Is Your Marriage Alive or Dead?

I have attempted and failed twice to read “I and Thou,” a classic work by Martin Buber. When I first looked for a copy of the book in 1999, a therapist recommended it to me. I gave up after struggling through the first ten pages the second time. It remained unread on the shelf for years, just like all the most significant books I’ve ever read. It worked the third time around. I’m okay with it as it took me five hours to read Part I’s fifty pages.

Even in its original German, Buber’s writing appears to be obscure and difficult to comprehend, but after a while, one manages to decipher a significant meaning.

This is how I understand it. It’s not my claim that this is the right interpretation. It might be seriously defective or even entirely false. It’s just how I see it, and how it can alter your life, especially your marriage or sexual connection.

Two ways of being

According to Buber, there are two basic attitudes, or approaches, that we can take to the world and life. The worlds of “It” and “You” are relatable to us. The term “I-It” or “I-You” describes these kinds of connections.

The I-It universe is basic, necessary, constrained, and tangible. It is the realm of everyday existence. In our daily lives, most things and people are related to us in an I-it connection. We are in a I-It relationship with the person we are speaking with, for instance, when we are having a conversation that has a purpose, like deciding what to have for dinner. We have “experiences” in these connections. Here, we have thoughts, feelings, and sensations. In the I-It world, we connect, imagine, and make decisions all day long. This makes up a major portion of our existence as humans.

But if that’s all we do, then we’ve just been spectators, and we’ve deprived ourselves of the greatest aspect of being human. “If you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness,” according to Buber.

The encounter: Where the magic happens

On the other hand, you have a “encounter” rather than a “experience” in the I-You interaction. A person has experiences, but an encounter occurs when two individuals come into contact (or between a person and nature, or a person and the divine). It is reciprocal and interactive. Without everyone’s complete presence and engagement, it cannot take place. This style of contact is “all-in.” There are barriers, remoteness, and distance in the I-it world. We are unprotected and the relationship is unmediated in the I-You reality.

An encounter takes place outside of the regular world. It’s fleeting, everlasting, and incomprehensible. Buber frequently refers to it as a “confrontation,” suggesting that it’s a risk and a challenge rather than something simple. The I-It world, in contrast, is routine, secure, and predictable.

An experience transforms you. Actually, it’s the route to realizing who you really are. You are only aware of yourself as an It without the encounter. However, as you experience interaction after encounter, you become increasingly fully conscious of who you really are and increasingly totally alive.

He asserts that encounters occur by grace and cannot be forced to happen.

I think Adrienne Rich, the poet, is talking about the encounter zone:

Potential Immigration Kindly Take Note

You have two options: you will enter through this door or you won’t.

You always run the risk of recalling your name if you proceed.

Things stare at you twice, so you have to turn around and let them happen.

It is possible to live honorably, to uphold your beliefs, to hang onto your position, and even to die valiantly if you do not go through, but a lot will blind you and a lot will elude you—at what cost, who knows?

The door does not offer any guarantees.

It is only a door.

Here’s an even simpler example of my mantra that happens to be one of my favorites. The magic happens in the I-You relationship.

What is the point, then?

The lesson from Buber is that although we can gather “experiences” and value them highly, experience is really a cheap commodity. “All of real life is experience.” I adore real life in its entirety. We can continue to convince ourselves that life is nothing more than a series of ordinary experiences. And we frequently enjoy doing so since it’s simpler, safer, and more predictable that way. It is a means of reducing anguish and agony. However, real life is those times when we take a chance and something incredible happens—the chance of letting go, the danger of submitting into nothingness, the risk of developing a close relationship with someone.

People who have experienced nature report having fleeting moments when they sense that everything is connected and that everything is one. People who experience music report feeling suspended between worlds, timelessness, and unity with the music. When we interact with others, we see them for who they truly are, and they see us.

“I see and honor the divine in you as well as in myself,” says Namaste. We feel as though we have peered into each other’s souls, and we connect with what we see.

These experiences collectively, when I reflect on my own life, form the basis of what has given my life purpose. They are what keep me going during the difficult times and remind me that life is wonderful, even at its most repulsive moments. They are the reason I feel as though I can pass away and it won’t matter since I have lived.

Living in a married relationship

Buber’s marriage served as a lens through which to view all of this. How does an encounter appear in a married relationship? I’ve been researching a woman who has turned her 51-year marriage into a living laboratory for this. She is a master at setting up situations where two people are most likely to meet and be granted a meeting by grace.

Hedy Schleifer is her name. You can view her TED talk and search for her online. Together, you can engage in encounter-centered couples therapy. Your marriage will change if you do.

In a few words, I cannot do her work justice. But I will tell you this: the next time you encounter an issue in your relationship that causes you frustration, disappointment, or a “problem” (I put “problem” in quotes because there are never problems, always chances)…How are you going to respond?

Will you appear or will you remain hidden? Will you arrive with openness, inquiry, appreciation, and kindness toward your partner’s uniqueness? Or are you going to duck behind insults, rage, or guilt? Will you risk a potential encounter by giving your all in the here and now? Or are you going to hide in the It world behind your story that only exists in the past?

“One has feelings, but love occurs,” asserts Buber. It takes place between You and Me. Magic happens when both of us fully present ourselves in the here and now, when we are honest and genuine, when we take the chance to speak the truth, and when we perceive each other as complete people. Love is real. “Love is between I and You; it does not cling to an I.” Love exists in the I-You world, not the I-It one. Real love is not the same as what we commonly refer to as love. Genuine love is not for the weak of heart.

“You are the butterfly, and I am the chrysalis.” Will you allow yourself to be vulnerable and come out of your shell in order to have a meeting and bring your marriage to life?