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Dialectical Theory

Contradictions And Change

Social dialectical scholars agree that the dynamic interplay of unified opposites results in ongoing and inevitable change for relationship partners. Although the ongoing tension of oppositions can be negotiated in temporary moments or periods in which all oppositions are responded to at the same time, it is much more common to see an ongoing pattern in which one pole is temporarily responded to at a cost of negating the other pole. The communicative actions that parties enact at a given moment change how a contradiction is experienced at a later point in time. For example, if parties embrace spontaneity and abandon planning, this will create pressure at some point for greater certainty and predictability in their lives.

The most common conception of this change process among dialectical scholars is a helical model, in which responsiveness to one dialectical pole, or opposite, creates pressure to attend to the opposite dialectical pole (Conville 1991). Over time, a relationship pair cycles back and forth between responsiveness to the opposing demands. For example, a parent and child may cycle back and forth between autonomy and interconnection throughout their lives. However, each time a pair cycles back, it is never exactly to the same place they were before—the parties have acquired additional experiences and perspectives. Thus, relating is like a helix.

Over time, the very meaning of a given contradiction is likely to shift. For example, Daena Goldsmith (1990) found that among romantic couples, issues of connection versus autonomy took on different meanings depending on where a couple was in their relationship's development.

Several dialectical scholars (e.g., Baxter and Erbert 1999; Conville 1991; Pawlowski 1998) have argued that relationship change is an erratic, up-and- down motion propelled by pivotal turning point events. Turning points are often moments of heightened dialectical struggle that are negotiated by the parties with varying degrees of effectiveness, thereby resulting in a negative or a positive effect on the relationship. Existing research suggests that not all contradictions are equally important in turning-point relationship change. The integrationseparation dialectic consistently appears as the most significant family of contradictions (Baxter 1990; Baxter and Erbert 1999; Pawlowski 1998). Further, the salience of various contradictions appears to vary depending on whether the change takes place early or later in a relationship's development (Baxter 1990; Pawlowski 1998).

Arthur VanLear (1998) has argued that dialectical change can function more modestly than the major moments of change captured in turning points of relationship development. In examining the cycles of openness and non-openness behavior in relationship pairs, VanLear found that cycles can vary in amplitude, with large or small swings between dialectical poles. Turning points capture only the dialectical cycles that are large in amplitude. In addition, he found that shorter cycles of change can be nested within longer cycles of change. For example, as part of a general upswing in openness, smaller cycles of candor and discretion can be identified.


Additional topics

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