THE BLOG
08/31/2016 11:33 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2017

The Golden Rule Doesn't Work in Marriage

We have always been taught the golden rule since we could understand words and concepts. For those of you who aren't quite sure what I am talking about it is this: Treat others the way you would want them to treat you. This is a great value to have growing up because it teaches us empathy. It enables us to put ourselves into someone else's 'shoes' and try to imagine what the other person may be feeling in any given situation. I teach my own children this as well. It helps them see how others may feel in many different scenarios. The world could use more empathy. However, this doesn't seem to work in marriages.

I have seen so many times a spouse trying to get their partner to understand how they feel by giving examples, such as: "This may help you get how I feel... say you were trying to tell me about your day and I just looked at the TV and didn't pay close attention, wouldn't that make you angry?" The other person's response is usually something like, "First of all, I don't usually do that. When you are telling me something I can also have the TV on and still listen to you." This is not what the person wanted to hear. They want their spouse to say back something like, "It makes total sense to me why you would be angry with me, I would hate if you did that to me, so I won't do that to you anymore." Ahhhh... the angels sing and life and love go back to being perfect.... Oh, wait, that isn't how marriage goes!
So, when we don't get the most amazing, understanding and empathetic response we want, what do we do? We have to do something different in the first place. The fact is we can't expect the other person to WANT or NEED to be treated the way WE DO. Time and time again, I have witnessed couples try so hard to help their spouse 'get it' by explaining to them the golden rule. Time and time again, they are disappointed and feel more frustrated than they did in the beginning. When I see this frustration cycle starting to build, I try to stop the partner that is giving the golden rule examples and help the spouse that isn't "getting it" to just hear the person's feelings and their unmet need. Your spouse may not want or need to be loved the same way you do.

What your spouse needs may be different than what you need. That is OK, it doesn't make it wrong or bad, it is just different. The sooner you can figure this out and begin treating your spouse in that way, the better things will be. You need to become an expert on your spouse. No one else should know them better than you. You need to use this knowledge of your spouse to the relationship's advantage not detriment. It is much easier for the couple in my example to just keep doing what they were doing, no one has to change then. Sometimes couples think, 'over time they will get used to it, or this is just how I am- I can watch TV and listen at the same time.' What usually happens over time is that both partners get so frustrated, hurt and emotionally distant that a negative spin starts in the marriage. This can cause either frequent arguing about minor infractions or one or both people quit asking for what they need which leads them farther away emotionally from their spouse.

So, to avoid all the unnecessary arguing and to create more connection, we have to start treating our spouse the way they need to be treated and filled up with love. Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages. He describes how relationships seem to go well in the beginning, but a couple years into it, things sometimes start to go downhill, why is that? He describes in the book how on our wedding day we feel 'filled up' with love. The person has been meeting our love language, treating us the way we want to be treated and filling us up with love. The Five Love Languages are Physical Touch, Acts of Service, Words of Affirmation, Receiving Gifts and Quality Time. These are the different ways we show people we love them. Quite often, we try to speak our language of love to the other person. Often, we don't speak the same language, so we aren't able to be 'filled-up' by the way we are trying to show love to one another. As you can see, all the languages are good and positive, but we feel loved at different levels by each one of them.

When we don't know what our spouses love language is we start speaking our language to them. For example: If one spouses love language is Words of Affirmation, they will be the one that writes little notes to their spouse and put them in their lunch or suitcase before a trip. They are trying to give their spouse a hint... pssst... I would like you to do that for me. We are not that smart. We don't get these hints. The spouse that gets the note might think, 'that was nice, but man I sure wish she/he would have helped me with the laundry last night'... (their love language might be Acts of Service). When we know what our spouses love language is, then we need to go out of our way and by choice choose to meet their need in the way or language they will feel loved.