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Relationship Theories—Self-Other Relationship

Most people have an implicit theory about how relationships work. Some people are more aware of or at least talk more about their viewpoint on relationships than others. Regardless of an individual's awareness or one's own theory of relationships, most people tend to treat their view of relationships as reality. Because of this egocentric view of reality, how one views Self and Others in relational contexts is of fundamental importance.

Communication in families and relationships is profoundly influenced by sources of cultural variability. The primary source of cultural-level variability explored here is an individual's orientation to the concepts of Self, Other, and Relationship. William W. Wilmot's (1995) conceptualization of three paradigmatic views of relationships is at the heart of this discussion. The concepts of individualism and collectivism augment this discussion illustrating the unique impact cultural-level variations have on individual's communicative behavior in interaction. This discussion should be tempered by cautioning that although there are general patterns of behavior consistently associated with paradigmatic views of relationships and individualism/collectivism, not every individual's behavior is guided by these cultural level factors. For example, William Gudykunst and Young Kim (1992) note that "Although most people in the United States have individualistic tendencies, some people do have collectivistic tendencies. Similarly, although most people in Japan have collectivistic tendencies, some people do have individualistic tendencies" (p. 55). In short, we must keep in mind the distinction between cultural-level behaviors and unique individual behavior within a given social setting. The following discussion begins with Paradigm I views of relationships common in individualistic cultures, continues with Paradigm II views common in collectivistic cultures, and explores the possibilities of a Paradigm III view for all cultures.

Figure 1 illustrates the Paradigm I: Individual Selves Loosely Connected view of relationships. Self and Other are viewed as separate units loosely coupled by a fragile relational thread. This view is the most common view of relationships in the individualistic culture of the United States. It is not an accident that the circle for Self is larger than the circle for Other. Individualistic cultures emphasize individual achievement and initiative (Gudykunst and Kim 1997), and view the Self as an independent, self-contained, and causative force guiding events (Harre 1989). Gudykunst and Kim (1997) note that individualistic cultures favor individual goals over group goals, look out for themselves and their immediate family only, are guided by many specific in-groups that individually exert minimal influence on behavior, and place a high value on materialism, success, work and activity, progress, and rationality.

Wilmot (1995) notes that the Paradigm I view "emphasizes the self, de-emphasizes the other, and reduces the relationships to a fragile connecting mechanism" (p. 37). This view of relationships is consistent with Social Exchange (Roloff 1981) models of relationships (e.g. equity theory) where individuals try to maximize their outcomes (Hatfield, Utne, and Traupmann 1979). The social exchange metaphor conjures up images of costs, rewards, profit margin, mergers and acquisitions, where the relationship is viewed as something exterior to the Self. If profits are not high enough, restructure your portfolio, change your investment, file for bankruptcy, but save yourself. In this view self-satisfaction is the prime value, not relationship enhancement.

There is of course, considerable debate about the applicability of Social Exchange theories to more intimate relations such as marriage and family. Elaine Hatfield, Mary Utne, and Jane Traupmann (1979) provide an excellent review of the research (most of the research was conducted in the United States) and conclude that equitable relations appear more stable than non-equitable relations and that the theory is useful for understanding the dynamics of these more intimate relations. Despite the unsavory taste that this view of relationships leaves in the mouths of many lay people and scholars alike, the cultural imperative of individualism has a significant impact on communication in these relationships. In fact, as couples in the United States experience relational difficulties, the first line of defense is often "Blame the Other" (Wilmot FIGURE 1 1995). Blame is seen as a problem of individuals, not the relational process. Of course, if both partners are blaming the other, the fragile thread of the relationship is more likely to be cut. We now turn to Paradigm II views of relationships, which emphasize connectedness between Self and Other.

Figure 2 illustrates the Paradigm II: The Embedded Self view of relationships. This paradigm makes a fundamental shift in its conceptualization of Self. Within this paradigm, Self cannot be seen as a separate identity, but must always be examined within the context of Relationship. Thus, the Self is not an independent, findable entity, and we begin to see people forming and reforming their selves within each unique relational context. In this view, the relationship itself is treated as a separate entity: Relationship has identity (Hecht 1993). Paradigm II views focus on interconnections and interdependencies that have created the Self. In other words, we only have Self because we have Others who support that view. Our very definition of Self is cast within a broader framework of family, friends, lovers, work, and the broader culture. Paradigm II views of relationships are more common in collectivistic cultures.

Gudykunst and Kim (1997) note that groups (i.e. relationships and families) take precedence over individuals' goals in collectivistic cultures. In contrast to individualistic cultures, collectivistic cultures have fewer in-groups but these in-groups have a strong influence on individual behavior across situations. "Collectivistic cultures emphasize goals, needs, and views of the in-group over those of the individual; the social norms of the in-group, rather than individual pleasure; shared in-group beliefs, rather than unique individual beliefs; and cooperation with in-group members, rather than maximizing of individual outcomes" (Gudykunst FIGURE 2 and Kim 1997, p. 57). Thus, these collectivistic views are more in line with Paradigm II views of relationships that emphasize the Other and give the relationship itself pre-eminent status.

Wilmot (1995) argues that male/female communication problems could arise from variations in paradigm preferences. In the United States, males are more likely to rely on a Paradigm I view and females are likely to rely on a Paradigm II view. It has been clearly demonstrated that females do value and monitor their relationships more than males. Therefore, males might note the "suffocating" or "constricting" nature of a particular relationship and complain about the possibilities of making independent choices, while females might argue for more relationship rejuvenation work per se because they are more likely to hold a Paradigm II view of relationships. That is, females are more likely to treat the relationship as having a definable essence of its own that transcends the two individuals.

The theoretical perspective of dialectics is reflective of Paradigm II views of relationships. We briefly review it here because it challenges some of the assumptions of an independent Self in Paradigm I views and also helps to further understand the dynamics of male/female communication illustrated above. The dialectical approach to relationships stresses that phenomena that appear to be opposites are actually bound together, and that there is a dynamic interplay between such opposites (Baxter 1984, 1994). People raised in individualistic cultures are often not sensitized to thinking in terms of the dialectics of opposites. Instead, they tend to think in an either/or fashion, whereas collectivistic cultures are more likely to think in terms of both/and. An individualistic cultural frame promotes the view that elements are opposite and not connected, rather than seeing the dialectical interrelation of opposites. A dialectical perspective emphasizes process and contradiction and lets us focus on the swings (now close, now far) that are present in all relationships. Figure 2A illustrates how the dialectic perspective aids our understanding of these relational swings within a Paradigm II view of relationships. The example of male/female communication mentioned above is a good illustration of how the relationship can serve a transcendent function in this view.

A male who notes the "suffocating" or "constricting" nature of a particular relationship and complains about the possibilities of making independent choices is illustrating the most frequently cited set of opposites in personal relationships, autonomy-connection or independenceinterdependence. As noted above, males are more likely to hold a Paradigm I view of relationships and thus stress independence, while females are more likely to hold a Paradigm II view of relationships and thus stress interdependence. A dialectical perspective would allow both males and females to recognize the transcendent function of the relationship and recognize that natural fluctuations in autonomy-connection are normal, useful, and temporary processes. Furthermore, Paradigm II views of relationships recognize that each individual has a stake in self-interests, the Other's interests, and the relationship as the interplay between the two.

Understanding of Paradigm II views of relationships has been greatly aided by postmodern thinking. Postmodern writers challenge the notions of independence and individualism that dominate individualistic cultures and Paradigm I views of relationships. While Paradigm II views of relationships move us from emphasis on Self to recognition of Others in context of Relationship, these views of relationships are still bound in individualistic cultures by dualistic thinking. Note that even Figure 2A, while moving away from dualistic thinking and incorporating dialectical thoughts, still clearly separates Self, Other, and Relationship. Our understanding of relationships often suffers from FIGURE 2A the exactitude of our factual language, our ability to speak from only one point of view at a time, and limitations inherent in two-dimensional models of the process! The introduction of Paradigm III views of relationships is our attempt to stretch theorizing about, and understanding of, relationships.

Figure 3 illustrates the Paradigm III: Nonseparable Self/Other/Relationship view of relationships. In this view, the individual is not taken as a separate, sacred entity, but rather it challenges the very notion of an identifiable Self. Proponents of this paradigm would view Self, Other, and relationships as so inextricably tied that talking about one entity would necessitate talking about the other two. That is, any change in Self necessarily changes Other and relationship. In other words we are constructed in our transactions with others. We are not something that exists before contact with others, we "come-into-being" in our transactions. A view of relationships from the Paradigm III perspective suggests we cannot separate Self, Other, and relationships and that duality itself is an illusion.

Paradigm III is difficult to understand for many of us raised in individualistic cultures and/or have Paradigm I or II views of relationships. For many, it is difficult not to default to "I" language and concerns about self-satisfaction in relationships. Paradigm III adherents recognize that relationship work (and relationships are work!) is not undertaken to benefit the Self, but rather is done to enhance relationship, Other, and Self, all interwoven. In a very real sense, we don't "do" relationships, they "do" us! Given that people with individualistic tendencies and Paradigm I views of relationships have trouble not defaulting to thinking in terms of Self and self-interests, and that people with collectivistic tendencies and Paradigm II views of relationships are still limited by their language and conceptions of a separate Self and Other, it is not surprising that researchers have yet to investigate any variations on Paradigm III views of relationships. We conclude by examining the potential improvement in our understanding of communication in personal relationships when relationships are viewed from a Paradigm III perspective.

An individual's lay or implicit theory of relationships, where ever it falls along the continuum from Paradigm I to Paradigm III, dramatically impacts the role communication plays in a relationship. Paradigm I adherents often talk about the Self as if it were a relationless entity, moving through time and space as an independent unit. Paradigm II adherents, with a large focus on Other, still mentally conceive of separate Self and Other entities, albeit bound in the context of a relationship. We argue that a shift to Paradigm III views of relationships and a conceptualization of communication as a conjoint reality created by two people in relation to each other is advantageous in relationships. Even though we have an impoverished language of relatedness, a shift to Paradigm III views allows us to see the real power of communication and uncovers blind spots in our relational realities.

Seeing communication as the joint product of two persons in relation, opens our eyes to (1) the transformative potential of communication; and (2) seeing dialogue, not monologue, as the heart of the process. Communication is transformative for FIGURE 3 both participants. Even if one person is doing all the talking in a relationship, the other's presence and actions as listener impact communication. All parties in a relationship undergo significant change when they participate and express themselves within a relationship. Simply put, transformation equals expression plus connection. This conception of communication in relationships shifts our thinking from two people trying to send accurate verbal and nonverbal messages to each other to two people generating meaning conjointly—it is hoped that this view will lead to productive development of Self/Other/Relationship.


Baxter, L. A. (1984). "Trajectories of Relationship Disengagement." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 1:29–48.

Baxter, L. A. (1994). "Thinking Dialogically about Communication in Personal Relationships." In Uses of Structure in Communication Studies, ed. R. Conville. New York: Praeger.

Gudykunst, W. B., and Kim, Y. Y. (1992). Communicating with Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Harre, R. (1989). "Language Games and Texts of Identity." In Texts of identity, ed. J. Shotter and K. J. Gergen. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hatfield, E.; Utne, M. K.; and Traupmann, J. (1979). "Equity Theory and Intimate Relationships." In Social Exchange in Developing Relationships, ed. R. L. Burgess and T. L. Huston. New York: Academic Press.

Hecht, M. L. (1993). "2002—A Research Odyssey: Toward the Development of a Communication Theory of Identity." Communication Monographs 48:201–216.

Roloff, M. E. (1981). Interpersonal Communication: A Social Exchange Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wilmot, W. W. (1995). Relational Communication. New York: McGraw-Hill


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationships