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Dialectical Theory

Communication And Contradictions

Dialectical contradictions are constituted in the communicative practices of relationship parties. It is through communication that contradictions are given a social life. How parties constitute a given contradiction at Time 1 affects how that contradiction will be experienced at Time 2. Several kinds of communicative practices have been identified in existing dialectical work (Baxter and Montgomery 1996).

Because of the helical pattern that frequently characterizes dialectical change, it is not surprising that researchers have found two dominant communication practices in the negotiation of contradiction. In enacting spiraling inversion, relationship parties tack back and forth through time, alternating an emphasis first on one dialectical pole and then on the other dialectical pole. For example, a long-distance marital couple trying to negotiate the dialectic of integration and separation could alternate their week-ends between those spent together and those spent apart. In enacting segmentation, relationship parties negotiate by topic or activity domain, agreeing that in domain A one dialectical pole will be emphasized whereas in domain B the other dialectical pole will be emphasized. The long-distance couple may decide that Monday through Friday are the days in which their individual lives will take priority, whereas Saturday and Sunday are the days in which their relationship will take priority. Both spiraling inversion and segmentation allow a relationship pair to move back and forth between oppositions, but in different ways.

Although it is less common for relationship parties to be responsive to both dialectical poles simultaneously, three communication practices have been identified to accomplish this both/and simultaneity. When parties enact balance, they basically strive for a compromise response; that is, a response in which both dialectical poles are fulfilled but only partially. For example, family members struggling with the dialectic of expression-nonexpression might compromise by revealing partial, not full, truths to one another. Such a compromise would be neither fully open nor fully closed but somewhere in the middle.

The next practice, integration, involves a complete instead of a partial response to both dialectical poles at the same time. Given that the poles negate each other, this practice is a complex one. Several dialectical scholars have argued that communication rituals exemplify integration practices (e.g., Braithwaite, Baxter, and Harper 1998). Rituals hold both sides of a contradiction at once through their multiple layers of symbolism. For example, the marriage ritual at once celebrates the uniqueness of the particular marital couple at the same time that it celebrates the conventions and traditions of marriage as an institution.

The third practice, recalibration, occurs when a relationship pair is able to symbolically reconstruct a contradiction such that the dialectical demands are no longer experienced as oppositional. For example, a marital pair might take a break from their marriage—separate vacations, for example—in order to enhance closeness. Such a transformation of the integration-separation dialectic would produce a paradoxical recalibration in which separation enhanced integration rather than negating it.

Common to all five of these dialectical practices—spiraling inversion, segmentation, balance, integration, and recalibration—is an appreciation of the dialectical nature of relating. However, Baxter and Montgomery (1996) also have described two communicative practices that they regard as less functional in negotiating the dialectics of relating. In communicative denial, relationship parties attempt to extinguish one opposition of a given dialectic, ignoring its existence by wishing it away. A pair may say that they are "totally open" with one another, but such a declaration belies the importance of discretion. In enacting disorientation, parties construct contradiction as a totally negative problem which overwhelms them and brings them to a nihilistic state of despair. A disoriented partner might say something like "Why bother to make the marriage work, anyway? No matter what you do, you'll be unhappy."

Additional topics

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