Most people would accept that relationships affect health, sometimes profoundly so. The damage caused by conflicts at work or unresolved rows at home is often difficult to repair. The reverse can to be true, too: someone who has to cope with illness and pain might well find it helpful to have a chat about the old days over a cup of coffee or go for a quiet walk with a companion who takes the time to listen.
Our well-being is often influenced by such encounters, however brief. Just as the kindness of a stranger can cause a warm feeling that lingers, rejection leaves behind a sense of unease and both responses colour your expectations of what the day will bring.
Martin Buber has greatly influenced the way we think about relationships and their effects on us. He is perhaps best known for the distinctions he makes between I-It and I-Thou relations.1
Martin Buber (right)
I-It is an association that remains once you have cut short what could have become a deep relationship. You are holding back in an encounter with another – a friend, a colleague, a relative or a stranger; you are restrained, guarded, watchful. You are prepared to give only a fraction of yourself and understand only a fraction of the other. Buber has observed that most relationships are of this kind.
I-Thou relationships are quite different from the I-It variety, chiefly because you respond to the other person without reservations and accept him or her without thoughts of possible gain or support getting in the way. Two people meet and each becomes absorbed in the other.
I-Thou encounters cannot entered into on command. All we can do is to be open to others and receptive to them. Författaren
The author Lars Björklund has put it like this:
“To my mind, the most profound meaning of love lies in meeting human beings on their own terms and offer up space for the individual to be truly him- or herself. Personal gains are beside the point. The important thing is to share the other person’s space.”2
Often, we cannot remember a particular outcome of an I-Thou encounter, only the listening and the confirmation you have received from the other person. If someone were to ask: “What was in it for you?” – your reply might well be: “I was there.”2
Your self is shaped by your relationships
In our culture, certain phrases are often used in the context of a sense of identity: to find or express oneself, or to love oneself so that you feel able to love others – as if each individual is an isolated island. Recent psychological studies have however shown that the self – the “I” – is very much influenced by relationships.3
Those who are involved mostly in I-It relationships can easily feel alienated, shut off from others. In contrast, I-Thou relationships help us to open up and so grow into more complete human beings. We dare to be honest, to trust others and expose our vulnerability. Paradoxically, the self seems to flourish the more you abandon your defences and the less you focus on yourself and its needs.4
I-Thou relationships are not necessarily formed only with those who are close to us. Some I-Thou encounters are one-off events but can still be a turning point in someone’s life. Once more, Lars Björklund has captured the essence of this idea:
“It is perfectly possible to spend any amount of time in the company of someone and yet feel you never truly know each other, just as it can happen that you feel close to and confirmed by someone almost immediately.”
In 2014, the journal Science published a study that in many ways backed Buber’s thinking. The results suggested that I-Thou relationships increased the individual’s sense of wellbeing as well as perception of life having a meaning, states of mind with positive effects on health, life-style and ability to cope with stress.5
I-Thou relationships present us with one of our greatest challenges – but also open up the greatest possibilities of growth. On the next page, you will be offered an option to evaluate your own relationships in terms of I-thou and I-It.
1. Buber M. I and Thou (Ich und Du)
2. Björklund L. The Courage to do Nothing (Modet att ingenting göra).
3. Mark R. Leary , Meredith L. Terry. Hypo-Egoic Mindsets. Antecedents and Implications of Quieting the Self. Handbook of Self and Identity, 2nd Edition sid 268.
4. Handbook of Self and Identity, 2nd Edition
5. Hofmann W et al., Science 2014. 345. 1340