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The Golden Rule in Love Relationships

Social justice starts at home.

iqoncept/GL Stock Images
Source: iqoncept/GL Stock Images

Speaking before the United States Congress, Pope Francis reminded his audience of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The pope was referring specifically to immigrants and refugees. However, I would say that when people couple, they represent a mini society that operates as its own social justice system. How partners do business with one another reflects their attitudes about fairness, justice, and sensitivity.

Unfortunately, many partners view these principles according to how they are affected and not according to how they comport themselves with the other. We could say it is a flaw in human nature to act out of self-interest rather than out of empathy. This appears to be as true in our Congress as it is in many relationships.

Jeff and Kathryn have been married for 20 years. They have two teenagers who exhibit behavioral problems at home and school. The couple complain that their children are “entitled brats” who don’t respect authority, their belongings, or common household areas. But Jeff and Kathryn don’t behave any better toward one another. Instead of viewing their relationship as a two-person system, with all its moving parts, they act as if each is a one-person system, responsible only for his or her self-interests. For example, when Jeff is running late, he usually doesn’t let his wife know. His excuse is that stopping to call or even text will just make him later. This infuriates Kathryn, who cooks dinner on most evenings. But because she hasn’t been able to change Jeff’s behavior, she intentionally avoids giving him advance notice on nights when she won’t be home to prepare a meal. In these and a myriad other ways, Jeff and Kathryn fail to abide by the Golden Rule or any rule of empathy or collaboration. Thus they are at perpetual war with each other.

An exercise I like to use with partners who need to rebuild trust and security after an episode of betrayal also can have the effect of introducing or reinforcing the Golden Rule. In it, one partner poses as the king and kneels before the other and makes statements such as “You are my queen!” and “I live to serve you!” and “I will fall on my sword for you!” When Jeff and Kathryn do this, something unexpected happens. Kathryn starts to cry as soon as Jeff tells her she is his queen. In their ensuing discussion, it becomes clear Kathryn has been operating out of a one-person model because that is what she was accustomed to and because she does not believe Jeff—nor anyone else—ultimately can be counted on to “do unto her” as she would like. Therefore, she has resorted to doing unto others as she expects them to do unto her. Jeff’s story is similar.

When Jeff and Kathryn begin applying the Golden Rule—just one principle among many in a secure-functioning relationship—they seem happier, healthier, and more supported. They are less fearful, angry, and beleaguered. They are more productive and are simply nicer people. Their children’s behavior improves, as do their other relationships. They see their parents as good managers of one another who walk the talk of putting relationships first.

A key tenet of the Golden Rule is that how you act toward another person does not depend on how that individual acts toward you. In other words, you adhere to principles of secure functioning even when others don’t. Each partner takes the lead in being fair, just, and sensitive to the other. Often being truly sensitive necessitates moving on to a variation of the Golden Rule, known as the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Jeff and Kathryn quickly discovered the synergistic effect their new behaviors have on their family life. They realize they are just now finally growing up.

We can only wish this would be the case in Congress.

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is the author of Wired for Love and Your Brain on Love, and coauthor of Love and War in Intimate Relationships. He has a clinical practice in Southern CA, teaches at Kaiser Permanente, and is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. Tatkin developed a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT) and together with his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, founded the PACT Institute.