Relationship Dialectics

Relationship dialectics

The original text can be found at Wikibooks in the Survey of Communication Study. . This work is shared via Creative Commons Share-alike license 3.0.

One way we can better understand our personal relationships is by understanding the notion of relational dialectics. Baxter (1990) describes three relational dialectics that are constantly at play in interpersonal relationships. Essentially, they are a continuum of needs for each participant in a relationship that must be negotiated by those involved. Let’s take a closer look at the three primary relational dialectics that are at work in all interpersonal relationships.

Autonomy-Connection refers to our “need to have close connection with others as well as our need to have our own space and identity”. We may miss our romantic partner when she or he is away but simultaneously enjoy and cherish that alone time. When you first enter a romantic relationship, you probably want to be around the other person as much as possible.  As the relationship grows, you likely begin to desire fulfilling your need for autonomy, or alone time.  In every relationship, each person must balance how much time to spend with the other, versus how much time to spend alone.

Novelty-Predictability is the idea that ”we desire predictability as well as spontaneity in our relationships”. In every relationship, we take comfort in a certain level of routine as a way of knowing what we can count on the other person in the relationship. At the same time, too much routine gets boring so we like to mix it up a bit. Friends who get together every Saturday for brunch, and make a commitment to always try new restaurants, are balancing these opposing tensions; they have both novelty and predictability.

Openness-Closedness refers to ”the desire to be open and honest with others while at the same time not wanting to reveal every thing about yourself to someone else”. One’s desire for privacy does not mean they are shutting out others. It is a normal human need.  We tend to disclose the most personal information to those with whom we have the closest relationships.  However, even these people do not know everything about us.  As the old saying goes, “We all have skeletons in our closet,” and that’s okay.

[Note: Openness-closedness is also discussed in Chapter 6 Section 4 as part of social penetration theory.]

How We Handle Relational Dialectics

Understanding that these three dialectical tensions are at play in all relationships is a first step in understanding how our relationships work. However, awareness alone is not enough. Couples, friends, or family members have strategies for managing these tensions in an attempt to meet the needs of each person. Baxter identifies four ways we can handle dialectical tensions.

The first option is to neutralize the extremes of the dialectical tensions. Here, individuals compromise, creating a solution where neither person’s need (such as novelty or predictability) is fully satisfied. Individual needs may be different, and never fully realized. For example, if one person seeks a great deal of autonomy, and the other person in the relationship seeks a great deal of connection, neutralization would not make it possible for either person to have their desires met. Instead, each person might feel like they are not getting quite enough of their particular need met.

The second option is to favor one end of the dialectical continuum and ignore the other, or alternate between the extremes. This strategy is called separation. A couple in a commuter relationship in which each person works in a different city may decide to live apart during the week (autonomy) and be together on the weekends (connection). In this sense, they are alternating between the extremes by being completely alone during the week, yet completely together on the weekends.

When people decide to divide their lives into spheres they are practicing segmentation. For example, your extended family may be very close and choose to spend religious holidays together. However, members of your extended family might reserve other special days such as birthdays for celebrating with friends. This approach divides needs according to the different segments of your life.

The final option for dealing with these tensions is reframing. This strategy requires creativity not only in managing the tensions, but understanding how they work in the relationship. For example, the two ends of the dialectic are not viewed as opposing or contradictory at all. Instead, they are understood as supporting the other need, as well as the relationship itself. A couple who does not live together, for example, may agree to spend two nights of the week alone or with friends as a sign of their autonomy. The time spent alone or with others gives each person the opportunity to develop themselves and their own interests so that they are better able to share themselves with their partner and enhance their connection.

In general, there is no one right way to understand and manage dialectical tensions. However, to always satisfy one need and ignore the other may be a sign of trouble in the relationship (Baxter, 1990). It is important to remember that relational dialectics are a natural part of our relationships and that we have a lot of choice, freedom, and creativity in how we work them out with our relational partners. It is also important to remember that dialectical tensions are negotiated differently in each relationship. The ways we self-disclose and manage dialectical tensions contribute greatly to what we call the communication climate in relationships.


Baxter, L. A. (1990). Dialectical contradictions in relational development. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 69-88.


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Open Textbook for SPC 101 for 2021-2022 Copyright © 2021 by Tony Arduini is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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