Relationships are complicated and messy. They require commitment, work, and imagination. If I had to summarize neatly what strengthens relationships and what breaks them, however, I would put it in this most basic framework: for me to be in healthy relationship with you requires that I am involved and you are involved. In other words, the strength of a relationship depends on how much each party is truly present to the others and truly acknowledged by the others.
Martin Buber, the early twentieth century Austrian Jewish philosopher, is most famous for his writings on “I-Thou” or “subject to subject” relationships, those sacred connections in which each party is recognized fully and simply for who they are. This is opposed to the “subject to object” relationship in which one party’s worth is reduced for the pleasure or expediency of the other.
There are two ways to break a relationship. One way is to dismiss, ignore, or trivialize the other. When you don’t listen to the needs, the hopes, the ideas, the concerns, the “whatever” of another—when you don’t acknowledge or validate them—then you are shutting out who they are. This isn’t about avoiding disagreements, because disagreements and even conflict can be healthy. This is about the myriad of ways, sometimes big but often subtle, that we keep another from fully “showing up” in the relationship or we ignore them when they do.
Whether we don’t practice good listening, we demonstrate lack of empathy, we act to control decisions, or fight to have the last word, we are quite skillful in reducing the thou part of an I-thou relationship. At the risk of oversimplifying, any posture, word, or action which diminishes the thou of someone else will ultimately weaken and often break down a relationship.
Equally harmful is reducing the I part of a relationship. We loosen the bonds of love when we don’t bring ourselves fully to the table. For whatever reason—perhaps we’ve been dismissed and hurt before, perhaps we are afraid of conflict, or perhaps we simply don’t want to put the work in—we hide our needs, our hopes, our thoughts, our feelings, our whatever from those with whom we relate. Perhaps we don’t even acknowledge these inner longings to ourselves, and our lack of self-awareness reduces what we are able to offer others in relationship.
While self-sacrifice can be good and godly, ignoring or diminishing our self-worth (and our needs, thoughts, feelings, etc.) in the name of self-sacrifice or self-denial rarely brings about the type of healthy relationships fit for Beloved Community. The Great Commandment teaches us to “love our neighbor as ourselves” not “love our neighbor instead of ourselves”.
Many of us are perhaps more skillful at reducing our role in relationships than we are at dismissing the other. The short-term effect may seem noble, but in the long-term, we often end up nurturing our own bitterness and we sell others short by keeping the gift of ourselves hidden from them.
Of course, there are some caveats. First of all, healthy relationships adapt from situation to situation. Therefore, forcing every moment, every decision, and every result to be completely mutual, 50/50, is not the goal. Healthy I-Thou relationships ebb and flow in terms of who gives more, who leads, and so forth. Even if there is a 50/50 split in responsibility and results, allowing for each party to bring their “true selves” will no doubt result in qualitatively different roles, responsibilities, gifts, and perspectives.
On that note, we must acknowledge that there are simply some relationships that, while helpful and meaningful, are simply not mutual. We don’t aspire imbalance with our deepest, most intimate loved ones, but this does apply to a wide variety of human interactions that still enrich life. Hopefully it’s obvious that the ways we bring ourselves to a counseling session, a confession with a priest, a doctor’s visit, a business transaction, or a panhandling encounter will require that we “show up” and allow the other to “show up” differently than, say, would happen with a spouse or best friend. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to recognize the I-Thou in every interaction. What a beautiful goal. It just means that practically, we will approach I-Thou in more constrained ways with numerous daily encounters.
So, if we wish to strengthen our relationships, we must embrace those postures, words, and actions that invite another to be fully present and acknowledged. We must listen. We must encourage. We must validate. We must show empathy. We must seek input. And so forth.
At the same time, we must offer ourselves to another. We must bravely and vulnerably step forward with our wishes, our hopes, our hurts, our struggles, and our opinions. We must strive to ask for and offer forgiveness. We must recognize the sacredness in just “showing up”—our own presence and the presence of the other.