“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” we are advised. Certainly, following this maxim gives us a solid moral compass. If you wouldn’t want someone to cut you off when you are driving, then don’t do it to others, for example. The eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant expanded on the biblical adage when he related his moral imperative. Kant’s notion was that whatever act you do, consider what would happen if everyone did that same thing. He took singular behavior and connected it to a universal moral code. A simple example perhaps would be throwing a plastic container out the window of your moving car instead of recycling it—if every person in every car did that, then what?
However, when it comes to relationships we may need to tweak the moral imperative even further. Many years ago, while a graduate student traveling Europe with a friend, I did something for her that I would have wanted for myself. In an unforgettable moment (for me), she said “just because you want that doesn’t mean I do—do unto others as they want done, not as you would want” I took her words to heart even though my actions don’t always conform to the message. Rather than doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, consider doing unto others as they would have you do unto them.
Too often relationships—at the level of couples and families, for starters—get stuck in a self-righteousness based on the assumption of doing for the other what you would want—only the partner or child does not want what you would want for yourself. A sort of forcing the other to drink coffee when all they wanted was a cup of tea.
In the relationship between partners, this misunderstanding may come in the form of showing affection. Recently, a client talked about how, for her, showing affection would be when the partner cleaned the snow off her car. So she assumed that, when she did actions of helping for her partner, that would be showing affection. In fact, that wasn’t the case. Her partner wanted more romantic displays: sending cards to work and openly affectionate overtures at home. It becomes a matter of communication so that we can know what the other wants—it may be very different than our image of what we want, what makes us comfortable or feeling nurtured. Empathy becomes more than just making assumptions about the other based on our own likes and dislikes.
Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you in empathic terms can then mean understanding others as you would want them to understand you.