Many of us have been taught the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you wish to be treated. It's quaint and useful as a general tool and, oh, wouldn't it be wonderful if the world actually operated according to this philosophy? When deciding where to leave your grocery cart in the parking lot, this is helpful guidance for making a pro-social choice. Interpersonally, it doesn't hold up as well.
I've heard versions of Golden Rule-thinking come up in all of my counseling experiences. At school, students would often try to resolve peer problems by doing the thing they didn't like right back to the person who did it first. "How do you like it?" is thought to be a really powerful lesson. However, no recipient of this treatment ever looked at the ground sheepishly and replied, "You're right, that was a rotten thing to do. I'm sorry, I'll never do it again." That's the desired reaction, but it NEVER actually happens! Except maybe on the "Brady Bunch", sigh.
Intimate partners often say to each other, "I would never do that to you" in an effort to get the other to admit they did a jerky thing and that they themselves wouldn't appreciate if the tables were turned. But that strategy often falls flat. The human ego and survival instinct seem to prevent us from reflecting on ourselves in this way, especially during a moment of tension. Another downfall of this technique is that it rests on the assumption that our preferences are the same and that we respond similarly to stimuli.
I call relationships between partners with different neurological types "neurodiverse relationships". One partner may function neurotypically and the other may fall on the autistic spectrum or have ADHD or another condition affecting their neurological processing, or both partners may function at different places on the neurological spectrum. These styles heavily influence the way people communicate, how they experience and show emotion, and how they respond to touch and sensation, among other traits.
In this field, we acknowledge that people absorb and process information differently. The "telephone game" gives us a concrete example of how messages can change according to the way they are heard and shared. We use the term "filter" to describe the unique way a person interprets information they receive from others. We all have filters based on our personal life experiences and emotional and psychological functioning. When we add a layer of neurodivergence on top of standard communication dynamics, things get even more complicated.
Due to our filters and interpersonal dynamics, it is wise to recognize that the way one person prefers to be treated may not be the same for another, thus rendering the Golden Rule inappropriate. For example, one person might really like a hug when they feel sad, but another might prefer quiet companionship with no physical contact. If the first person follows the Golden Rule to the letter and approaches their sad friend with arms wide open, they will get a response they weren't expecting. Then that misunderstanding and surprising response will lead to new thoughts and perhaps confusion and hurt feelings.
Treating others according to our own personal beliefs and preferences fails to acknowledge each individual's unique needs and personality.
This knowledge can help couples understand one another better and more consistently create satisfying experiences. It is actually not reasonable to assume that others want to be treated the way I want to be treated, at least without more information and open communication. As a society, we've come to embrace the Love Languages and know that different people have different ways of giving and receiving love. People are also unique in their preferences around communication, personal space, home maintenance, gift-giving, and all other aspects of shared living.
Partners can help themselves by asking about and attending to their partners' personal preferences and needs. Assuming they want the same things is a fallacy that does not create the harmonious existence most couples crave. Viewing all preferences as valid and finding ways to compromise so that both partners get some of what they want is the most functional path toward fulfilling interdependence.
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