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Relational Dialectics
Leslie Baxter & Mikhail Bakhtin

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: RELATIONSHIP MAINTENANCE


  1. Introduction
    1. Leslie Baxter’s theory of relational dialectics treats discourse as the essence of close ties.
    2. By focusing on talk, Baxter separates relational dialectics theory from many of the other interpersonal theories in this book.
    3. Relational dialectics is about the struggle between discourses, and these unceasing struggles are “located in the relationship between parties, produced and reproduced through the parties’ joint communicative activity.”
    4. Despite the fact that we tend to think of struggle and competition as detrimental to intimate relationships, Baxter believes good things emerge from competing discourses.
  2. Discourses that create meaning
    1. The central concept of relational dialectics theory is the discourse, or “a set of propositions that cohere around a given object of meaning.”
    2. To help make sense of the world of discourse, Baxter draws heavily on the thinking of 20th century Russian intellectual Mikhail Bakhtin.
    3. Bakhtin’s philosophy criticized monologue—a mode of talking that emphasizes one official discourse and silences all others.
    4. Bakhtin embraced dialogue as “a process in which unity and difference, in some form, are at play, both with and against one another.”
    5. Although Baxter believes discourses create any interpersonal connection, most of the recent research on the theory has investigated the family.
  3. Caught in a chain of utterances
    1. Talk reverberates with words spoken before, words yet to come, and words that speakers may never dare to voice.
    2. Baxter calls them utterances linked together in a chain.
    3. Baxter insists we consider discourses on two dimensions.
      1. The first dimension categorizes discourses by who speaks them: nearby (or proximal) discourses that occur between the mother and daughter versus distant discourses spoken by other people, such as third parties and people in the broader culture.
      2. The second dimension categorizes dimensions by time: already-spoken discourses in the past versus not-yet-spoken discourses anticipated in the future.
    4. Together, these intersect to form four ‘links’ in the utterance chain that create the utterance’s meaning.
    5. Bakhtin and Baxter believe dialectical tension provides an opportunity to work out ways to mutually embrace the conflict between unity with and differentiation from each other.
  4. Three common dialectics that shape relationships
    1. Across hundreds of interviews about close ties, Baxter heard people voice three recurring themes: integration–separation, stability–change, and expression–nonexpression.
    2. In her first iteration of the theory, she called these contradictions. She no longer prefers that word, since it may tempt people to think she’s talking about psychological conflict between different desires.
    3. Baxter thinks we have such internal motivations, but because she takes communication seriously, she thinks cultural discourses create and shape them.
    4. Baxter refers to these themes as discursive struggles or competing discourses.
    5. The Internal Dialectic describes the three dialectics as they shape the relationship between two people.
    6. The External Dialectic describes the dialectics as they create the relationship between two people and the community around them.
  5. Integration and separation.
    1. Within any given relationship, Baxter regards the discursive struggle between connection and autonomy as foundational.
    2. If one side prevails, the relationship loses.
    3. The discourses of integration and separation also address a pair’s inclusion with and seclusion from other people in their social network
  6. Stability and change.
    1. Without the spice of variety to season our time together, relationships become bland, boring, and, ultimately, emotionally dead.
    2. The external version of certainty/uncertainty is conventionality/uniqueness.
    3. Discourses of conventionality consider how a relationship is similar to other relationships, while discourses of uniqueness emphasize difference.
  7. Expression and nonexpression.
    1. The discourse of expression clashes with the discourse of nonexpression.
    2. Just as the openness-closedness dialectic is an ongoing discursive struggle within a relationship,couples and families also face choices about what information to reveal or conceal from third parties.
  8. How meaning emerges from struggles between discourses
    1. Not all discourses are equal: it’s common for some discourses to possess more prominence than others.
    2. Baxter and Bakhtin refer to powerful discourses as centrifugal or dominant (at the center) and those at the margins as centripetal or marginalized.
    3. Baxter draws on the discourse of the critical tradition to elaborate her view of power.
    4. Baxter chooses not to focus on the management of discourses because saying that people “manage” discourses “implies that contradictions, or discursive struggles, exist outside of communication.”
    5. She’d rather consider how patterns of talk position certain discourses as dominant or marginalized.
    6. Her work has identified two such overarching patterns, differentiated by time.
      1. In one pattern, competing discourses ebb and flow but never appear together, called diachronic separation.
      2. In contrast, synchronic interplay voices multiple discourses in the same time and place.
  9. Diachronic Separation: Different discourses at different times.
    1. According to Baxter, diachronic separation isn’t unusual.
    2. Simultaneous expression of opposing voices is the exception rather than the rule.
    3. Baxter has identified two typical patterns of diachronic separation:
      1. Spiraling inversion involves switches back and forth across time between two contrasting discourses, voicing one and then the other.
      2. Segmentation compartmentalizes different aspects of the relationship.
    4. Compared to the monologue of one dominant discourse, Baxter thinks diachronic separation is a step in the right direction.
  10. Synchronic Interplay: Different Discourses at the Same Time
    1. Baxter’s findings describe four forms of synchronic interplay, starting with those that are more like a monologue and moving to those that are more dialogic.
      1. Negating mentions a marginalized discourse in order to dismiss it as unimportant.
      2. Countering replaces an expected discourse with an alternative discourse.
      3. Entertaining recognizes that every discourse has alternatives
      4. Transforming combines two or more discourses, changing them into something new.
    2. Perhaps the highest form of transformation is the aesthetic moment: “a momentary sense of unity through a profound respect for the disparate voices in dialogue.”
  11. Dialogue creates our relational worlds
    1. Scholars of relational dialectics think communication creates and sustains relationships—in other words, the relationship exists in communication.
    2. Discursive struggles are what give interpersonal relationships their meaning.
    3. If Baxter, Mead, Pearce and Cronen are right, if the discourses voiced by partners change, so does their relationship.
    4. The ubiquity of such struggling discourses means that developing and sustaining a relationship is bound to be an unpredictable, unfinalizable, indeterminate process.
    5. Since a relationship is created through dialogue, it’s always in dialectical flux.
    6. This chaotic jumble of competing voices is far removed from such idyllic notions of communication as a one-way route to interpersonal closeness, shared meaning, or increased certainty.
  12. Ethical reflection: Sissela Bok’s Principle of Veracity.
    1. Baxter argues for a critical sensibility that’s suspicious of dominant voices, especially those that suppress marginalized discourses. She opposes any communication practice that ignores or gags another’s voice.
    2. Philosopher Sissela Bok believes lying can do that, but rejects an absolute prohibition of lying.
    3. Bok doesn’t view lies as neutral. She is convinced that all lies drag around an initial negative weight that must be factored into any ethical equation.
    4. Her principle of veracity asserts that, “truthful statements are preferable to lies in the absence of special consideration.”
    5. Bok contends that we need the principle of veracity because liars engage in a tragic self-delusion.
  13. Critique: Is relational dialectics theory just one discourse among many?
    1. It’s hard to identify an interpersonal communication theory in this book that Baxter doesn’t criticize.
      1. Baxter is particularly tough on scientific scholarship.
      2. It’s unclear how this marginalization of mathematical voices accords with her call for the emergence of new meaning from discourses in interplay.
    2. Relational dialectics theory stacks up quite well as an interpretative theory.
      1. The theory offers a new way to make sense out of close relationships.
      2. Leslie Baxter’s work has inspired a generation of relational dialectics scholars, and they’re continuing her work.
      3. By encouraging a diverse group of people to talk about their relationships, and taking what they say seriously, Baxter models the high value that Bakhtin placed on hearing multiple voices.
      4. Not only does Baxter listen to multiple voices, but her theory seeks to carve out a space where marginalized voices can be heard.
      5. The theory emphasizes the importance of qualitative work when using the theory.
      6. Baxter holds out the promise of an aesthetic ideal to which all of us can aspire—an image that could make slogging through the morass of struggling discourses feel less frustrating.


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by Theory














Instructors can get additional
resources. Read more

Archived chapters (PDF)
from previous editions
are available in
Resources by Type.
See list

New to Theory
Resources?

Find out more in this short
video overview (3:01).


Relational Dialectics
Leslie Baxter & Mikhail Bakhtin

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: RELATIONSHIP MAINTENANCE


  1. Introduction
    1. Leslie Baxter’s theory of relational dialectics treats discourse as the essence of close ties.
    2. By focusing on talk, Baxter separates relational dialectics theory from many of the other interpersonal theories in this book.
    3. Relational dialectics is about the struggle between discourses, and these unceasing struggles are “located in the relationship between parties, produced and reproduced through the parties’ joint communicative activity.”
    4. Despite the fact that we tend to think of struggle and competition as detrimental to intimate relationships, Baxter believes good things emerge from competing discourses.
  2. Discourses that create meaning
    1. The central concept of relational dialectics theory is the discourse, or “a set of propositions that cohere around a given object of meaning.”
    2. To help make sense of the world of discourse, Baxter draws heavily on the thinking of 20th century Russian intellectual Mikhail Bakhtin.
    3. Bakhtin’s philosophy criticized monologue—a mode of talking that emphasizes one official discourse and silences all others.
    4. Bakhtin embraced dialogue as “a process in which unity and difference, in some form, are at play, both with and against one another.”
    5. Although Baxter believes discourses create any interpersonal connection, most of the recent research on the theory has investigated the family.
  3. Caught in a chain of utterances
    1. Talk reverberates with words spoken before, words yet to come, and words that speakers may never dare to voice.
    2. Baxter calls them utterances linked together in a chain.
    3. Baxter insists we consider discourses on two dimensions.
      1. The first dimension categorizes discourses by who speaks them: nearby (or proximal) discourses that occur between the mother and daughter versus distant discourses spoken by other people, such as third parties and people in the broader culture.
      2. The second dimension categorizes dimensions by time: already-spoken discourses in the past versus not-yet-spoken discourses anticipated in the future.
    4. Together, these intersect to form four ‘links’ in the utterance chain that create the utterance’s meaning.
    5. Bakhtin and Baxter believe dialectical tension provides an opportunity to work out ways to mutually embrace the conflict between unity with and differentiation from each other.
  4. Three common dialectics that shape relationships
    1. Across hundreds of interviews about close ties, Baxter heard people voice three recurring themes: integration–separation, stability–change, and expression–nonexpression.
    2. In her first iteration of the theory, she called these contradictions. She no longer prefers that word, since it may tempt people to think she’s talking about psychological conflict between different desires.
    3. Baxter thinks we have such internal motivations, but because she takes communication seriously, she thinks cultural discourses create and shape them.
    4. Baxter refers to these themes as discursive struggles or competing discourses.
    5. The Internal Dialectic describes the three dialectics as they shape the relationship between two people.
    6. The External Dialectic describes the dialectics as they create the relationship between two people and the community around them.
  5. Integration and separation.
    1. Within any given relationship, Baxter regards the discursive struggle between connection and autonomy as foundational.
    2. If one side prevails, the relationship loses.
    3. The discourses of integration and separation also address a pair’s inclusion with and seclusion from other people in their social network
  6. Stability and change.
    1. Without the spice of variety to season our time together, relationships become bland, boring, and, ultimately, emotionally dead.
    2. The external version of certainty/uncertainty is conventionality/uniqueness.
    3. Discourses of conventionality consider how a relationship is similar to other relationships, while discourses of uniqueness emphasize difference.
  7. Expression and nonexpression.
    1. The discourse of expression clashes with the discourse of nonexpression.
    2. Just as the openness-closedness dialectic is an ongoing discursive struggle within a relationship,couples and families also face choices about what information to reveal or conceal from third parties.
  8. How meaning emerges from struggles between discourses
    1. Not all discourses are equal: it’s common for some discourses to possess more prominence than others.
    2. Baxter and Bakhtin refer to powerful discourses as centrifugal or dominant (at the center) and those at the margins as centripetal or marginalized.
    3. Baxter draws on the discourse of the critical tradition to elaborate her view of power.
    4. Baxter chooses not to focus on the management of discourses because saying that people “manage” discourses “implies that contradictions, or discursive struggles, exist outside of communication.”
    5. She’d rather consider how patterns of talk position certain discourses as dominant or marginalized.
    6. Her work has identified two such overarching patterns, differentiated by time.
      1. In one pattern, competing discourses ebb and flow but never appear together, called diachronic separation.
      2. In contrast, synchronic interplay voices multiple discourses in the same time and place.
  9. Diachronic Separation: Different discourses at different times.
    1. According to Baxter, diachronic separation isn’t unusual.
    2. Simultaneous expression of opposing voices is the exception rather than the rule.
    3. Baxter has identified two typical patterns of diachronic separation:
      1. Spiraling inversion involves switches back and forth across time between two contrasting discourses, voicing one and then the other.
      2. Segmentation compartmentalizes different aspects of the relationship.
    4. Compared to the monologue of one dominant discourse, Baxter thinks diachronic separation is a step in the right direction.
  10. Synchronic Interplay: Different Discourses at the Same Time
    1. Baxter’s findings describe four forms of synchronic interplay, starting with those that are more like a monologue and moving to those that are more dialogic.
      1. Negating mentions a marginalized discourse in order to dismiss it as unimportant.
      2. Countering replaces an expected discourse with an alternative discourse.
      3. Entertaining recognizes that every discourse has alternatives
      4. Transforming combines two or more discourses, changing them into something new.
    2. Perhaps the highest form of transformation is the aesthetic moment: “a momentary sense of unity through a profound respect for the disparate voices in dialogue.”
  11. Dialogue creates our relational worlds
    1. Scholars of relational dialectics think communication creates and sustains relationships—in other words, the relationship exists in communication.
    2. Discursive struggles are what give interpersonal relationships their meaning.
    3. If Baxter, Mead, Pearce and Cronen are right, if the discourses voiced by partners change, so does their relationship.
    4. The ubiquity of such struggling discourses means that developing and sustaining a relationship is bound to be an unpredictable, unfinalizable, indeterminate process.
    5. Since a relationship is created through dialogue, it’s always in dialectical flux.
    6. This chaotic jumble of competing voices is far removed from such idyllic notions of communication as a one-way route to interpersonal closeness, shared meaning, or increased certainty.
  12. Ethical reflection: Sissela Bok’s Principle of Veracity.
    1. Baxter argues for a critical sensibility that’s suspicious of dominant voices, especially those that suppress marginalized discourses. She opposes any communication practice that ignores or gags another’s voice.
    2. Philosopher Sissela Bok believes lying can do that, but rejects an absolute prohibition of lying.
    3. Bok doesn’t view lies as neutral. She is convinced that all lies drag around an initial negative weight that must be factored into any ethical equation.
    4. Her principle of veracity asserts that, “truthful statements are preferable to lies in the absence of special consideration.”
    5. Bok contends that we need the principle of veracity because liars engage in a tragic self-delusion.
  13. Critique: Is relational dialectics theory just one discourse among many?
    1. It’s hard to identify an interpersonal communication theory in this book that Baxter doesn’t criticize.
      1. Baxter is particularly tough on scientific scholarship.
      2. It’s unclear how this marginalization of mathematical voices accords with her call for the emergence of new meaning from discourses in interplay.
    2. Relational dialectics theory stacks up quite well as an interpretative theory.
      1. The theory offers a new way to make sense out of close relationships.
      2. Leslie Baxter’s work has inspired a generation of relational dialectics scholars, and they’re continuing her work.
      3. By encouraging a diverse group of people to talk about their relationships, and taking what they say seriously, Baxter models the high value that Bakhtin placed on hearing multiple voices.
      4. Not only does Baxter listen to multiple voices, but her theory seeks to carve out a space where marginalized voices can be heard.
      5. The theory emphasizes the importance of qualitative work when using the theory.
      6. Baxter holds out the promise of an aesthetic ideal to which all of us can aspire—an image that could make slogging through the morass of struggling discourses feel less frustrating.


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