The Upward Arrow and the Golden Rule By Heather Clague, MD on 5/6/21 - 3:23 PM

My client Leslie sits across from me, her shoulders slumped. She has come to me for help with her marriage. Despite having a core of love for each other, for many years Leslie and her wife have been sharing mutual recriminations and dismissals of each other’s feelings. Their marriage has moved through time like a net, trapping resentments. We’ve been focusing on a moment when she complained to her wife about a critical comment her wife made about her in front of their kids.

I ask her the “Miracle Cure” question to clarify her goal in today’s work. “Let’s imagine that a miracle happens, and you got exactly what you wanted out of this session. What would that look like, what would be different?”

“She would see that I’m right, and she’d apologize,” she responds quickly.

Like so many people who say they want to improve their relationships, Leslie is stuck in blame. She is having a hard time conceiving anything that could help the relationship beyond having her wife do the changing.

As Dr. David Burns (1) has pointed out, a stance of blame is incompatible with healthy intimacy. When we blame, we fall into distorted thinking patterns and place all the badness and problems on the shoulder of the other person. In doing so, we cast ourselves in the role of victim, powerless to effect any changes that would move us to our goals. But the problem goes further than that. Relationships are reciprocal—when we approach someone with blame, they will naturally respond in kind. The Golden Rule is fundamentally a self-compassionate one: treat others as you would like them to treat you...because, well, what comes around goes around.

But how to help Leslie feel that with her heart, and not just in her head? In previous sessions, I had validated the hurt behind her wish and then redirected her, reminding her that her wife wasn’t asking me for help and that any changes need to come from Leslie herself. But today, I encourage her. I call this line of questioning the Upward Arrow, akin to the technique called the Downward Arrow. In the Downward Arrow technique, we ask a person why a negative thought is upsetting, which leads them to make contact with the negative beliefs that underlie the thought. In the Upward Arrow technique, by contrast, I ask my patient to elaborate on her wish for her wife to acknowledge her as right and apologize. The goal is to help her make contact with the healthy longings that underlie the problematic wish.

At first, she is confused by my line of questioning. She closes her eyes and shakes her head. She has a hard time imagining her wife apologizing. I encourage her to keep going, even if she draws a blank at first. She makes another try, but her anger and bitterness reemerge.

“She never listens, she’s always poo-pooing my feelings.”

I redirect her gently back to the task at hand. “Yes, you’ve felt so dismissed by her. See if you can put those thoughts aside for a moment. Instead of thinking about how badly she has been treating you, let yourself think about what you’d most want to hear from her. You said you’d want her to see that you are right and to apologize. That makes so much sense to me—can you elaborate on that? What would that mean to you, why is that important?”

“Well, it would mean she understood me. We wouldn’t have to keep arguing all the time. I wouldn’t have to keep defending myself.”

“Yes, that would be so much better, wouldn’t it? And can you keep going? Why would you want that, to not have to argue and defend yourself?”

A look of sadness crosses her face, and her eyes moisten.

“I could let my guard down, and relax, and just tell her how I was feeling. I could just be myself with her.”

“That would feel so good, wouldn’t it? To just be able to be yourself, without worry.”

“Yes,” she softens, “that would be such a relief.”

“And what would it be like to be with her, if she apologized to you, and you were feeling able to just be yourself?”

“We’d be on the same team. We’d be able to work together instead of fighting with each other. We’d be better parents.”

 “Close your eyes for a moment and really imagine that. What would that feel like, in your body, to be with her like that? What sensations do you have?”

“I feel calmer. My chest feels more open. I feel like I can breathe.”

Can you see what is happening here? She is starting to self-regulate, using her own imagination. She doesn’t need her wife to say exactly the right thing—with a little guidance she can bring herself to this state of mind. She has woken up to her own self-compassion using an idealized image of a partner.

I bring her out of the visualization and check-in. She’s still enjoying a feeling of ease.

“And you know what is cool?” I ask her. She tilts her head, inviting my answer. “You came to this state without her having to be different. You didn’t need her to say the right thing to be able to feel this sense of ease. This is something you created in yourself.”

“Yeah,” she nods. “Just imagining being treated this way allowed me to relax and be less defensive.” She widens her eyes as she realizes something. “And what is also interesting is that I feel more warmly toward her.”

“When we started this conversation, you said what you most wanted was for her to see that you are right and apologize.”

She gives a short laugh. “Yeah, that would be nice, I guess. But what I want more is for the two of us to be on the same page.”

She pauses, then continues. “What if I accept that she’s feeling hurt and defensive too? If I treat her the way I want her to treat me, maybe she’d relax and be more open to working this out.”

“I think you have just articulated a famous rule,” I notice.

“A golden one!” she says with a smile.


(1) Burns, D. (2020). Feeling great: The revolutionary new treatment for depression and anxiety.
PESI Publishing and Media.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy