseling.