happy multiracial friends embracing on bench after playing basketball

An Introduction to the I-Thou Relationship

In my research, I was happy to stumble upon this concept of I and thou from German theologian Martin Buber and his book Ich and Du which is translated to I and You. The book’s idea initially comes from an idea of how to communicate. With this idea, Buber believes that we shouldn’t root our communication on the level of the individual, but on the relationship between two people or things.

There are two ways people can relate to each other. Buber describes them as I-Thou, and I-It. In an I-Thou relationship, all parties have an awareness of interconnectedness. It’s the same type of relationship we look to create in the pages of this book. In contrast, the I-It relationship is more transactional, meaning we can’t relate if you don’t offer me any value. Something we’re much more used to.

The I-Thou relationship meets on the principle of acceptance. I relate with you for who you are, not for who I expect you to be. There’s nothing that I want from you and there’s nothing that you want for me. We only connect because it’s natural. When two or more people gather in a way that is authentic, true love can be found. It’s simply what we’re supposed to do. We show up for each other in a way that allows us to genuinely be interested in the experience of others while being transparent about our own. This makes for wonderful friendships, work relationships, and relationships with loved ones.

Buber believed that the I-Thou relationship is hugely important because this type of relationship allows us to be fully human. I tend to agree. The usage of the pronoun Thou comes with prestige. It’s the same pronoun used for God in the Bible. It’s used in the fancy English William Shakespeare used in his literature. As I see myself in you, I hold you in high regard because I hold myself in high regard. Sure we might have our own personalities and our own styles, but we know that these things are meaningless in comparison to the inherent connection that we have.


As you can imagine, I-It is much different. The It within this relationship is seen as an object to be used. I’d have to reluctantly say that this feels like my relationships in my work experience. It felt like I was only used for my output. I’ve had a manager tell me the importance of “growing relationships” so that I can use them for the things I need to do. It felt like the relationships I would build in a few of the companies that I worked for were only a means to an end. The sad part is that a relationship like this in the corporate world is the norm.

When a company culture is prioritized on performance, this is the type of relationship that you can expect. It’s efficient. I start my communication off with a greeting to let you know that I’m friendly and then I ask you to do something for me. Done and done. It’s the type of relationship that lacks vulnerability. Get ready for the I-It relationship in a culture where vulnerability is seen as a weakness.

Outside of the office, the I-It relationship can be formed through the othering of another person or group of people. When you see someone as separate, you start to dehumanize a person, making it easy to berate. It was easy to hate Trump supporters when Hilary Clinton called his supporters “deplorables” in 2016. That might have been the exact moment when support grew for President Donald Trump as people took to that label with pride in an us vs. them battle that is the nature of politics. when we dehumanize people by objectifying them we make it easier to marginalize them. We make it easier to destroy someone’s land in the name of an idea like Manifest Destiny. It makes it easier to buy and sell people and see them only as property. It’s easier to treat an entire gender as objects of pleasure and baby-making.


As we talked about earlier, our entire existence is dependent on the person next to us. As the Internet continues to grow our social circles, we can now be influenced by a person thousands of miles away from us. The truth is, we need each other. That also means that we need the love and care of each other even if our egos won’t allow it. Buber gives a wonderful practice on how to create more I-Thou relationships. He calls it confirmation. Confirmation is just another word for acceptance. In this, we confirm others as they are while also being confirmed as we are. That means no conditions to this relationship, no obligations, and no expectations. Confirmation is the meeting between two individuals who see the other in a way of unconditional love.

Confirmation is very difficult and those who try to practice it will eventually fail. There’s too much of a negative force that allows us to forget our interconnectedness. There are plenty of instances today in which I have to remind myself that I and the person who just irritated me are still one. Instead of separating myself from this person by saying, “I would never do the thing this person did to me. How dare they? Who do they think they are?”, I should still accept them for who they truly are and not this instance which holds no meaning. The same confirmation should go to service workers, the homeless and unhoused, anyone with any physical or mental differences, and just about anyone else with ideas that we disagree with. Mutual treatment of someone in high regard is the only true way to grow authentic relationships.


What happens if you don’t naturally feel connected to another person? There’s another tool Buber calls inclusion. As we know, empathy is putting yourself in the other’s shoes while trying to understand one’s thoughts and feelings. Here we are getting deeper than the superficial compliment of what we can see, but going deeper into true knowing. Yet again, something that requires vulnerability. As two or more people gain deeper knowledge of each other, they start to co-create a relationship that is dependent on the other to stay alive. A nominal example of this is the inside joke. It could be something as joyous as a joke or something even deeper that allows me to be more included in your life. It’s the time inclusion we’d like to see in our romantic relationships. Why can’t we have this in all of our relationships?