Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mona DeKoven Fishbane - I, thou, and we: A dialogical approach to couples therapy

Couples therapy is one of my areas of interest as I move forward with my psychology education. This looks like one of many novel approaches that could be useful. The article is from The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Jan 1998.

I, thou, and we: A dialogical approach to couples therapy

Fishbane, Mona DeKoven

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 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. He differentiates the interhuman from the psychological, which is more concerned with the experience of the individual self. He also differentiates the interhuman from the social, which is broader and includes casual affiliation between people.

Buber wrote extensively on the dialogical or I-Thou as it is manifest in different kinds of relationships: between lovers, between teacher and student, between therapist and patient. He considers the consequences for each of these relationships when there are moments of "mismeeting" (Buber, 1973, p. 18), failures of empathy or connection. Buber relates that he began formulating his philosophy of dialogue after a moment of mismeeting between himself and a student, in which Buber was distracted and not fully attentive; the student soon thereafter was killed in World War I, and Buber was acutely aware of guilt over his lack of full presentness in their brief meeting.


An individual is just a certain uniqueness of a human being.... He [or she] may become more and more an individual without becoming more and more human .... But a person, I would say, is an individual living really with the world. And with the world, I don't mean in the world-just in real contact... I'm against individuals and for persons. (Buber, 1965a, p. 184)

Buber's notion of "person," as opposed to "ego" or "individual," challenges the American cultural definition of person. Two of our most cherished American values, individualism and competition, meet Buber's criteria for ego, but not for person. Our notions about competition are based in a zero-sum game and a "power over" model (Goodrich, 1991; Surrrey, 1991a). The myth of the rugged individualist is at the heart of American culture; it is buttressed by the psychoanalytic emphasis on separation-individuation. Critics of this myth suggest that we have gone to such extremes toward individualism that we have lost touch with the communal and the interpersonal, resulting in fragmentation and alienation (Bellah et al., 1985; Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner, 1980; Doherty,1995; Inger & Inger,1994). Buber worried about "the modern variety of individualism . . . the tendency toward the primacy of the individual existence and toward its self-glorification" (1965a, p. 97).

Read the rest of the article.

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