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Relational Dialectics Theory

Dialectical process thinking adds a great deal to our conceptual frameworks about relational life. First, we can think specifically about issues around which relational partners construct meaning. Second, we can remove the static frame and put our emphasis on the interplay between change and stability. We do not have to choose between observing patterns and observing unpredictability because we recognize the presence of both within relationships. Likewise, dialectical thinking directs people to observe the interactions within a relationship, among its individual members, as well as outside a relationship, as its members interact with the larger social and cultural systems in which they are embedded. This approach helps us focus on power issues and multicultural diversity.

In general, scholars have been excited about the promise generated by Relational Dialectics Theory, and their responses to it have been positive. The theory seems to measure up well against the criteria we discussed in Chapter 3. It offers an expansive view of relationships and has generated several studies even in the short time that Baxter has been delineating the theory; therefore, it is a heuristic theory. These studies also point to the fact that the theory is testable. Perhaps the most positive appeal of the theory is that it seems to explain the push and pull people experience in relationships much better than some of the other, more linear, theories of relational life. Most people experience their relationships in ebb-and-flow patterns, whether the issue is intimacy, self-disclosure, or something else. That is, relationships do not simply become more or less of something in a linear, straight-line pattern. Instead, they often seem to be both/and as we live through them. Dialectics offers a compelling explanation for this both/and feeling.

A few questions have been raised about the theory, however. One concerns the number and limit of dialectical tensions that exist in relational life. Some question whether the dialectics of autonomy and connection, openness and protection, and novelty and predictability are the only dialectics of all relationships. For example, Rawlins (1992) does not see the novelty/certainty dialectic in his study of friendship. Instead, he finds a different dialectic, focusing on tensions of judgment and acceptance. This dialectic emerges in the tension between judging a friend's behaviors and simply accepting them. In studying friendships in the workplace, Ted Zorn (1995) finds the three main dialectics, but he also finds some additional tensions that were specific to the workplace context. This does not seem to be a serious flaw in the theory, however, and more study will probably delineate a finite number of dialectics that may vary by context.

Baxter and Montgomery (1996) observe that dialectics is not a traditional theory in that it offers no axioms or propositional arguments. Instead, it describes a set of conceptual assumptions. Thus, it does not offer us good predictions about, for example, what coping strategies people might use to deal with the major dialectic tensions in their relationships. This problem may be the result of the relative youth of dialectics as a theoretical frame for relational life, or it may result from differing goals: Traditional theory seeks prediction and final statements about communication phenomena; Dialectics operates from an open-ended, ongoing viewpoint. Baxter and Montgomery end their 1996 book with a personal dialogue between themselves about the experience of writing about a theory that encourages conversation rather than providing axiomatic conclusions. They agree that in some ways it is difficult to shake the cultural need for consistency and closure. Yet, they conclude that it is heuristic and valuable to write about live, emerging ideas.

Many researchers agree that the dialectic approach is an extremely exciting way to conceive of communication in relational life. Expect to see more refinements of this theory and more studies testing its premises.

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