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Relational dialectics is a concept within communication theory. The theory, originated by L.A. Baxter in 1988[1], defines long-term conflict patterns between individuals as the result of endemic dialectical tensions. These tensions are a result of the conflicting emotional needs felt by the participants of any relationship. The relational dialectic is the balance between conflicting needs within the relationship. The theory proposed that maintenance of a healthy relationship was dependent upon the members each striving to reach an acceptable balance (happy medium) between their own desires and needs and that of others.

Conflicting values

According to the original relational dialectic model, there were three core tensions (opposing values) in any relationship, these were:

Privacy vs. transparency: By the sharing of information, a relationship can grow closer and stronger. However, this need for self-disclosure conflicts with the need for privacy felt by each individual in the relationship. When these needs are at odds with one another, a relational tension is created over how much disclosure is desirable.
Novelty vs. predictability: For a relationship to be maintainable, there is a need for structure and stability. At the same time, a relationship in which nothing out of the ordinary takes place cannot stay dynamic. The struggle to avoid monotony while maintaining order is the basis for this tension.
Autonomy vs. connectedness: All humans have a need for autonomy and independence. Conversely, they wish to attach themselves to others through relationships, in which decisions are made on a group level. Tension arises here when attachment to the group encroaches on the individual member's need for self-government.

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 (autonomy, novelty, and privacy). [2]

Later researchers have used other value pairs such as Certainty vs. Uncertainty, although more orthodox practitioners subsume new pairs under one of the triumvirate above.[3]


Relational Dialectics is the emotional and value-based version of the philosophical Dialectic. It is rooted in the dynamisim 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 it's opposite.[1]

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 applied Marxist dialectic to literary and rhetorical theory and criticism. He illustrated the tensions that exists in the deep structure of all human experience. [2]. 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 Ying and Yang, Bakhtin's forces have no ultimate resolution.[2]

Baxter took the deep structural analysis of Bakhtin and applied it to communication theory. She found a number of axises where this dynamic tension operated.[1] Later authors have added other axes.[3]

Core Concepts

There are four main concepts that form the backdrop of relational dialectics, they are: 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)" [4]. 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.

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, 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.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Baxter, L. A. & Montgomery, B. M. (1996) Relating: Dialogues and dialectics Guilford Press, New York, ISBN 1-57230-099-X ;
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Griffin, Emory A. (2003) A First Look at Communication Theory McGraw Hill, Boston, ISBN 0-07-248392-X ;
  3. 3.0 3.1 Sahlstein, Erin M. (April 2006) "Making plans: Praxis strategies for negotiating uncertainty-certainty in long-distance relationships" Western Journal of Communication 70.(2): pp. 147-165;
  4. Miller, Katherine (2002) Communication theories: perspectives, processes, and contexts McGraw Hill, Boston, ISBN 0-7674-0500-5 ;
  • Montgomery, Barbara M. and Baxter, Leslie A. (1998) Dialectical approaches to studying personal relationships L. Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, ISBN 0-8058-2112-0 ;
  • Adler, Ronald B.; Proctor, Russell F.; and Towne, Neil (2006) Interpersonal communication: from Looking out, looking in Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont, CA, ISBN 0-495-08346-1 ;

See also

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