While there are many aspects that go into cultivating loving relationships (with intimate others, parents, children, friends, etc.), perhaps one of the most significant is our habitual way of experiencing those around us.
Martin Buber describes two different kinds of relationships: I-It and I-Thou. In an I-It relationship, we experience the other in a utilitarian kind of way. The other is experienced either as offering something beneficial, which I grasp for; or it stands in the way of what I want, which I resist; or it does neither, in which case I ignore it. I might look at a tree, and simply see it for the shade it might offer me, or how it stands in my path, or how it is irrelevant to whatever my current goals are.
In the same way, we can see the people in our lives in a utilitarian way as well. I might spend a lot of time considering whether they give me what I need. If I see my child as a reflection of myself, then when he or she acts in a way I would not, I might overly punish or correct. If I have a hard time cultivating love for myself, I might look to an intimate other to provide that for me, grasping for affection and putting a strain on the relationship. Both of these are examples of I-It relationships with people in our lives.
In an I-Thou relationship, we see the full being before us. We understand their hopes and fears and needs, the ways they have suffered in life, the gifts they bring. We let go of trying to get something from them and appreciate them just as they are. In this way, there is more joy, more presence, more intimacy in the relationship. In order to cultivate more of an I-Thou relationship, we develop more of a sense of self-sufficiency, getting our own needs met as best we can.
No relationship is entire I-It or I-Thou. As we grow more mindful, we can practice shifting the balance of the relationship from I-It toward I-Thou.
Stan and his partner Nancy Brutsché will be offering a Mindful Relationships Weekend Retreat August 30–September 1. Registration is through IMCW.