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Dialectical Theory

Relating As A Process Of Contradiction

The central concept of dialectical theorists is the contradiction. A contradiction is the dynamic interplay between unified opposites. Three terms are important in understanding this definition: opposites, unified, and dynamic interplay.

Central to the notion of opposition is mutual negation: Semantically, opposites are the antonyms of one another and function to nullify, cancel, undo, or otherwise undermine one another. Barbara Montgomery (1993) has identified three kinds of oppositions: (1) oppositions that are mutually exclusive and exhaustive (e.g., openness versus non-openness); (2) oppositions that are mutual exclusive but not exhaustive (e.g., connection versus autonomy); and (3) oppositions that are complementary (e.g., dominance versus submissiveness).

Opposites are unified if they are in some way interdependent. Interdependence can take two basic forms, which Irwin Altman and his colleagues (1981) referred to as the unity of identity and interactive unity. The unity of identity is semantic or definitional unity. For example, we understand what "night" means only because we have a concept of "day." With interactive unity, the opposing phenomena are united in practice or in function as part of the same interacting system. For example, marriages require both similarities and differences between the partners. Partners must be similar to some extent in order to establish and sustain a common bond. However, partners must also be different from each other in order to sustain autonomous identities.

Contradictory phenomena are yoked together at the same time that they negate one another. This simultaneous "both-and" dynamic produces an ongoing dialectical tension or interplay between opposites. To dialectical theorists, dialectical tensions keep the relating process vibrant and alive, as parties navigate the unity of opposites in an ongoing manner. Therefore, contradictions are not a sign of trouble for a relationship, but are inherent in the process of relating.

Leslie Baxter and her colleagues (Baxter 1993; Baxter and Montgomery 1996; Werner and Baxter 1994) have described three clusters of contradictions that have been identified by several dialectical scholars: the dialectic of integration-separation, the dialectic of expression-nonexpression, and the dialectic of stability-change. The dialectic of integration-separation is a family of related contradictions, all of which share the family resemblance of necessitating both partner integration and partner separation in relationships. A relationship is a union of two distinct individuals. Without union or integration, a relationship ceases to exist. But in the absence of separate individuals, there is nothing to integrate. Relating partners, therefore, face the ongoing challenge of negotiating the united opposition of integration and separation. Several different terms have been used to capture contradictions that can be located in this integrationseparation cluster including: connection versus autonomy, interdependence versus independence, integration versus differentiation, intimacy versus autonomy, intimacy versus identity, the communal versus the individual, intimacy versus detachment, involved versus uninvolved, the freedom to be dependent versus the freedom to be independent, intimacy versus freedom, and stability versus self-identity (Werner and Baxter 1994). Although some of these labels are mere synonyms of one another, the variation in terms often captures subtle, situation-specific differences in the interplay of integration and separation. The negotiation of integration-separation can be experienced by relationship parties at the mundane level of how much time to spend together versus how much time to spend alone or in activities with others. It can also be experienced as a dilemma of rights and obligations; for example, the right to have one's own needs fulfilled versus the obligation to be responsive to the needs of the other person. This dialectic could also be experienced as a dilemma of identity: sustaining a distinct "I" at the same time that a "we" identity is constructed. In short, the dialectic of integration-separation can be experienced in many ways by relating partners.

The dialectic of expression-nonexpression refers to a cluster of contradictions that revolve around the united opposition of candor and discretion. Relationship intimacy is built on a scaffold of openness, honesty, and complete disclosure. Yet, at the same time, intimacy also involves respect for each person's right to privacy and the obligation to protect one's partner from the hurt or embarrassment that can result from insufficient discretion. The dialectic of expression-nonexpression requires an ongoing negotiation of revelation and concealment, both in interactions between the two partners and in their interactions with others outside the relationship.

The dialectic of expression-nonexpression can be experienced in many different ways by relationship parties (Baxter and Montgomery 1996). For example, parties can frame the dialectic as a matter of individual rights: the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression (Rawlins 1983). Alternatively, parties might frame the dialectic around issues of protection, in which the decision to disclose or not revolves around a desire to protect oneself from hurt or embarrassment versus a desire to protect the partner from hurt (Dindia 1998).

Finally, the dialectic of stability versus change refers to a family of contradictions that revolve around the unified opposition of predictability, certainty, routinization, and stability, on the one hand, and unpredictability, uncertainty, spontaneity, and change, on the other hand. Relationships require both stability and change to establish and sustain their well-being (Bochner and Eisenberg 1987). Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery (1996) use the metaphor of jazz in discussing the dialectic of stability-change in relationships. Jazz artists follow a basic melody which functions as the predictable center of a given artistic performance. This backdrop of certainty enables wildly spontaneous and unpredictable musical departures. Similarly, relationship parties tack back and forth between the stable "givens" of their relationship and unpredictable "new" demands and experiences.

This discussion of commonly identified contradictions does not exhaust the list of possible unified oppositions that face relationship pairs, but it provides an introduction to at least some of the dialectical tensions that friends, romantic partners, marital couples, and families face as they conduct their everyday relating (Brown, Werner, and Altman 1998; Conville 1991; Rawlins 1992).


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesDialectical Theory - Relating As A Process Of Contradiction, Contradictions And Change, Communication And Contradictions, Conclusion