Interpersonal Communication

Relationships and Social Exchange

Relational Dialectics

Relational dialectics is a communication theory. The theory could be interpreted as "a knot of contradictions in personal relationships or an unceasing interplay between contrary or opposing tendencies."[1] The theory, first proposed respectively by Leslie Baxter[2] and W. K. Rawlins[3][4] in 1988, defines communication patterns between relationship partners as the result of endemic dialectical tensions. In their description of Relational Dialectics, Leslie A. Baxter and Barbara M. Montgomery simplify the concept by posing “opposites attract”, but “birds of a feather flock together”. Also, “Two’s company; three’s a crowd” but “the more the merrier.” These contradictions experienced within common folk proverbs are similar to those we experience within our relationships as individuals.[5] When making decisions, we give voice to multiple viewpoints and desires that often contradict each other.[6]

The Relational Dialectic is an elaboration on Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea that life is an open monologue and humans experience collisions between opposing desires and needs within relational communications.[7] Baxter includes a list of Dialectical Tensions that reminds us that relationships are constantly changing, and that successful and satisfying relationships require constant attention. Although Baxter’s description of Relational Dialectics is thorough, it by no means is exact or all inclusive since we all experience different tensions in different ways.


Relational Dialectics is the emotional and value-based version of the philosophical Dialectic. It is rooted in the dynamism of the Yin and Yang. Like the classic Yin and Yang, the balance of emotional values in a relationship is always in motion, and any value pushed to its extreme contains the seed of its opposite.[8]

In the Western world, these ideas hark back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who held that the world was in constant flux (like fire), with creative and destructive forces on both sides of every process. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian scholar most known for his work in dialogism, applied Marxist dialectic to literary and rhetorical theory and criticism. He illustrated the tensions that exists in the deep structure of all human experience.[9] For example, he identified that the tension that exists between unity and difference. Bakhtin conceived the human dialectic as two forces analogous to the physical forces centripetal (emotional forces tending towards unity) and centrifugal (emotional forces tending towards divergence). Like the Yin and Yang, Bakhtin's forces have no ultimate resolution.[9]

Baxter took the deep structural analysis of Bakhtin and applied it to communication theory. She found a T-Bangha of axes where this dynamic tension operated.[8]Later authors have added other axes.[10]

Core concepts and assumptions

There are four main concepts that form the backdrop of relational dialectics, as well as four major assumptions. Relational Dialectics assumes that "(1.) relationships are not linear, (2.) relational life is characterized by change, (3.) contradiction is the fundamental fact of relational life, and (4.) communication is central to organizing and negotiating relational contradictions".[11]

The four core concepts of relational dialectics include: contradiction, totality, process, and praxis.

Contradictions are the core concept of Relational Dialectics. It is the dynamic interplay between unified oppositions. A contradiction is formed "whenever two tendencies or forces are interdependent (unity) yet mutually negate one another (negation)".[12] For example, in a relationship one can simultaneously desire intimacy and distance.

Totality suggests that contradictions in a relationship are part of a unified whole and cannot be understood in isolation. In other words, the dialectics cannot be separated and are intrinsically related to each other. For example, the tension between dependence and interdependence cannot be separated from the tension between openness and privacy — both work to condition and define the other.

Process Relational dialectics must be understood in terms of social processes. Movement, activity, and change are functional properties (Rawlins,1989). For example, instances such as an individual fluctuating between disclosure and secretiveness. In addition, the individual may move between periods of honest and open communication (Miller, 2002, 2005).

Praxis is a philosophical term for the concept of 'practical behavior' or sometimes 'the experience of practicing'. In praxis the dialectic tensions are created and re-created through the active participation and interaction. In other words, the practical experience of having a relationship exposes one to the imposition of the needs and value of another. As the relationship endures ones own needs and values become apparent. Praxis focuses on the practical choices individuals make in the midst of the opposing needs and values (dialectical tensions). In turn, the choices and actions themselves create, re-create, and change the nature of the relationship and hence the dialectical tensions themselves.

Research has recommended theories which further dialectical understanding in relationships, such as in the marriage, in the workplace, etc. Relational dialectics further includes the idea of Contextual Dialectics, or rather, the idea that every relationship exists within a specific place within a specific culture. From there we also see the raise of public and private/real and ideal dialectics and the interplay between what we see on television in public life, versus what experience within our private lives. Examples of this include politicians as well as TV shows. According to West and Turner, "the tension of the real and ideal dialectic is featured when we think of television shows like Leave It to Beaver: We receive an idealized message of what family life is like, and then when we look at the families we live in, we have to contend with the troublesome realities of family life. The tension between these two images forms this dialectic".[13]


According to the original relational dialectic model, there were many core tensions (opposing values) in any relationship.[6] These are autonomy and connectedness, favoritism and impartiality, openness and closedness, novelty and predictability, instrumentality and affection, and finally, equality and inequality.

Autonomy and connectedness refers to the desire to have ties and connections with others versus the need to separate oneself as a unique individual. An example of autonomy and connectedness would be an athlete, who wants to feel like they are part of a team but also wanting to highlight their individual talents. Favoritism and impartiality refers to the desire to be treated fairly and impartially versus the desire to be seen and known as “special”. For instance, a professor may want to be impartial by creating an attendance policy but makes exceptions for students who participate in class and have good grades, demonstrating favoritism. Openness and closedness refers to the desire to be open and divulge information versus the desire to be exclusive and private. When chatting with a boss about one's weekend, there is the desire to be open, however, closedness is also at play, as certain details are often left out, because of the context. Novelty and predictability suggest that there is a desire for the relationship to be predictable versus the desire for it to be original and new. When creating scheduled meetings for board members, the predictability may lie in a fixed schedule, however the novelty may be in scheduling a varying number of locations to peak interests as well as inspiration. Instrumentality and affection, is the desire for affection to be genuine versus the desire for affection to be motivated by benefits and perceived advantages of the relationship. An example of this would be being in a romantic relationship based on love and affection, but maintaining it for benefits such as financial security. Finally, equality and inequality refers to the desire to be considered as equals versus the desire to develop levels of superiority. A female in the military may seek treatment equivalent to that received by her male colleagues, but requires special barracks and adjusted assignments.[6]

According to the theory, while most of us may embrace the ideals of closeness, certainty, and openness in our relationships, the communication is not a straight path towards these goals. Conflicts often produce the exact opposites.[9]

Internal dialect (within the relationship) External dialect (between couple and community)
Integration–Separation Connection–Autonomy Inclusion–Seclusion
Stability–Change Certainty–Uncertainty Conventionality–Uniqueness
Expression–Nonexpression Openness–Closedness Revelation–Concealment
The table above shows typical dialectical tensions experienced by relational partners based on research done by Baxter and Montgomery showing contrasting efforts in two different ways. The column that displays examples of Internal Dialect shows "ongoing tensions played out within a relationship".[9] The column that displays examples of External Dialect shows "ongoing tensions between a couple and their community".[9]

Integration–separation is "a class of relational dialectics that includes connection–autonomy, inclusion–seclusion, and intimacy–independence."[9] Some individual autonomy must be given up to connect to others.

Stability–change is "a class of relational dialectics that includes certainty–uncertainty, conventionally–uniqueness, predictability–surprise, and routine–novelty."[9]Things must be consistent but not mundane. There must be a balance between the expected and unexpected in order to keep a relationship.

Expression–nonexpression is "a class of relational dialectics that includes openness–closedness, revelation–concealment, candor–secrecy, and transparency–privacy".[9] In a relationship, it is important to keep some things between the two parties, while other parts of the relationship are okay to allow the public to know about.

Dialectics in relationships

Michaela Meyer's suggests, "relational dialectics theory exposes tensions within interpersonal relationships while at the same time it assumes a continual maintenance and repair of these tensions. As a result, relational dialectics theory is incredibly useful for defining how tensions are managed within relationships."[14]Extensive research has been done regarding the role dialectical tensions play in relationships. Through studies of romantic relationships, long distance relationships, and friendships, researchers have observed the existence and frequency of certain dialectical tensions within various types of relationships.

Romantic relationships

A study of 25 heterosexual married couples was designed to determine what types of dialectical tensions were most prevalent in antagonistic conflicts between spouses. Larry Erbert found that the Openness v. Closedness dialectic was most commonly referenced through examples by participants[15] Research conducted by Baxter and Montgomery confirmed this finding, and broke the dialectic down into four subcategories to further analyze its existence in romantic relationships.

Openness with: Refers to an individual’s self-disclosure of information to another. In this idea, three types of information are shared: information deemed to be personal, the individuals feelings or personal opinions, and information regarding one individual's relationship with the other.
Openness To: Often this form of Openness is labeled as being attentive or responsive. People respond in cognitive, affective, and behavioral ways.
Closedness with: Describes the type of nondisclosive talk that occurs between individuals. It is most often identified as “small talk”, being primarily superficial. The talk is oriented around conversation that requires little or no self-disclosure, allowing for a controlled level informational privacy.
Closedness to: Some people experience stress and discomfort when listening to others’ problems. In response to this, some individuals attempt to distance themselves in order to discourage others from confiding in them.[8]

This refers to the independence one needs or wants from the romantic other, on the contrary also, how dependent the romantic partners are to one another. For example; a couple has been together for an extended period of time and one partner feels the need to distance themselves for a while, the other partner experiences need or dependency, therefore creating tension. There needs to be a clear decision on the amount of connection within a romantic relationship for it to work. Time and activity segmentation are both connected to autonomy–connection by different uses of balanced tension. Exclusive selection and reframing are also important to a healthy romantic relationship. All the following aspects are critical to ensure the needed attention to both individuals. Research has also been conducted to examine the autonomy-connection dialectic when dealing with termination of romantic relationships. In Erin Sahlestein and Tim Dun's study they found that, "participants’ joint conversations and their breakup accounts reflect the two basic forms of contradiction. Both antagonistic and non-antagonistic struggles were evident in these data".[16] Furthermore, the study discovered that while normally break-ups are retroactively studied, the autonomy-connection dialectic is actually in full swing throughout the termination process as opposed to previous thought of as a move from connection to autonomy.


This occurs when autonomy and connection are in balance and both individuals operate with an understanding of the boundaries of the other. Both are comfortable with the space the other is giving or taking and not only agree with each other but are happy and find the status of the relationship enjoyable. This also allows for change within the relationship, giving up something to benefit the other spouse or partner.

'Time segmentation'

This is the balance of time during everyday life in accordance with your romantic partner. How much time is spent together and how much alone. It also deals with setting aside time for each other to keep the balance of the relationship positive. Time segmentation can vary depending on schedules of the partners. This is based on the time that is spent away from one another or together, not the activities performed.

'Activity segmentation'

This is when activities are used to separate the partners to fulfill their independent needs or allow them to do what they want for a short period of time. An example would be a guys/girls night out. It can also be activities that are performed together when time allows. These activities are meant to keep the tension in a positive state. This could possibly mean an activity that one spouse enjoys but the other does not. The next activity will be one of the opposite’s preference, turning around the role of who is comfortable, causing positive relational tension.

'Exclusive selection'

This refers to the selection of either being connected with a spouse and acting as one or being dependent and acting on one’s own terms. When this concept is misunderstood, relational tension becomes unbalanced and the relationship tends to fall apart on a personal level, whether visible or not. Couples are more stable where both agree on the degree of closeness in the relationship and are less stable when they cannot agree.


This is the idea that parts of the relationship need to be evaluated and looked at in a different way. When parts of a relationship are reframed, it can make the relationship stronger,causing issues to be looked at in a new light. It can go the other way too, positive aspects of a relationship might not be as beneficial as perceived. This concept allows for flaws to be addressed.

Long distance relationships

Based on research by Sahlstein, the uncertainty v. certainty dialectic is the most prevailing dialectic found in long-distance relationships. Her work exposed uncertainty v. certainty as a competing yet complementary need. In interviews conducted with couples engaged in long distance relationships, contradictions emerged. For example, couples were found to plan interactions in order to obtain a level of spontaneity. Within this, three different forms of the praxis of Relational Dialectics emerged: segmentation, balance, and denial. Segmentation refers to the partners’ ability to live separate, independent lives when they were not together. Balance involved the couple’s ability to plan conversations about the future of their relationship. Denial is the couple’s refusal to admit the role distance is having on the relationship.[10]


William Rawlins has examined the role of Relational Dialectics in regard to friendships. The tension of instrumentality v. affection was found to be the most central to this type of relationship. Within friendships, importance is placed on the ability to discern the level of affection for “real” friendships opposed to instrumentality for “fake” friendships. Aristotle’s “friendship of virtue” notion of caring for friends without instrumental purposes exemplifies this point. The dichotomy of instrumentality v. affection cannot be ignored within friendships, as affection may be offered in order to receive instrumental aid from friends. This interweaving of concepts is what distinguishes different types of friendships. While this remains true, the subjectivity of the friends in question ultimately determines the outcome of how heavily instrumentality v. affection is applied.[4]

In the workplace

Blended Relationships are close friends that are a part of the same work environment. Dialectical tensions occur in organizations as individuals attempt to balance their roles as employees while maintaining established friendships within their occupations. It is not necessary, however, to have a friend in organizations to experience Dialectical contradictions. Stress occurs frequently on the individual level as human needs and desires oppose. Impartiality vs. Favoritism: Friends within organizations desire to provide each other with special support and assistance but organizations strive for equitable treatment and discourage bias.Openness vs. Closedness: It is a tendency of close friends to be open and honest with one another, but organizations often expect a level of confidentiality that places strain on friendships that value the sharing of information.[17] Novelty and Predictability: Feeling excited about a restructuring of your organization but anxious since it may interrupt your routine and put stress on your current relationships. Instrumentality and Affection: Inviting a coworker to lunch with the intention of asking for support on a project at work.[6]


Dialogue is typically a conversation between two or more people. These conversations are what constitute relationships, as communication is the very foundation of any relationship. According to Cools, "the four important concepts that form the foundation of dialogism 1) the self and the other situated in contradictory forces, 2) unfinalizability, 3) the chronotope and the carnivalesque, and 4) heteroglossia and utterance".[18] Similarity, in dialogue the following components are the most important: constitutive dialogue, utterance chains, dialectical flux, aesthetic moment, and critical sensibility.

'Constitutive dialogue'

While some theorists, along with Baxter, may argue that communication is simply a feature in a relationship, examining constitutive dialogue suggests that communication is actually what creates and maintains a relationship instead. According to Baxter, "a constitutive approach to communication asks how communication defines, or constructs, the social world, including our selves and our personal relationships. From a constitutive perspective, then, persons and relationships are not analytically separable from communication; instead, communication constitutes these phenomena"[19] When initial researchers studied relationships, they found that similarities, backgrounds, and interests are usually what hold people together while self-disclosure is the root of these components. Dialogic researchers would argue that differences are just as important as similarities and they are both discovered through dialogue.[9]

'Utterance chains'

To understand utterance chains, we must know that an utterance is what a person says in one turn of a conversation. When utterances are "linked to competing discourses", they are considered utterance chains. Baxter believes that there are "four links on the chain where the struggle of competing discourses can be heard."[9] These are: cultural ideologies, relational history, non-yet spoken response of partner or utterance, and normative evaluation of third party to utterance. Baxter also suggest that to understand an utterance, we must also understand the discourse. She posits "in the broadest sense, a discourse is a cultural system of meaning that circulates among a group’s members and which makes our talk sensical. for example in the United States the discourse of individualism helps us to understand and value an utterance such as, 'I need to find myself first before I commit to a serious relationship with another person'".[20]

'Dialectical flux'

A dialectical flux is "the unpredictable, unfinalizable, indeterminate nature of personal relationships".[9] Relationships are complicated and intertwined with dialectical tensions. Spiraling inversion and segmentation are two strategies that Baxter and Montgomery have established to respond to this complexity. Spiraling inversion is generally a no-win situation; a struggle between two different thought processes. For example, if you were to do something your parents did not approve of, you could lie about it, but your parents might yell at you for lying. And on the other hand, you could tell them upfront, and they could be completely quiet in shock. Segmentation is pertaining to more than one role in a relationship that must be altered depending on the situation. For example, if you were working at your father's shop as a part-time job, he would be considered your father AND your boss. This could mean that he has different expectations of you in different circumstances and his attitude towards you might change between roles.

'Aesthetic moment'

Aesthetic moments are brief incidents in a relationship that bring participants together through the use of dialogue. There is a temporary feeling of wholeness felt between partners involved in this dialogue. It is easy to see examples of aesthetic moments in romantic relationships, such as a first kiss or a reciting of wedding vows, but these moments can be experienced by anyone.

'Critical sensibility'

According to Griffin, critical sensibility is "an obligation to critique dominant voices, especially those that suppress opposing viewpoints; a responsibility to advocate for those who are muted."[9] This means that both sides of a dialogue are equal to one another. No one person is more powerful or dominant than the other, and they are able to communicate without these imbalances interfering. This does not mean that the dialogue is free of competing discourses as listed in Utterance Chains

Ethics in relational dialectics

When communicating, we must understand that morals do not apply for all people. Sometimes lying can be entirely minor in communication, but there are oftentimes that lying can majorly affect the perspective of those being lied to. There are several times where most people would justify a "white lie", or a lie that causes no harm. For instance, if your mother was in the hospital, you could tell her she still looked beautiful, even if her appearance was far from it because it would make her feel better. Other actions that are only followed through based on whether they have a positive or negative outcome are called "consequential ethics".[9] According to Sissela Bok, "lies drag around an initial negative weight that must be factored into ethical equations". Bok believes in the "principle of veracity" which says that truthful statements are preferable to lies in the absence of special circumstances that overcome the negative weight.[9]

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