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Relationship Maintenance

Managing Dialectical Tensions

A dialectical approach argues that relationships are dynamic entities. Consequently, partners are faced with the continuous management of opposing tendencies as they attempt to answer the question of how relationships operate in the midst of partners being drawn together as well as pushed apart. The dialectical perspective also holds that relationships cannot exist without the interplay between its contradictory parts.

A dialectical approach differs from other maintenance views. People might even find "maintenance" impossible to obtain in the face of ongoing contradiction, change, and tension. Barbara Montgomery (1993) noted that the term maintenance appears to counter a dialectical approach because maintenance denotes change as an anomaly rather than as an inherent construct. Montgomery argued that dialectics involve the term relational sustainment.

According to a dialectical viewpoint, relational partners are said to experience three central contradictions: autonomy/connectedness, openness/closedness, and predictability/novelty (Baxter 1988). Autonomy/connectedness refers to the tension experienced due to the pull between wanting to connect as a partner and wanting to preserve an independent identity. Openness/closedness refers to the tension between desiring to engage in self-disclosure versus retaining boundaries of privacy. Predictability/novelty involves the pull between seeking behavioral patterns that have stability versus a desire for spontaneity. Fluctuation between each of these three poles is a natural and necessary task of every relational partner.

Accordingly, to sustain a relationship, partners must somehow manage these tensions. Baxter (1988) reported four primary strategies used by partners to manage these contradictions: selection of one pole over another (e.g., selection of autonomy over interdependence); separation through either cyclic alternation (e.g., women's night out) or topical segmentation (e.g., golf involves both parties but poker does not); neutralization through either moderation or disqualification (e.g., "I'm just going through a phase"); and reframing, or redefining the problem in terms of dialectical thinking (e.g., "I feel anxious because of the need to be less predictable"). Baxter (1990) discovered that separation through topical segmentation and separation through cyclic alternation exist as the most frequently used strategies to manage relational tensions. Interestingly, Baxter (1990) reported that partners underutilize more sophisticated and possibly more satisfactory strategies, such as reframing the tension so that it no longer functions as a contradiction, thereby suggesting that couples do not necessarily understand the flux of relational tensions and are therefore unable to cope most effectively.

In conclusion, it should be clear that the manner in which scholars define the terms relational maintenance plays a crucial role in determining the types of behaviors studied. As the above review shows, various kinds of behaviors perform relational maintenance–supposed functions. That scholars would attempt to uncover types of behavior that promote the welfare of close, personal relationships constitutes the single principle that unites this new domain of inquiry.


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsRelationship Maintenance - Maintaining Stability, Maintaining Quality, Maintaining The Status Quo, Repairing Troubled Relationships, Managing Dialectical Tensions