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I-It vs. I-Thou: Do You See Your Spouse as a Person or Object?

young couple talking

Two Ways of Being

A philosopher by the name of Martin Buber said that we can come from one of two orientations or ways of being in our relationships with others. He called them I-It vs. I-Thou. Whichever orientation we adopt has huge implications in marriage as well as any and all of our relationships. In this article, I want to help you understand the distinction between these orientations so you make a conscious choice about how you want to relate.

An I-It orientation means that we unconsciously view others as objects who either help us realize what we want or hinder us from getting what we want. I-It is a rather common and yet a self-serving way of viewing others. Another’s value has to do with what he/she contributes or does not contribute to me. Over time, this view sets us up to control or manipulate others to meet our needs which gradually diminishes trust and goodwill and turns relationships adversarial.

The second way of being Buber called I-Thou in which we see others as real (not objects), as human beings with their own needs, wants, feelings, and opinions as valid as our own. We see them through a filter of respect. The motives of others are basically good and similar to our own. We want the same things out of life. We recognize that what unites us is greater than what divides us. Other people are our allies rather than our adversaries.

These two attitudes become self-fulfilling prophecies. If we view others as objects, we eventually elicit ill-will, resistance, and resentment which leads to alienation. On the other hand, if our essential view of others is respect then we nurture love and goodwill which results in closeness and unity.

I Am How I See Another

You’ll notice that Buber connects the words I-It and I-Thou with a hyphen. By doing this he’s making each of these terms a single word in which your “self” cannot be pried apart from how you see another. Buber is saying that personal identity and quality of relationships are the same thing. I am the way I see another. This means that you change as you see your spouse differently. If you start to see your spouse as a thou rather than it or object, you undergo a change inside your own being.

Do you remember my story from some weeks back about playing the victim in my marriage? When I arrived home that evening I was upset with my wife because she wasn’t giving me what I wanted. I built my case that she was selfish and unsupportive. I was viewing her through an I-It paradigm. She was not giving me what I thought I needed at the moment and I allowed myself to be victimized by her behavior.

Not at first, but gradually during the next day, I began to really look at Judy not as someone who was impeding me from what I wanted but rather as someone who had her own needs and feelings. My heart softened towards her as I realized I’d been telling myself a false story about her intent. As I saw her from I-Thou, I felt some compassion and gratitude. She’s given me so much support through so many years. She’s forgiven me for so many absences and indifferences. She had done nothing to harm me the previous night.

A Decision

An important pillar in marriage is honoring your partner.  This is a decision to see your partner as a person of dignity and worth, a “Thou” if you will. The way to think about this is that it is something you confer upon your partner rather than something your partner earns. It is a decision that comes from inside you and says, “I honor, cherish, and respect you. I care about your needs and wants as much as my own and am here to give to you and strengthen you in the journey of life.”

An Example

I want to mention a man by the name of C. Terry Warner, founder of the Arbinger Institute and author of a number of books including The Anatomy of Peace and Leadership and Self-Deception. Although his work is not about marriage, per se, he teaches about how to heal ourselves and our relationships. We do so not by getting others to be different but by changing our own hearts. I recommend him.

I want to share a story he tells in his book The Bonds that Make Us Free. He talks about a woman by the name of Rachel who, after 20 years of marriage, was jolted to learn her husband had been having an affair. Quoting from her story, she says, “One day in a heap of tears I decided I still had a life and that I would not spend it being bitter and poisoning the lives of our children with venom about their father. I felt wonderful after I made that decision. People now tell me they are amazed at my attitude but I feel it is not amazing. I just want to live a clean life and poison does not allow growth.”

She goes on, “In the last week, I’ve had two bitter divorced women call me and offer a shoulder to cry on…. They both are certain that I’m seething with anger—because they are. In their eyes I belong to a club of women who need to let it all out. Both of them offered to cry with me, talk with me when I need to talk and ultimately have me participate in fanning the flames of ‘I have been wounded and I will never let anyone forget it.'”

Rachel continues her story. “When I told them how I feel, that my husband is ill, weak and suffering and that I hurt for him—they tell me I’m denying my anger and that this anger is justified. They don’t hear me when I say that I want life, not death that I would carry around in my heart forever.”

It is natural to feel anger and pity about an affair after twenty years of marriage. I certainly don’t want to tell someone this may not be part of their process. But I also want you to know that as we adopt an I-Thou approach to our relationships we begin to see our spouse’s needs, feelings, and behavior more deeply and more compassionately.  You may not get there immediately, but I invite you to keep the concept in mind, the difference between I-It and I-Thou.

How to Come from I-Thou vs. I-It

Learning to come from an attitude of I-Thou vs. I-It is a process of personal growth. It is less about the other person and more about your intent to become a more loving person or partner. Here are a few suggestions to do this.

  • Really see your partner. Look deeply into his or her face or eyes when you are together.
  • Watch your partner when they aren’t noticing.
  • Give hugs and other forms of physical (nonsexual) affection.
  • Think deeply about your partner. What are their deepest needs or feelings? What is the world (or your relationship) like from his/her point of view?
  • Be curious and ask questions that show interest in his/her life.
  • Ask how you can support him/her.
  • Be present and listen deeply as your partner speaks. Turn towards them and give them your full attention.
  • Notice and offer your gratitude for little things he or she is or does throughout the day.
  • Avoid accusations that will put your partner on the defensive.
  • Communicate to them what you yourself would like to receive. This may mean that you offer a silent wish for them as you first greet them.  “I wish you joy.” “I wish you prosperity.” “I wish you happiness and peace.”

There are many ways to treat your partner with honor and respect. The important thing is to sincerely do such practices daily.

The good news is that as you treat your spouse as a “Thou” rather than “It” he or she will notice. They will feel and even reciprocate your intent and goodwill. Not only will you be building a loving relationship but increasing the feelings of love and joy in your own life. After all, what you put out is what comes back. The key is to stop seeking (I-It) and start giving (I-Thou).

Do you want to learn more? Sign up for my highest rated (4.9/5) and best-selling course on Udemy: Creating a Happy Marriage and Loving Relationship

Comments

6 Comments

  1. Max

    A great read with some very interesting and useful insights Roger. I always appreciate your offerings and the perspectives that come with them. Thanks!

    Max, male, 43, Perth, Western Australia.

    Reply
    • Roger Allen

      Thanks, Max. I’m glad you find them useful. It’s good to hear from someone “Down Under.”

      Reply
  2. Siobhan O'Rourke

    I love that way of relating. My husband and I treat each other with kindness and respect at all times but the conversations about needs or imagining the relationship from the spouse’s point of view is something that really makes my husband defensiveness. He avoids reflective conversations at all costs and if I initiate them, respectfully and gently it always ends in conflict that is never fully resolved and which creates further distance.
    Are there ways of opening to I-Thou relationship that don’t involve verbal communication of the experience.

    Reply
    • Roger Allen

      Hi Siobhan,
      Thanks for your comment. It is a great way of relating and takes a lot of self-reflection to understand what it means and how to achieve it. I’m glad to hear that you and your husband treat each other with kindness and respect much of the time.

      Regarding your question, I would treat your husband’s defensiveness with kindness. Can you listen to the fear or anxiety that he feels when you invite him to be disclosing? How might he feel threatened? Is there a way to make it safe for him to explore? Of course, a common pattern is that of pursue and withdraw, as I talked about in an early blog post. It’s a hard pattern to break. Your husband may have a hidden fear that you want to control him or that he’s a personal development project and will never be good enough, or that it’s unsafe to disclose deeper feelings. Perhaps he’s seen them modeled poorly. Invite but don’t force and find ways to continue building your friendship and admiration for each other.

      I hope something I’ve shared is helpful. My best to you.

      Roger

      Reply
  3. Brigid C Anderson

    It is really misguided to portray the “I-it” relationship as somehow wrong. Buber would say it is a proper and inevitable way of relating! The “I-Thou” relation is a higher one but it cannot be the regular, everyday one, not even with those with whom we have “I-Thou” experiences!

    Reply
    • Roger Allen

      Thanks for your comment, Brigid. I agree that we cannot characterize “I-It” as “wrong.” We don’t always relate to others from “I-Thou.” So “I-It” is an inevitable way of relating. Most important is becoming more aware of how we’re relating to our spouse (and others). Perhaps over time we can learn to view and interact from an “I-Thou” perspective more often. But in reality, particularly in day-to-day transactional interactions, we’re going to come from an “I-It” perspective.

      Reply

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