Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

I, Thou, and We: A Dialogical Approach to Couples Therapy

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

I, Thou, and We: A Dialogical Approach to Couples Therapy

Article excerpt

This paper examines the relational view of the person in Martin Buber's philosophy of dialogue. Shifts toward the relational are considered in the context of human development, gender studies, psychotherapy, and family therapy. A dialogical approach to couples therapy is presented, in which partners are encouraged to move toward a more collaborative, empathic relationships relationship of "I and Thou."

The inmost growth of the self is not accomplished, as people like to suppose today, in ... relation to [oneself], but in the relation between the one and the other... Secretly and bashfully [a person] watches for a Yes which allows [one] to be and which can come . . . only from one human person to another. It is from one [person] to another that the heavenly bread of self-being is passed. (Buber, 1965a, p. 71)'

The dialogical philosophy of Martin Buber poses a relational view of the person. His vision, though formulated decades ago, is remarkably resonant with current voices in family therapy and other fields, which are reformulating fundamental assumptions about personhood and therapy. Within family therapy, psychoanalysis, human development, and gender studies, traditional notions of the self are being challenged. In multiple contexts of research and theory, older ideas about independence and separation-individuation are giving way to a view of the person in more relational, interdependent terms. This paper will consider this shift through the lens of Buber's philosophy of dialogue, and then present clinical applications specifically to couples therapy.


Martin Buber's philosophy of dialogue constituted a radical departure from the psychoanalytic view of the individual prevalent at the time he wrote. Buber stressed the relational potential of persons in his articulation of the I-Thou (or I-You) relationship; he contrasted this with the more utilitarian I-It relationship in which ego and self-interest dominate:

The I of the basic word I-You is different from that of the basic word I-It. The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego.... The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person.... Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons. (Buber, 1970, pp. 111-112)

In Buber's view, the I-It mode entails seeing the other through the lens of one's own needs or distortions. This can take the form of business deals or functional relationships. More insidiously, I-It can take the form of abusive or exploitive relationships, in which the other is dealt with on the basis of desires and projections, regardless of the damage done to the other. Buber understood that there is a time and a place for the I-It, or "ego," mode of relating; it would be inefficient and cumbersome if every human transaction were loaded with the demands of I-Thou, of dealing with others in terms of the fullness of their own selves. However, he also points to the dangerous consequences of neglecting the I-Thou and relating to others only in the I-It mode. The I-It mode is utilitarian and self-focused, and the danger is that one can deny or obliterate the humanity of the other.

In the I-Thou mode, the individual is aware of the full, irreducible otherness of the partner in dialogue. While I-It is characterized by static relations ("Verhaltnis" in German), the term Buber uses for "relational" ("Beziehung") in the I-Thou mode suggests a dynamic, mutual quality (Mendes-Flohr, 1996 personal commun ication). Buber considers the dialogical space that is opened when persons relate to each other in I-Thou terms: The "meaning is to be found neither in one of the two partners nor in both together, but only in their dialogue itself, in this 'between' which they live together" (Buber, 1965a, p. 75). Buber defines the "between" as the intersubjective or "interhuman" sphere, the space where two individuals meet. …

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