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Chapter 11Relational Dialectics Theory


  1. Introduction
  1. Leslie Baxter’s theory of relational dialectics treats talk as the essence of close ties.
  2. Baxter found people are caught in “a dynamic knot of contradictions, a ceaseless interplay between contrary and opposing tendencies.
  3. Baxter’s work has generated two versions of RDT, the original statement and premises (RDT 1.0) and the more recent RDT 2.0 with discourse as the core concept.
  1. Discourses that create meaning
  1. The central concept of relational dialectics theory is the discourse, or streams of talk that “cohere around a given object of meaning.”
  2. Baxter thinks discourses constitute or construct what things mean.
  3. We can see the constitutive nature of discourse in how relational partners talk about their similarities and differences. Much traditional scholarship values similarities as a positive glue causing closing.
  4. Baxter’s constitutive approach disagrees. Differences are just as important as similarities.
  5. We tend to think of how we use talk. It’s strange to think about how talk shapes us.  
  1. Dialogue versus monologue
  1. To help make sense of the world of discourse, Baxter draws heavily on the thinking of 20th century Russian intellectual Mikhail Bakhtin.
  2. Bakhtin’s philosophy criticized monologue—a mode of talking that emphasizes one official discourse and silences all others.
  3. Bakhtin embraced dialogue as “a process in which unity and difference, in some form, are at play, both with and against one another.”
  4. Baxter thinks that dialogue animates interpersonal relationships, with our talk reverberating with words spoken before, words yet to come, and words we may never dare voice. She refers to this as an utterance chain. 
  5. Although Baxter believes discourses create any interpersonal connection, most of the recent research on the theory has investigated the family.
  1. 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 (RDT 1.0), 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.
  1. 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
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 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.”
  3. She’d rather consider how patterns of talk position certain discourses as dominant or marginalized.
  4. 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.
  1. Separation: Different discourses at different times.
  1. According to Baxter, 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 separation:
  1. Spiraling inversion involves switching back and forth across time between two contrasting discourses, voicing one and then the other.
  2. Segmentation compartmentalizes different aspects of the relationship.
  1. Compared to the monologue of one dominant discourse, Baxter thinks separation is a step in the right direction.
  1. Interplay: Different discourses at the same time
  1. Baxter’s findings describe four forms of 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.
  1. 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.”
  1. Ethical reflection: Martin Buber’s dialogic ethics
  1. Baxter notes that Martin Buber’s ethical approach is particularly compatible with relational dialectics theory.
  2. His ethical approach focus on relationships between people rather than moral codes of conduct.
  3. Buber contrasts two types of relationships: I-It (where others are treated as things to be used) versus I-Thou (where partners are regarded as the very one we are).
  4. Buber said we can only do this through dialogue, though his use of the term is closer in meaning to Bakhtin’s aesthetic moment.
  5. In dialogue, we create a between through which we help each other become more human.
  6. A narrow ridge exists that separates relativism from absolutism. 
  1. Critique: Aesthetic moments, yes; Aesthetic appeal, perhaps not.
  1. Relational dialectics theory stacks up quite well as an interpretive 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. But she does so by excluding objective scholarship and promoting qualitative work almost exclusively.
  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’s work deserves praise for its complexity but the richness of ideas and nuanced philosophical terms make it a tough sell on aesthetic merits.
  1. In describing fleeting moments of wholeness, Baxter holds out an attractive ideal to which we can aspire, where the pull of opposing discourses may actually be fun.


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Theory Outlines
11th Edition

From the Instructors Manual

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Chapter 11Relational Dialectics Theory


  1. Introduction
  1. Leslie Baxter’s theory of relational dialectics treats talk as the essence of close ties.
  2. Baxter found people are caught in “a dynamic knot of contradictions, a ceaseless interplay between contrary and opposing tendencies.
  3. Baxter’s work has generated two versions of RDT, the original statement and premises (RDT 1.0) and the more recent RDT 2.0 with discourse as the core concept.
  1. Discourses that create meaning
  1. The central concept of relational dialectics theory is the discourse, or streams of talk that “cohere around a given object of meaning.”
  2. Baxter thinks discourses constitute or construct what things mean.
  3. We can see the constitutive nature of discourse in how relational partners talk about their similarities and differences. Much traditional scholarship values similarities as a positive glue causing closing.
  4. Baxter’s constitutive approach disagrees. Differences are just as important as similarities.
  5. We tend to think of how we use talk. It’s strange to think about how talk shapes us.  
  1. Dialogue versus monologue
  1. To help make sense of the world of discourse, Baxter draws heavily on the thinking of 20th century Russian intellectual Mikhail Bakhtin.
  2. Bakhtin’s philosophy criticized monologue—a mode of talking that emphasizes one official discourse and silences all others.
  3. Bakhtin embraced dialogue as “a process in which unity and difference, in some form, are at play, both with and against one another.”
  4. Baxter thinks that dialogue animates interpersonal relationships, with our talk reverberating with words spoken before, words yet to come, and words we may never dare voice. She refers to this as an utterance chain. 
  5. Although Baxter believes discourses create any interpersonal connection, most of the recent research on the theory has investigated the family.
  1. 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 (RDT 1.0), 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.
  1. 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
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 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.”
  3. She’d rather consider how patterns of talk position certain discourses as dominant or marginalized.
  4. 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.
  1. Separation: Different discourses at different times.
  1. According to Baxter, 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 separation:
  1. Spiraling inversion involves switching back and forth across time between two contrasting discourses, voicing one and then the other.
  2. Segmentation compartmentalizes different aspects of the relationship.
  1. Compared to the monologue of one dominant discourse, Baxter thinks separation is a step in the right direction.
  1. Interplay: Different discourses at the same time
  1. Baxter’s findings describe four forms of 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.
  1. 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.”
  1. Ethical reflection: Martin Buber’s dialogic ethics
  1. Baxter notes that Martin Buber’s ethical approach is particularly compatible with relational dialectics theory.
  2. His ethical approach focus on relationships between people rather than moral codes of conduct.
  3. Buber contrasts two types of relationships: I-It (where others are treated as things to be used) versus I-Thou (where partners are regarded as the very one we are).
  4. Buber said we can only do this through dialogue, though his use of the term is closer in meaning to Bakhtin’s aesthetic moment.
  5. In dialogue, we create a between through which we help each other become more human.
  6. A narrow ridge exists that separates relativism from absolutism. 
  1. Critique: Aesthetic moments, yes; Aesthetic appeal, perhaps not.
  1. Relational dialectics theory stacks up quite well as an interpretive 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. But she does so by excluding objective scholarship and promoting qualitative work almost exclusively.
  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’s work deserves praise for its complexity but the richness of ideas and nuanced philosophical terms make it a tough sell on aesthetic merits.
  1. In describing fleeting moments of wholeness, Baxter holds out an attractive ideal to which we can aspire, where the pull of opposing discourses may actually be fun.


You can access the Outline for a particular chapter in several ways:

  • Switch to View by Theory, then select the desired theory/chapter from the drop-down list at the top of the page. Look in the list of available resources.
  • To quickly find a theory by chapter number, use the Table of Contents and link from there. It will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.
  • You can also use the Theory List, which will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.

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