The I-You-We Approach to Relationships
There are three main ingredients in any relationship, namely “I” (myself), “You” (the other person), and “We” (the combination of “I” and “You”). People tend to focus on one of these three elements, somewhat on a second item, and much less on the third item. This discussion is intended to shed some light on some of the ways people engage in looking at a relationship. Depending on how a person starts this process of examining and establishing a relationship determines how s/he approaches this very basic element of human existence: relationship. Before we examine the differences between the “I”-first approach, the “You”-first approach, and the “We first approach, we need to discuss this murky word “relationship” because there is no consistent understanding of what this word means, much less how a relationship unfolds, improves, or deteriorates.
I should start by acknowledging that I am an “I”-first person because readers need to be aware of how I see relationships, but we will discuss this in a moment. I mention the fact that I am an “I”-first person because all writing has an important autobiographical element to it, however esoteric or scientific the writer might be. I mention this personal orientation to understanding what a relationship is because I actually recall a time when the word “relationship” became popular, namely in the 1960’s, largely in the later 60’s, about the time I was in graduate school studying psychology. I vividly remember hearing my wife (at the time) and the marital therapist we were seeing at the time used the term “relationship” as if it was clear what that word meant. I recall saying, “What is this thing you are calling a relationship?” to the therapist.” I also recall his disbelief that the word had very little meaning to me because it was so clear to him. He was, by the way a “We”-first person, and recall that I am an “I”-first person. .Since this word “relationship” has been so frequently used over the recent 50 years, it might come as a surprise to many people that this word, as well as the concept underneath the word, did not exist in the field of psychology and in popular literature until the late 60’s.
A bit of history
A review of the literature over the past 60 years or so will discover that the use of the word relationship accelerated in the 70’s and beyond to the point that it is now a central concept in clinical psychology and in most people’s day-to-day vocabulary. I mention this entomology of “relationship” because I am somewhat suspect of how frequently the world is used today, often without much understanding of the very nature of how people seek to relate to one another. Furthermore, many elements of our current culture are replete with references to “relationship” as if this word, and the concept under the word, had an exact and universal definition. The church I attend has as its motto: “…to build a relationship to God.” Now, I ask you, what does “building a relationship with God” mean to you, to me, and to everyone else? Something quite different, I suspect. I don’t want to disregard the essence of a relationship because I agree that the concept is dreadfully important. My interest in this discussion is to examine some ways that people see the essence of a relationship and how the differences in how people understand the concept of a relationship can create a myriad of successes and an equal amount of failures as they seek to “relate” to one another.
What are the possibilities?
So let me set the stage for this “I-You-We” discussion. As briefly noted above, people tend to have a predominance of one of these items in how the form a relationship. If you had a bit of advanced math, you know that there are six permutations, which is to say there are six possible arrangements of the three items. (Just for fun for folks who like such things, we arrive at this with the formula P = 3x2x1 = 6.). So these possibilities include three each that begin with one of the three items:
- I-You-We and I-We-You
- You-I-We and You-We-I
- We-You-I and We-I-You
Think of these possibilities as a way people engage someone else. I-first people begin a relationship with the perspective of who they are, and perhaps what they feel, think or do. You-first people begin a relationship with the perspective of examining who the other person is. We-first people look at who the two people are together. Right off the bat, I suspect, I have lost some of you possibly because two of these possibilities makes no sense. For instance, We-first people might think something like, “A relationship is two people together, not so much one person and another person. Obviously a relationship is what happens between two (or more) people.” I-first and You-first people might vociferously differ from this perspective. I-first people might say, “Well, you have to have an I before you have a We, right?” You-first people could say, “If you’re going to have a relationship with someone, you have to know who that person is, what s/he thinks, feels, and does. Only then can you relate to that person.” Sound familiar? Do you find yourself saying one of these things? The reaction you have might suggest to which camp you might belong.
I will take the liberty of looking at three (of the six) possibilities (“permutations”) to focus on who people begin the process of relating:
- I-first people would seem to have the more rational approach to a relationship. They simply think that “relating” to someone begins with one feels, thinks, or does. Then, they go into the You and We parts of a relationship depending on their next preference. I think that most I-first people think of the You part next, but that suggestion may simply be a projection of how I go about relating to someone. I tend to speak first, listen second, and then occasionally try to find some commonality between the other person and me. The I-first people I have known tend to favor the I-You-We formula of relating.
- You-first people operate quite differently, and the key to their way of relating is in the format they use to relate. They ask questions. Their perspective is, “If I can understand the other person, I can then have an opportunity of relating to that person.” They then try to fit in, agree with, or sometimes carefully challenge the other person. But the heart of their relating is in the focus they have, namely how the other person thinks, feels, or acts. The You-first people, tend to be You-I-We in orientation to relationships.
- We-first people are different yet in their seeking a relationship. They do not actually spend much time assessing of what they think, feel, or do, nor do they think much about what the other person thinks, feels, or does. Rather, they think that everyone approaches the matter of relationship as they do because they are so oriented to the We part of a relationship. So, they may talk (like I-first people) or ask questions (like You-first people). More often, however, they will just “feel” their way into a relationship or a conversation. So they will say, “It feels right” or “It feels wrong.” This “feeling” of right or wrong is tantamount to feeling “connected” or disconnected, words that we will discuss in a moment. The We-first people I have known tend to have the We-You-I orientation predominantly.
The strengths of these three orientations
- We-first people seem to have the inside track of the whole business of relationship. They certainly use the term “relationship” more frequently and are on the lookout for how they “feel” with someone almost all the time. I think of these folks as having the “lover” temperament that I have written about. Lovers are those who look for “connections” with other people. I am reminded of an old friend who once said that every morning he would think about how he could “connect” with someone, and then go about his day looking for these connections. Another We-first person has fallen in love with my suggestion that his orientation is about connecting to someone, and it has given him the freedom to see that he is seeking reciprocal love with any and all people he knows, most specifically his wife (who happens to be an I-first person).
- I-first people, like myself (and my wife) are much more inclined to make statements and declare ourselves (what we think, feel, and do) as a way of establishing a relationship. The underlying operation is something like, “I will give person A the opportunity of knowing me so s/he can decide whether I am a person who they might want to relate to.” The basic strength of us folks is that we know where we stand, what we believe in, what we have done, and the like. We assume (often mistakenly) that everyone else knows where they stand on things.
- You-first people are yet different from I-first and You-first people mostly distinguished by their tendencies to ask questions of people, quite contrary to the I-first people who make statements of themselves. The gift these people have is a more genuine interest in other people than in themselves or even in a relationship that might ensue. We might suggest that they love people best, whereas I-first people love themselves best, and We-first people love the connection between people best.
The opportunities of these three orientations
- We-first people are the best at knowing this vague thing we call a relationship because they understand the spiritual nature of a connection between two (or more) people. They “feel” something or the lack of it, and that “something” cannot be defined, just as a relationship cannot be defined. These folks are the best at cooperation, agreement, and common purpose. They make the best negotiators, for instance, because they give each party opportunity to speak while focusing on how the two (or more) people can find common ground and eventually common purpose and procedure.
- I-first people are best as stating themselves. They simply state what they know or believe, or have done, and less so what they feel emotionally. You can trust these people most because they have the most established ways of saying what they believe, feel, or have done. They give the other person the opportunity of knowing who they are with the expectation that the other person will then return the favor. I-first people tend to be better at admitting to error than the other two types.
- You-first people are best at understanding other people. As noted, they ask questions, and often questions upon questions with the primary intent of understanding the other person, and often know more about the other person, perhaps even more than the other person knows about his/herself. You-first people can put other people at ease and give them room to talk about themselves, something that is quite lacking in most social encounters when most people are looking for air time to talk about themselves.
The challenges of these three orientations
- All three of these orientations have the intrinsic weakness of thinking that everyone else is just like them, but We-first people are perhaps most inclined to this weakness. When I hear from We-first people (or “lovers”), they always say that the difficulty they have with people is that it isn’t “fair,” which means that they haven’t received the care for the We part of the relationship. So, they think that I-first people are selfish and You-first people don’t say anything about themselves. We-first people often get lost in their relationships and lack a sense of You and I in favor of their constant looking for We. Then, they tend to get angry or critical, which is quite opposite to their true nature of loving and connecting.
- I-first people are the most inclined of the three orientations to be self-centered. Because they so often know what they think, feel, and do, they tend to dominate relationships by talking about themselves, erroneously believing other people will do the same. With few exceptions I-first people do not grasp the “connection” nature that is so central to We-first people.
- You-first people often lack a sense of self. This is because they are so focused on other people that they have not found time, interest, and ability to develop a sense of what they think, feel, and do. This “getting lost” in someone else is easy for them because they are so intrinsically interested (and loving of) other people, that they have not sufficiently established a true understanding and love of themselves, which sometimes feels to them as “selfish.”
The challenges and opportunities for all orientations
- In all cases, and with all people, there is a necessity of growing beyond one’s basic nature. Importantly, however, one needs to know, value, and operate with one’s basic nature before s/he can grow beyond this nature. Carl Jung and many other classic psychologists and psychological theorists have suggested that this growing, or what we might call maturity, occurs later in life, rarely before age 50, and sometimes never at all. If one does not mature beyond his/her nature, that person will fall prey to becoming postured in one’s basic nature feeling the centrality of this nature. This amounts to being defensive, and it is a sticky thing to feel and observe because there is nothing wrong with one’s basic nature, but one’s basic nature is quite clearly not sufficient to pursue life successfully.
- A second danger for all three orientations is that the secondary and tertiary elements in a relationship tend to be undeveloped, and hence immature. This means that I-first people end up being critical of other people (the You part) and dismiss the We part altogether. We-first people think only of connecting, but then their undeveloped I often comes up immaturely and ends up demanding or yelling. You-first people tend to fail in knowing and valuing themselves as much as they value others, and fall into a kind of hopelessness of knowing about others but not themselves.
- However good it is for We-first people to love and connect, it is not good enough. They have to develop the I and the You to be mature and find success in life and in relationships. The so-called “co-dependent” relationships (not a term a really like, however), are often made up on one We-first person and an I-first person, or even more dangerous, both people being We-first people who don’t know who they are.
- I-first people have to come to grips with the necessity of the connection that We-first people know and love and find ways to find this spiritual connection and value it. They also need to find the absolute necessity of knowing other people as well as they know themselves. Otherwise, they will end up postured in “knowing what I think, feel, and do” and not knowing much else.
- You-first people most specifically need to find the I part of life. Because they are so intrinsically interested in other people, and because there are always other people to examine, understand, and even love, they often fail to have a sense of who they are. They can speak fluently about what someone else thinks, feels, or does, but have greater difficulty saying what they think, feel, or do.
- In all three cases there is a seduction of one of these three natures:
- I-first people are seduced by their own existence
- You-first people are seduced by others’ existence
- We-first people are seduced by the connections that they have…or don’t have
I suggest you find yourself in one of these three orientations and then examine other the people in your life, like friends and family members. Then just get some good psychotherapy, which ideally helps you see what is good about you first, and then how to add to that goodness.