The Golden Rule is a good first pass at an attempt at empathy. You probably know how it goes: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Although it is generally believed to have come from the Bible, the maxim is found in many religions and cultures. In fact, in 1993, it was endorsed in the Declaration Toward a Global Ethics by 143 religious leaders from most of the worlds’ major faiths. It has even been found in manuscripts from ancient Egypt and China. It appears that people have been told to use themselves as a way to understand others’ feelings since the beginning of time.
But the Golden Rule really is only a very first pass at empathic understanding. Treating others as we want to be treated doesn’t take into account that the other people in question might not experience things in the same way we do. Sometimes it’s not even close.
Enter what has been called the Platinum Rule. “Treat others as they would like to be treated.” Notice the difference. Instead of using oneself as the test for what someone else appreciates, feels, or values in a situation, it urges us to figure out what the other person would appreciate or feel or value and do that — even if we don’t share their tastes or understand why on earth they react the way they do.
It might help to think about it this way: My husband loves a good steak. So, as a special treat, he buys a thick, expensive cut of steak for us to grill in the backyard. He is excited to be providing us with such a great meal. But I don’t eat red meat as a matter of personal ethics. A thick steak isn’t a treat for me at all! In fact, I would see it as an affront to my values. Conversely, if I present him with tofurkey, his response is “What!?” By Golden Rule standards, we would be doing the right thing. But by Platinum Rule standards, we would be missing the mark big time.
Often, when I’m working with couples, they are at similar cross-purposes. Each is really, really trying to please the other. But each regularly feels unappreciated or disrespected by the efforts of the other. Often enough, one or the other says something like, “She (or he) shouldn’t feel the way they do because in a similar instance I wouldn’t feel that way.” That’s Golden Rule talk. Often one feels unseen or devalued because the other took it for granted that they knew what would be appreciated instead of asking.
Mature love is characterized by a mutual application of the Platinum Rule. As a couple moves from the heat of early romance to more enduring love, they develop an ever-deepening understanding of what is important to each of them and a willingness to see things from the other’s perspective when making decisions.
Julia and Amy, for example, came to my office because they were fighting far more than they thought they should be. They have been romantic partners for a year. They have withstood the disapproval of Amy’s family and the political climate they live in where some of their neighbors have been hostile to their relationship. They love each other. There is much that is positive about their mutual support and their ability to be a team. It quickly became apparently that they knew how to handle things when it was “us” against a “them”. But they didn’t know how to handle it when the “us” was challenged by individual differences.
Like most people in a relatively new relationship, they primarily saw how much alike they are. They shared many of the same interests and friends, embraced the same politics, and valued each other’s fierce independence and activism. Their sexual and emotional attraction to each other was powerful.
Their fighting could be understood as difficulty moving to the next stage in a love relationship — the stage when differences emerge and where the challenge is to find ways to accommodate those differences. That’s the place where some version of the Platinum Rule must be used well if a relationship is to survive.
Julia and Amy worried that surfacing their differences would jeopardize their relationship. They had therefore avoided talking about where their preferences, desires, values and needs seemed to be in conflict. For example, not unlike many couples, they hadn’t calibrated their needs for being alone versus being social. Amy said she sometimes felt abandoned by Julia. Julia responded that Amy kept crowding her with demands to be more social.
In the safety of the therapy session, they started talking about what they found troubling about each other and what they needed. Julia was able to tell Amy, that when she needed space it wasn’t to avoid Amy. She just needs some alone time to recoup from her job. Amy was able to tell Julia that asking her to share in her enthusiasm for socializing wasn’t a disregard for Julia’s needs for space. It was how she recharged for another work day.
With this new understanding of each other’s needs, they were then able to negotiate a plan that gave Julia some space and Amy some social excitement. Learning to utilize a Platinum Rule, i.e., coming to a better understanding of each other’s feelings and needs so different from their own and being willing to accommodate them put them back on the same team.
Love alone does not guarantee that a relationship will last. Relationships that work take work. Each cherishes the other enough to do it. Couples that last use some version of the Platinum Rule to understand each other as they respond to the daily challenges of living together. They find a balance of give and take so neither one of them feels that they are doing all the heavy lifting emotionally and practically. Over time, each partner feels even more loved because they are so deeply understood.