Victor Hugo once wrote, "Life's greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved."
I would take it a step further and say that to love and be loved is a fundamental to our well-being. We are instinctively conditioned to seek out love and belonging before we are old enough to understand much of anything else. This fundamental need drives our willingness to engage other people in relationship and community despite how difficult it can be. Few things can bring as much joy or as much pain as relationship.
So what simple thing can universally transform relationships? What can help us move through the difficulties experienced in relationships and unlock the connection and love that make it all worthwhile? It is a simple concept, but that does not make it easy to do.
German-speaking philosopher Martin Buber introduced this concept in 1923, though it was not translated into English until 1970. He said that there are two ways of relating to the world: as I-It or as I-Thou. I’ll explain.
In an I-It relationship, we see the other as an object; without identity, humanity, or individuality. Because we don’t consciously acknowledge the other’s humanity, these relationships are characterized by blindness, selfishness, assumptions, judgment, and lack of empathy.
In an I-Thou relationship, we see the other as an equal with inherent value. We are interested in the other’s well-being, emotions, viewpoint, and experience. These relationships are characterized by honor, curiosity, empathy, and non-judgment.
Let’s look at some examples of how this might look.
You have repeatedly asked your kids to get ready for bed and they continue to ignore you.
I-It: You get frustrated and upset that they are not doing what you want. You use threats, bribes, and guilt to get them to comply. You might take their disobedience as a personal slight.
I-Thou: You feel frustrated. You take a moment to take a breath and get centered. You recognize that your kids are acting in an age-appropriate way. You recognize that your current strategy isn’t the best and that exploring new expectations, boundaries, and systems could help things run more smoothly.
Your spouse comes home in a terrible mood and starts blaming you for everything going wrong for them.
I-It: You get defensive and start arguing right back, letting your spouse know that they are far from perfect and should get off your back.
I-Thou: You recognize that your spouse must be having a difficult day and is misplacing their anger on you. You tell her that you notice her anger and ask her to tell you more about it. You invite a conversation where both of you can share your thoughts and find out how to support one another.
You see a friend’s post on Facebook expressing a political or religious opinion that you find harmful or ignorant.
I-It: You decide to set this person straight about their misconceptions. You share your viewpoint. When it is not received well, you may slide into argument, snark, and attack.
I-Thou: You recognize that people of all levels of education and experience can reasonably come to different opinions on any given subject. You either honor their opinion without judgment, or you get curious about their experience and ask questions to learn if there is an angle you have not yet considered.
You hear that a neighbor has decided to distance themselves from attendance in your church.
I-It: You feel sad for them and their family. You always thought he was a good person. You wonder how someone like that could be deceived or offended. Maybe he just got lazy with their belief or started doing things he shouldn’t. You feel awkward when you see him and wonder what you could do to help him come back to church.
I-Thou: You are surprised. You didn’t see this coming. You recognize separation from a group can be lonely and hard and you wonder if he and his family have support. You seek to understand him and ask if he would be willing to share his story. If he gives you that opportunity, you listen with an open heart and empathize with him. You seek to learn something new and broaden your perspective. Even if you disagree, you offer validation and respect.
When we view others as an “It”, we do not take time to consider the other person. We don’t think about their feelings or experience. We make assumptions without getting to know the other person or their story. We allow our perspective to take in only our experience and world view, giving little legitimacy to another way.
How could our relationships be improved if we honored others as “Thou” rather than an “It”? How many fights could we avoid? How much less hurt could we inflict on others and ourselves? How many more safe spaces could we create? How much more joy and healing could we share?
How could this difficult, yet simple perspective shift enhance your relationships with your loved ones and with the world?
Jana Spangler, IAC is a life coach who specializes in supporting and mentoring others who are experiencing pain in their spiritual life and relationships. She is currently attending the prestigious Living School through the Center for Action and Contemplation of Richard Rohr.