“How could she not love that – I put so much thought/time into making her birthday special!”
Many many years ago when I was in the first few years of my 1st marriage I planned what I was sure to be the best birthday party ever for my wife. It was a surprise party! I had invited all her friends and family members and arranged for them to, if possible, all be there when we showed up back to our little apartment after a romantic dinner. I’ll spare you most of the details, but I will say I arranged it for them to decorate the apartment while we were gone and despite this being in the pre-cell phone days, we timed it all perfectly!
After the party was over I was looking forward to hearing how much she loved it, how special the night was, and if I’m honest- also hoped to hear what an amazing, thoughtful husband I was. She was gracious in how she expressed it, but after thanking me for the gesture and the time I put in to it, she expressed that she was anxious and uncomfortable most of the night. She clarified that she was uncomfortable with knowing they were all there and she hadn’t had a chance to clean the apartment the way she would if she knew a bunch of people were coming over. Perhaps more importantly, she shared with me that she had told me on more than one occasion that she didn’t like surprises in general and surprise parties specifically- and clarified some of the reasons why.
Upon hearing all that, I felt both sad and offended in that I had put so much time and effort in to something that was not appreciated. After all, I would have LOVED IT! In fact, several of my favorite birthday parties had elements of surprise in them. Most Christmas morning’s were unexpectedly awesome in part because the days leading up to them included at least 1 comment about how this year’s presents were going to be limited because things were a little bit tighter financially…but the family room was as full of treasures as it ever was!
So what was the problem!?!? To put it simple, I was acting on what I wanted or liked, not on what my wife wanted or liked. With the best of intentions, I was operating from what by many is known as the “golden
Great rule- right! If you’re not sure how to treat somebody else, ask yourself “how would I want to be treated in this situation?” and then treat the other person that way. And to give the golden rule the golden respect it deserves…. It really helps in a lot of situations. However, there is an even better rule/guideline for how to treat others that is not as commonly known nor applied. And this rule/guide is especially important in our personal relationships, the “platinum rule”:
Seems similar, right? But when you really break it down, it’s a little more complex. To apply the platinum rule of relationships, you have to go beyond knowing yourself and how you would like to be treated in a relationship and actually do the hard, important and often confusing work of learning who the other person is. It requires being willing to sincerely ask and then truly listen to what they say about their hopes, dreams, wants, needs, etc. And specifically within a long-term committed relationship like a marriage, it requires learning what “speaks love” to one another. For example, in his book “The 5 love languages” author Gary Chapman talks about different ways people express or experience love including 1) physical touch/affection, 2) words of affirmations, 3) quality time, 4) Acts of service, and 5) meaningful/thoughtful gifts. Using these 5 areas as a starting point can help couples get clarity about what helps each one to feel loved and prioritized. And then with that understanding, each partner can begin doing and saying those things that help the other person feel that love…even if it feels like speaking a foreign language!
So how can you become an expert at applying the platinum rule of relationships in your own life? There are 4 components to this:
In order to let your partner know how you want to be treated in the relationship so they can successfully apply the platinum rule of relationships, you need to know yourself. Many people go blank when asked “what do you want to do for dinner tonight”, or “what do you want to do for your birthday?”, or “how can I best support you in this difficult thing you’re going through?”. Self-awareness can be scary because if we truly know what we want and need out of our intimate relationships- we can start to develop hopes of getting those met. And if we are vulnerable in sharing those things with a partner, we can get let down and hurt when those wants and needs are not met.
The most fulfilling relationships are those in which each partner is willing to make sincere efforts to meet the wants and needs of the other person, as long as doing so does not go against their own sense of values, health or well-being. So choosing to be vulnerable by letting the other person know what you want out of the relationship is a key part of living the platinum rule.
There are different “types” or categories of intimate connection, including emotional, physical (non-sexual), sexual, intellectual, spiritual, recreational and social (relating to others as a couple). In most relationships, there are gaps between the needs and wants of each partner across these different domains. One tool you can use to get more clarity about your own wants and needs in these different areas is to simply write down anything that you would like to experience more in your relationship(s).
The distinction between wants and needs can be difficult at times, but one way you can do so is to ask yourself “is this something that is a preference (and maybe even a REALLY STRONG preference!) but the relationship can still be a really good one without it, OR is it something that is core to my sense of relational well-being?”. For example, someone might have the awareness that in order to be fulfilled in their marriage they NEED physical affection and closeness, and he/she WANTS (prefers) it to come in the form of holding hands while walking around outside. If the spouse happens to be uncomfortable with PDA (public displays of affection) he/she may not get that WANT met, but hopefully will get the NEED met later that night as they hold hands or cuddle while watching a movie at home.
Using the example above, component number 2 of applying the platinum rule could be where a wife lets her husband know how important physical affection is for her and how much she would love to hold hands when they walked around in the mall. If her partner consistently fails to do so despite knowing how important it is, she would need to work hard to not take it as a sign that he doesn’t love her, and instead accept that there may need to be a different way of him meeting her need. She could either suggest something else (e.g. holding hands while they watch a movie at home) or ask him what he would be comfortable with.
Hopefully your partner is doing a good job with component number 2 and you therefore know what your partner wants to be experiencing in the relationship. If not, however, the work of component number 3 is to be curious, open-minded, and to ask sincere questions about how you could more fully meet needs and even some of their wants if at all possible.
When I was in college, I took a course in Chinese with hopes of adding that to the 2 languages I already spoke fluently (English and Spanish being the others). I soon learned how different and how much more difficult it was learning Chinese compared to learning Spanish. In Spanish, “radio” was spelled the same way, but was pronounced differently. There were, in fact, a LOT of words like that. However, there was no place in my brain where I could connect the dots between what I already knew and what I was learning (or trying to learn) in my Chinese 101 class. After a few weeks I called it quits. Learning any new language is hard, with some being particularly challenging. And while the same is often true for learning to speak your partner’s love language, it is important that you don’t “drop the class” and that you continue to make efforts…even if your accent is thick and your grammar is well-butchered. On the other hand, the ways your partner “feels or hears” love may be similar to your own ways making it a little bit easier to align. Either way, being honest in expressing what you want or need and being consistent in your efforts to treat your partner the way he/she wants to be treated will likely add to a much better relationship over time. And remember that no matter how much you like surprise birthday parties, if your partner tells you he/she doesn’t like them, ask him/her about suggestions for the guest list and then plan a great party together!
Subscribe to receive the latest stories, thought leadership, and growth strategies from PCS therapists.