Primum Non Nocere

By Greg Baer M.D.

September 18, 2017

Jack and Meredith went to a museum. Why? To spend some time together, to enjoy each other. After arriving, Jack walked much faster than Meredith, and he spent less time with each painting or other exhibit, so soon he was far ahead of her, sometimes even in the next room. She told him that she wasn’t enjoying herself, but he countered that he couldn’t help it, and he requested that maybe he could just be looking three or four exhibits ahead of her. She said that she wanted to see the museum together with him, side by side, and soon this erupted into an argument that led to canceling the remainder of the outing.

Who is right here? Who is wrong? What should they do? Is there a compromise that could be reached?

When you put almost any two people together, you’ll discover that one is taller, one is faster, one is stronger, one is more artistic, one is more mathematical, one is smarter, and so on. It is inevitable, then, that couples of any kind—spouses, parent and child, and so on—will have different abilities and different preferences for any given activity. So, who gets to choose? Some of these situations appear to be insoluble.

Let’s take an easy situation as an illustration of how we might approach a more complicated one. Years ago my grandson Brad, then six years old, was helping me to unload gardening and construction materials from the back of the van into the trailer of the ATV. The bags of dry concrete weighed eighty pounds, so Brad found it difficult to hold up one end of the bag, especially since I was considerably taller. He could, however, hold one end of a forty-pound bag of topsoil and help me throw it into the trailer.

Would it have been reasonable for me to insist that Brad help me unload the concrete? After all, he did agree to help me—much as Jack and Meredith agreed to go to the museum “together”—and with all his strength he could briefly hold up one end of the bag. No, my expectations of his help would have been unreasonable, because in any joint activity the first rule is “primum non nocere,” a Latin expression that translates into English as “first do no harm”—most often applied to the practice of medicine.

Practically speaking, this phrase means that no matter what an activity, or whatever our preferences are, my first concern needs to be not to cause harm to my partner—spouse, friend, child, whoever. If it is avoidable, why would I ever insist that anyone participate in an activity that caused them harm—which includes discomfort of muscles (weight), joints (weight or twisting), ears (loudness), smell (smoking), or anything else? Exactly when would it be necessary to cause actual harm to another person?

Would it have been reasonable for me to insist that Brad and I alternate bags of concrete and soil, so that he was overloaded only half the time? Again, no. First, do no harm. Continuing to insist that Brad be like me—big, strong, accustomed to heavy loads—would definitely have increased the risk of injuring his body and probably his feelings as he failed to lift the bags and probably even dropped some of them.

Now, back to Jack and Meredith. Jack had longer legs than Meredith and could walk faster. Insisting on her keeping his pace would cause her unnecessary exertion or harm. He had less interest in seeing each exhibit, so his rushing around caused her the emotional discomfort of not being able to see what she had come to see. Most important, though, was their agreement that the primary purpose of the museum visit was to do something together, and Jack’s leaving Meredith behind contributed to her wondering whether she was as important as his need to “check off” each exhibit he visited.

In short, Jack’s approach to museums prevented Meredith from enjoying the experience with him. But what about Meredith? Wasn’t she hurting Jack? No. Walking 15% slower is not painful to Jack. It may not be what he PREFERS, but it does not hurt him. If Jack spends 10% longer looking at each painting, does that hurt his eyes or his mind? No, he simply wouldn’t be able to see as much of the museum in a superficial fashion, as he had envisioned. Harm? None. Does his slowing down hurt his relationship with Meredith? No, quite the contrary. His slowing down helps Meredith feel close to him.

Jack was expressing preferences, while Meredith was expressing discomforts. The useful guideline here? First, do no harm. When your partner is talking about something that is uncomfortable or prevents closeness, listen. Never place your own preference above your partner’s comfort. Pain trumps preferences in nearly every case.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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