The Flaw in the Golden Rule

I love the sense of touch. It’s probably my favorite sense. I shake hands everyday with people at work. I hug my youngest son constantly and pat my oldest son on his back. I’m a hugger and a hand shaker and a high-fiver. In the past, as an elementary school child, I had been described as basorexic (which means not only fixated on kissing, but touching all kinds of things to my lips including toys, blankets, paper, plastic, etc.) Throughout the day, at any given moment, I’m wringing my hands, touching my face, rubbing my bald head, and constantly touching myself (not in that way, you freak).

My wife is the complete opposite. She’s not a “touchy-feely” woman. Not even close. Of course, she’ll accept hugs and kisses from folks, but not all folks, and not even all the time from loved ones. My oldest son is even more of a “hands-off” type of person. When people move in to hug him, he literally leans away.

Now consider the Golden Rule.

Throughout our lives, we’ve all been taught the Golden Rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you. While the spirit of the rule is noble and praiseworthy, the truth is that, sometimes it’s not a good idea, especially in close relationships.

I like being around people, and I mentioned earlier how much I like the sense of touch. My wife does not like being touched, and she almost always wants to be left alone. If she follows the golden rule and treats me the way SHE wants to be treated, we’ve got a problem. She’ll end up isolating me at times when I want her around. And if I follow the golden rule by treating her the way I want to be treated, then we’ll have another problem. I’ll end up crowding her and smothering her and she’ll end up feeling like I’m too clingy.

Treating others the way you want to be treated only works if you and the other person like being treated the same way.

Lots of psychologists and relationship counselors believe that most relationship problems stem from poor expectation management. Communication is also a large part of it, but most of the time, we have expectations in our heads about how our significant other is supposed to behave. Then we get surprised or hurt or frustrated or angry when they don’t meet the expectations in our heads.

So what’s the solution?

The best thing is to adjust the golden rule a little bit. When we were younger, the golden rule sounded like a great message because we thought it was all about treating others kindly. However, in reality, the golden rule is actually ego-driven. Treating others the way WE want to be treated puts my preferred treatment in the driver’s seat. Instead of treating others the way you want to be treated, get into the habit of treating others the way THEY want to be treated.

It seems so simple, but sometimes we overlook the simple (doing for others) because we’re too focused on the familiar (the golden rule). The key is to do the things that actually make others feel loved and valued and comforted rather than doing the things that make you feel loved and valued and comforted.

(Of course, the one exception is to avoid hurting someone. For example, if my eight-year-old son wants to be treated like an adult so he can eat Oreo cookies for dinner, I don’t do it. Eating Oreos for dinner is harmful, and the maxim of “do no harm” takes precedence over treating him the way he wants to be treated.)

So how do you know how other people want to be treated? It depends on the person. Most people really do have common preferences in this regard. Most people like to feel listened to, most people like to feel important, and most people prefer kindness over criticism. So for the most part, if you do those things, then you should be fine with the majority of strangers and acquaintences. But when it comes to someone you’re close with (a wife, a girlfriend, a best friend), then you’ll have to communicate. The key is that deep relationships require deep conversations. Get to know the other person so well that there’s no doubt at all about  how they prefer to be treated.


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