One Psychologist’s Opinion: Martin Buber Explained Relationships

By Karen Glick

When I was a sophomore in high school, I stumbled upon a book that would prove to have a lasting effect on the way I view the world and my relationships, I and Thou by Martin Buber. I don’t remember how I came across this book; possibly I was under the influence of my older brother who was attending Columbia University at the time. All I know is that something within me resonated with the ideas in the book and still finds truth within Buber’s writings today.

Buber proposed that people can only relate to nature, or each other in one of two ways: I-It or I-Thou. I-It relationships are rooted in time and space and comprise our experience of the other in a tangible way. For example, I could describe my husband as a 5 foot, 11 inch man with blue-gray eyes and a wide grin. Or I could describe my dog,Luna, as a small, black, white, and tan animal with large brown eyes and a perennially- wagging tail. In using such physical descriptions, I am experiencing both of them as objects of my affection, an I-It relationship.My perception of them emerges from the way they affect my limited experience.

It is more difficult to describe the I-Thou relationship since by its very nature, it is ineffable. It is unlimited in time and space and consists of the total connection between my essence and the essential nature of the other. This type of connection resembles the ultimate relationship between a mystic and the Divine. An I- Thou encounter cannot be contained within our usual experience of time, because once the interaction is relegated to a memory in the past or to an anticipation of the future, I will have limited the other person to either my ability to encode the relationship, a finite enterprise at best given my memory, or to expectations I impose on the other for the future. My ability to experience my loved one is strongly influenced by my own limitations. Although I-Thou relationships can only exist in the present, the present is always with us, and the relationship brings with it a flavor of the infinite, an experience existing outside of time. Buber states that this relationship allows us a “glimpse into eternity.” Amazing that we could do that for each other!

So, how can the I-Thou relationship affect our friendships or our love for others? I feel that the recognition that each person has an eternal, unlimited potential that can interact with our own potential has to elevate our connections. The I-Thou relationship may explain how we can love each other, sometimes in spite of short-term arguments or anger. Realizing that the person we love may delight or irritate us is an I-It experience, and Buber states that we are all capable of more. True, our daily interactions must take place in the time-space continuum and we can get immersed in arguments about whose turn it is to walk the dog or why we flirted at a party. Our relationship becomes astronomically more meaningful when we can still honor the infinite in our loved one. Perhaps we can feel that best when our heart speaks to the other wordlessly and we know that the other truly “gets” us in spite of petty issues. This infrequent but awesome transcendence may even make it possible for us to deal with each other through all of the stressors that will accompany us through our lives. As Buber wrote, “Without I-It, man cannot live. But he who lives with I-It alone is not a man.”

Karen Glick is a clinical psychologist who lives outside of Philadelphia. Her novel, Questions in the Silence is available at Follow Karen on her website – [].

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