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Last updated March 15, 2000


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Relational Dialectics

Explanation of Theory:

Communication parties experience internal, conflicting pulls causing relationships to be in a constant state of flux, known as dialectical tension.  The pressures of these tensions occur in a wavelike or cyclical fashion over time.  Relational Dialectics introduces the concept that the closer individuals become to one another, the more conflict will arise to pull them apart.

Theorist: Baxter and Montgomery

Date:  1988

Primary Article:

      Baxter, L.A. (1988). A dialectical perspective on communication strategies in relationship development. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of Personal Relationships, 257-273.

Individual Interpretations:

There are three primary relational dialectics:

*Connectedness and Separateness
Although it is only natural to desire a close and permanent bond in our interpersonal relationships, no relationship can endure unless the involved individuals spend some time alone. Too much connection results in the loss of individual identity.

*Certainty and Uncertainty
Relational partners need predictability along with a sense of assurance in their interpersonal relationships. However, without the spice of variety that comes from novelty, mystery, and spontaneity in relationships (featuring too much predictability), they become bland and monotonous.

*Openness and Closedness
In an interpersonal relationship, communication partners feel the pressure to be transparent and reveal extensive personal information.  However, this pull counters a natural individual desire for privacy.  This dynamic struggle demonstrates that intimacy in relationships is not a straight-line path.

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

Ontological Assumption:
In this sense, the theory is extremely humanistic.  Relational Dialectics believes that there are many truths, dependent on the individual nature of each relationship. 

Epistemological Assumption:
The theory is also quite humanistic in the relationship between the research being done and the researcher.  What is researched is dependent on the observer.

Axiological Assumption:
I feel that Relational Dialectics is humanistic in the values sense as well.  Research being done is value-laden and biased because each dialectic is an opinion which must be made by the individual researcher.


Relational Dialectics if a humanistic theory based on the idea that people are responding to the pulls and tugs that surround them in a relationship.  It presents a practical hypothesis, but because it is unique to the situation, it becomes difficult to make generalizations.  However, it does do an excellent job of explaning specific instances.

Ideas and Implications:

Relational Dialectics is useful to apply in situations when trying to explain dramatic or sudden changes in human communication behavior.  The pressures each pole (or dialectic) exerts is comparable to the waxing and waning periods of the moon. 
Relational partners are constantly fluctuating  between the poles; 
each extreme behavior offsetting tendencies toward the other pole. 
In studying an maintaining interpersonal relationships it is essential 
to understand this phenomenon.


An applicable example to help illustrate Relational Dialectics involves two college students in a romantic relationship, Jill and Josh.

*Connectedness and Separateness
Jill and Josh are very close and Josh insists on spending all their free time together.  Jill enjoys Josh's company very much, but sometimes she feels like she needs her own space and personal space.  She tries to help Josh understand they can still be very close without being together every second of the day.

*Certainty and Uncertainty
Jill and Josh also need a little more excitement in their relationship.  Their activities with each other have become somewhat redundant, and they desire some spice in their relationship.  They rarely go out anymore and when they do, they always participate in the same activities with the same people.

* Openness and Closedness
Jill has a very high level of self-disclosure with Josh which helps maintain a sense of openness in their relationship.  Josh has progressively gotten less and less open with Jill about stories from his past, how his day was, and his feelings toward Jill.  This change confuses Jill and makes her feel less comfortable opening up.

Relevant Research:

      Montgomery, B.M. & Baxter, L.A. (1998). Dialectical Approaches to Studying Personal Relationships.

      Baxter, L.A.& Montgomery, B.M. (1996). Relating: Dialogues and Dialects.
In Hirokawa, R.Y. & Poole, M.S. (1996). Communication and Group Decision Making.

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.  N/A

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. 215-218.

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. 163-174.

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 179-191.

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. N/A

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. 164-177.

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 206-212.