6.6 Relationship Dialectics

Learning Objectives

  1. Analyze relationship dialectics.
  2. Explain different ways of managing dialectical tensions.

Relationship Dialectics

We know that all relationships go through change. The changes in a relationship are often dependent on communication. When a relationship starts, there is a lot of positive and ample communication between the parties. However, sometimes couples go through a redundant problem, and it is important to learn how to deal with this problem. Partners can’t always know what their significant other desires or needs from them.

Dialectics had been a concept known well to many scholars for many years. They are simply the pushes and pulls that can be found every day in relationships of all types. Conversation involves people who must learn to adapt to each other while still maintaining their individuality (Baxter, 2004). The theory emphasizes interactions allowing for more flexibility to explain how couples maintain a satisfactory, cohesive union. This perspective views relationships as simply managing the tensions that arise because they cannot be fully resolved. The management of the tensions is usually based on past experiences; what worked for a person in the past will be what they decide to use in the future. These tensions are both contradictory and interdependent because without one, the other is not understood. Leslie A. Baxter, the scholar who developed this theory, pulled from as many outside sources as she could to better understand the phenomenon of dialectical tensions within relationships.

Dialectical tension is how individuals deal with struggles in their relationships. There are opposing forces or struggles that couples have to deal with. It is based on Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery’s Relational Dialectics Theory in 1996.

Below are some different relational dialectics (Baxter, 1996).


This is a need to have a close connection with others as well as our need to have our own space and identity. We may miss our romantic partners when they are away but simultaneously enjoy and cherish that alone time. When you first enter a relationship, you may 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.


We desire predictability as well as spontaneity in our relationships. In our relationships, 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. Such predictability provides a sense of comfort and security. However, it requires balance with novelty to avoid boredom. An example of balance might be friends who get together every Saturday for brunch but make a commitment to always try new restaurants each week.


This dialectic refers to the desire to be open and honest with others while at the same time not wanting to reveal everything 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 may disclose different levels of information at different stages of our relationship. We tend to disclose the most personal information to those with whom we have the closest relationships. You may remember that disclosure depends on the trust level of the other person. However, even the closest relationships may not know everything about us (think about the Johari Window).


This tension deals with self vs. others. Some couples are very similar in their thinking and beliefs. This is good because it makes communication easier and conflict resolution smoother. Yet, if partners are too similar, then they may not grow. Differences can create stimulation that helps people to grow and learn new things. While research indicates we all like to engage in relationships with those similar to us, we may have different needs for similarity and difference.


Couples will perceive some things as good and some things as bad within the relationship. Their perceptions of what is ideal may interfere with or inhibit perceptions of what is real. One common example is perceiving relationships depicted on social media as the goal for our own relationships, not taking into account that what is posted on social media is only a small percentage of those people’s lives. This ideal desire can interfere with what is real within the relationship and cause conflict.

Managing Dialectics

Relational dialectics are a natural part of our relationships, and there is no one right way to understand and manage dialectical tensions since every relationship is unique. However, to always satisfy one need and ignore the other may be a sign of trouble in the relationship (Baxter, 1988). Therefore it is important to reflect on both partners’ dialectics needs and to remember 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 manage dialectical tensions contribute greatly to the communication climate in relationships.

  • Neutralize:
    The first option is to neutralize the extremes of 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.


  • Separation:
    The second option is separation. This is when someone favors one end of the dialectical continuum and ignores the other, or alternates between the extremes. For example, a couple in a long-distance 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.


  • Segmentation:
    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.


  • Reframing:
    The final option for dealing with these tensions is a creative technique called reframing. This strategy requires creativity not only in managing the tensions, but also in 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 may be viewed less as a compromise and more as an opportunity to develop themselves and their own interests so that they are better able to share themselves with their partner and enhance their connection.


Understanding that dialectical tensions are at play in all relationships is a first step in understanding how our relationships work. Since the way we communicate our needs (or don’t communicate them) and respond to the needs of others can have both a short and long-term impact on our relationships, we need to learn how to manage dialectics to enhance relationship satisfaction. Depending on the relational context (the nature of the relationship between two people), couples, friends, or family members may have different strategies for managing these tensions in an attempt to meet the needs of each person. Baxter (1988) identifies four ways we can handle dialectical tensions.

Other ways of managing dialectical tensions may be:

Denial is where we lean toward one end of the dialectic and ignore that the other side exists.
Disorientation is where we feel overwhelmed and we may fight, freeze, or leave.
Alternation is where we choose one end on different occasions based on contextual elements of the situation.
Recalibration is reframing the situation or perspective. Think perception checking and working out alternatives to current perspectives.
Segmentation is where we compartmentalize different areas. We may choose one side of a dialectic in our communication and one side of a dialectic in our time spent together.
Balance is where we manage and compromise our needs.
Integration is blending different perspectives.
Reaffirmation is having the knowledge & accepting our differences.

Understanding our dialectical perspectives can help us to communicate our needs in relationships. Not everyone deals with dialectical tensions in the same way and there is no perfect way to balance dialectics. Some people will use a certain strategy during specific situations, and others will use the same strategy every time there is tension. You have to decide what is best for your relationship based on the situation.

Key Takeaways

  1. Relationship dialectics are tensions that happen in a relationship.
  2. Understanding our dialectical perspectives can help us to communicate more effectively in our relationships.


Baxter, L. A., & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Relating: Dialogues and dialectics. Guilford Press.

Baxter, L.A. (2004). A tale of two voices: Relational Dialectics Theory. The Journal of Family Communication, 4 (3 & 4), 181-192. https://doi.org/10.1080/15267431.2004.9670130

Griffin, E.M. (2009). A first look at communication theory. McGraw Hill, pg. 115.


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