Empathy and the Golden Rule

In elementary school, most of us learned some version of the Golden Rule, to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” as it is stated in the New Testament, Matthew 7:12. While this principle is often associated with Christianity, Cambridge University philosopher Simon Blackburn posits that nearly every formal ethical code contains some version of this principle, regardless of religion, culture, or social structure. This ancient guideline for right living is deeply entwined with one of the core psychological capacities that make us human: our ability to put ourselves in the role of another person and imagine what they might be feeling in each situation. In psychology, we call this empathy.

While empathy is essential to our ability to form relationships, achieving it is not simple by any means. Empathy has many layers of nuance that we continue to develop throughout our lives. For example, if a teenager sees you recoil after touching a hot stove, it is probably easy for her to understand that you are experiencing pain and need relief; she will likely move near-instinctually to bring water or ice to soothe your burn because she can imagine being in your situation and know what you need. However, the same teenager might struggle to empathize with her grandfather who is unfairly lashing out at her during an episode of arthritic pain. She lacks the experience needed to understand the cause of his aggression and is furthermore likely too preoccupied with her feelings of victimization to spare a thought for how and why his experience might be affecting his behavior. It is important to recognize that this sort of failure of empathy is not necessarily a failure of character. Empathy is a sophisticated and difficult skill, even for the most socially adept among us. No matter how sensitive and attuned you are to another person, it is impossible to fully understand every aspect of what they are feeling.

Beyond the difficulty of imagining another person’s situation, it is sometimes the case that two people receive the same experience with two very different emotions. If two friends ride the same roller coaster, one of them may come out feeling panicked, while the other is exhilarated. Here, we run into a problem with the Golden Rule: what if you find yourself in a situation with your partner where the thing you would have done unto you is precisely the opposite of what they want?

Many couples run into some version of this issue at some point. Imagine you carefully folded all the laundry, only to find that when your boyfriend comes home from work, he is disappointed… “I was looking forward to destressing by folding it myself!” If this feels like a familiar scene, you probably have a sense of the type of frustrating mismatch I’m thinking about.

Love Languages

In a healthy relationship, you and your partner should both get to feel loved and loving. However, love may mean very different things to each of you. One of the wonderful things about a long-term partnership is that you learn to truly understand each other not just through the mirror of your own experience, but through observing and hearing about what makes them feel good in a large variety of situations. This experience will not only make you a better partner but will also help you get to know yourself better.

Talking with your partner about your love languages is a wonderful step to take along this journey. The idea of love languages was coined in 1992 by Gary Chapman, a minister and relationship counselor. Chapman suggests 5 main categories, or love languages, each comprised of different styles of action expressing love. Each of us has a different way of expressing our love for another person, as well as a type of love we crave, and others that don’t mean too much to us. Here, I will provide a brief introduction to each of Chapman’s love languages and give a few examples of actions that fall into each category. It is important to remember that these love languages are just a framework to start a conversation with your partner about what expressions of love you like to give and receive. You may identify with one, some, all, or none of these, and it is absolutely okay if what makes you feel loved falls outside of the boundaries of these categories. Hopefully, some of these expressions of love won’t strike your fancy; this can help broaden the horizons of your imagination when it comes to thinking of innovative ways to express your love to your partner.

Words of Affirmation

Words of affirmation are also called complements. A person who uses words of affirmation as a love language feels loved when their partner verbally tells them something they admire, value, or cherish about them. Words of affirmation can vary from complements of their intellect to their emotional sensitivity, to their sense of humor, to their fashion sense, and beyond. For some people, it is especially important to be recognized for areas where they see themselves as strong. For others, it may be particularly meaningful to be complimented in ways that contradict self-critical beliefs they hold about themselves. Here are a few examples of words of affirmation:

  • You never fail to make me smile.
  • You look beautiful today. I love the way you styled your hair!
  • I can’t believe you solved that crossword so quickly… you’re so smart!
  • Can you help me figure out how to reply to this email? You have such a great turn of phrase.
  • How did I ever end up with someone who is so conscientious?
  • I wish I were a music publisher so I could share your amazing tape with everyone!
  • Quality Time

    People whose love language is quality time feel cared for when their partner sets aside time to intentionally spend with them, especially when it involves novel or special activities. It is important to note that not all time spent together counts as quality time for these individuals. Many couples fall into routinized patterns in the way they spend time together (i.e., spending time together in the morning getting ready for work independently without interacting), which can feel like a poor imitation of love to people who long for quality time. Quality time often requires thoughtful planning, focus, and effort. In fact, the effort involved in making a quality encounter happen may be a big part of what these people find meaningful about it. Here are a few examples of quality time might be used as an expression of love:

  • Go on a romantic picnic in the park.
  • Watch your favorite TV show together each week.
  • Take time off to see your partner present their project at a conference.
  • Set aside 30 minutes each evening to talk with your partner about the day.
  • Cook a new recipe together.
  • Play your favorite board game or multiplayer video game together.
  • Go for a weekend trip.
  • Take an art class together.
  • Gifts

    This is a relatively straightforward love language. A person who uses it feels loved when their partner makes a point of bringing them presents, be they in recognition of a major event, or apropos of nothing! When you get this person a gift they love, they know you are paying attention to their interests and desires. They may also appreciate that you prioritize spending your resources on them. Gifts can take many forms and don’t always need to be expensive or extravagant. Here are some examples:

  • Bring home cookies from your partner’s favorite bakery.
  • Make a hand-drawn birthday card for your partner.
  • Buy flowers to present when your partner gets home from work.
  • Celebrate an anniversary by getting your partner a piece of jewelry they wouldn’t buy for themself
  • Get your partner tickets to see their favorite team play.
  • Acts of Service

    Individuals who use the love language of acts of service feel loved when you go out of your way to ease their burdens or help them accomplish their goals. Acts of service can range from handling the typical drudgery of household maintenance to creating space for your partner to pursue a time-intensive hobby, to treating your partner to an indulgent experience that wouldn’t otherwise fit into their day. Acts of service tend to help people do what they already want to do in a way that is easier, more relaxing, or more rewarding. Here are some examples:

  • Cook an elaborate holiday dinner.
  • Give your partner a scalp massage.
  • Wash the dishes.
  • Make your partner a cup of coffee in the morning.
  • Plan a morning activity with the kids so your partner can sleep in.
  • Fix the roof.
  • Take care of your partner’s aging parent while they are at work.
  • Pack a lunch for your partner.
  • Physical Touch

    From the very beginning of our lives, skin-to-skin contact is a key mechanism by which we connect with others, regulate our bodily functions, and manage stress. For people who use this love language, the nonverbal power of touch helps them feel safe, stimulated, and close to their partners. Physical touch can be sensual or straightforward, playful or serious, platonic or sexual, arousing or soothing. Here are some examples:

  • Squeeze your partner tight during the scariest scene of a horror movie.
  • Hold hands with your partner as you walk down the sidewalk.
  • Massage your partner’s tight shoulders.
  • Scratch the part of your partner’s back they can’t reach themselves.
  • Try out a new sex position.
  • Brush your partner’s hair.
  • Help your partner do a supported yoga pose.
  • Kiss your partner goodbye before leaving the house.
  • It can be frustrating when your love language doesn’t align with your partner’s, but proactive communication is an excellent way to “translate” between the two of you. By having a conversation about love languages, you can learn how to love your partner better, appreciate the love they show you, and teach them how you like to be cared for. Communicating about love languages allows you to direct your loving energy towards gestures that your partner actually appreciates; stop spending hours mowing the lawn for your partner when they really want you to sit down with them for a leisurely breakfast! On the other side of things, you can learn to recognize behaviors you might have ignored before as genuine expressions of love. While it may just seem like normal housework to you, your partner may be trying to tell you how much they love you when they clean out the leaves from the rain gutters. If you are honest with your partner about how you want them to demonstrate their love, you might be surprised how eager they are to try something new.

    Remember that you may not even know your own love language yet, so be patient with yourself and with your partner as you learn about each other’s. While the examples in this blog may provide a helpful starting point, there are literally infinite different ways of giving and receiving love, so with time and practice, you and your partner can find a way that works for you. Talking with a licensed therapist, alone or as a couple, can be useful as you are exploring how love languages can help your relationship grow. To reach out or schedule an appointment with me, you can visit my website here: https://babitaspinelligroup.com/contact/

    Blackburn, S. (2003). Ethics: A very short introduction [Electronic resource]. Oxford University Press. http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?clio14072957

    Chapman, G. (1992). The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Northfield Publishing.

    Ionio, C., Ciuffo, G., & Landoni, M. (2021). Parent–Infant Skin-to-Skin Contact and Stress
    Regulation: A Systematic Review of the Literature. International Journal of Environmental
    Research and Public Health, 18(9)
    ,4695. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094695

    Until the next Opening the Doors post.

    - BABITA
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