6 Kinds of Relationship

I’ve been reading Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou) lately. In the introduction, Walter Kaufman expands on (I assume this is an expansion since I haven’t finished the book yet!) Buber’s analysis and presents 6 kinds of relationship. It’s an interesting exercise to consider what kinds of relationships you tend towards.

  1. I-I
    I-I relationships are severely lacking in someone else. Such people are narcissists, but we all land here sometimes. We ever and always turn conversations back to being about us. We use others as audiences rather than as people. We need so much that we can’t help but draw from the other without even realizing it. This is a relationship with yourself.
  2. I-It
    Kaufman argues that we can’t really relate to things this way all the time, but still  do so regularly.  It can sometimes feel like it’s all the time, though. Here, we use the other person, but we’re not ignoring them. There’s an acknowledgement that they have their own needs and feelings and desires and thoughts, but we’re sort of studying them or trying to get something from them. I think we tend to relate to grocery store cashiers this way, not to mention the television.
  3. It-It
    The I in this relationship has sort of disappeared. We are so engrossed in whatever we’re studying or focused on that we are, in a strange way, no longer part of the picture. Scholars can live here, I think. We whip up a batch of flubber while forgetting our wedding…
  4. We-We
    There is no I in this relationship either. There is only the group. Kaufman argues that this is a rather immature perspective because we have not learned (or are unable or unwilling) to differentiate ourselves as individuals. This is an unhealthy sort of communism (if there is a healthy version) where persons are not allowed, but only groups.
  5. Us-Them
    I wrote on this recently, and I’m not sure too much more needs to be said. This is we-we thinking, but with an enemy to point to as scapegoat and nemesis. We seek others who can be and represent evil for us so that we do not have to acknowledge it in ourselves.
  6. I-You
    This, argues Buber, is the only true relationship. It is the only place where life truly happens. It is the only place where growth, transformation, and love can happen. “As iron sharpens iron,” it is a place where I is affected by You and You is affected by I. There is no analysis, no study here, since once you do that, you’ve stepped away from the You. This is relationship in its purest form where whole persons are shared. I-You is the only true way of being human and allowing the other to be human, together.

My wife hinted at this the other day, but it wasn’t until more recently as I rode the subway home and allowed myself to be present to God without expecting or demanding so much that I realized that I think I’ve been relating to Him in an I-It fashion for a while. I wasn’t allowing Him to affect me, in part because I’ve been feeling so much lately that I’ve needed so much. I expected Him to help me, and He didn’t seem to. I cried out, not in humility, but in frustration for Him to change things. God was not a You to me, but an It.

Kind of sad for me.

Not that it’s a permanent problem or loss, but given all that I’m feeling and the frustrations that I’m working through, it’s admittedly hard to relate to God as a You instead of an It. It’s hard to let God affect me in ways that I might not want or like. In fact, it honestly feels like that’s been par for the course for a while, and I think my kneejerk reaction has been to try to make it stop, pushing it, and thereby Him, away. It’s hard to allow myself to be changed when I feel like the process has been kind of a battering lately.

But it is where life happens.

How’ve you been relating to God lately?

Other Trails to Follow:
Expectation and Experience
Experience and Expectations


2 responses

  1. Dave

    Interesting stuff. I have long been intrigued by this book. I have a tendency to try and reduce relationships to “it” and sometimes even myself. My past confirms to me that growth and transformation only really take place in the context of “I-You” relationships.

    I am glad that Sarah and I will soon (hopefully) end what has been an extended transitional period in our lives and settle into a deeper relationship with one another and find a local community to be in relationship with.


    September 21, 2011 at 1:23 am

    • It’s amazing how easy it is to turn people or God into an It. I think it’s both habitual and defensive. We keep potentially dangerous others (or even ourselves) at bay, and then we forget to stop. Maybe we even forget how to stop. Glad you’re getting the chance to build some relationships to be I-You with.

      September 25, 2011 at 4:31 pm

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