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10.3: Relationship Challenges

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    • Discuss how our communication reflects tensions experienced in interpersonal relationships.
    • Identify helpful elements of supportive communication.
    • Describe the stages of relationship dissolution.


    Interpersonal relationships are an important part of our everyday life. These relationships, whether they are friendships, family relationships, or romantic relationships, can offer very rewarding benefits, such as love, support, affection, and a sense of belonging. However, as you have likely experienced, not everything in our day-to-day relationships is “roses and sunshine”.. Relationships can also bring about some difficult challenges.

    For example, conflict involving competing needs or desires can introduce challenges into a relationship. You may want to just chill and watch Netflix by yourself next Saturday, but your friends want you to come to a party. Alternatively, maybe your parents want to know everything about how your classes are going, but you also feel like your classes are your business, not theirs.

    Other relationship challenges emerge when we are confronted with a significant challenge or problems. For example, if one of your friends is worried because she found out she is probably going to fail a class, what would you do? What would you tell her? Perhaps another friend tells you he found out he lost his job and doesn’t know how he will pay for school. How would you respond?

    Another challenge some people face is when their relationship is headed for a breakup or has already ended. For example, imagine your friend was just dumped by his girlfriend and needs help getting over the breakup. How would you respond to that situation? What if another friend is still in a relationship, but thinks it’s going nowhere. How do you think she would handle that?

    The questions presented within these examples are difficult ones without any easy answer. However, this third module introduces a set of three theories that might actually be helpful in better understanding some of the relationship challenges mentioned in these examples. The three theories we will focus on here are relational dialectics theory, the dual process theory of supportive communication, and the relationship dissolution model.

    Relational Dialectics Theory

    Relational Dialectics Theory (RDT; Baxter & Montgomery, 1996) broadly explains that our communication is an important factor in how we see (or understand our) relationships. RDT demonstrates this through two important ideas.

    Idea #1: Communication does not just occur within relationships, but rather relationships exist because of communication.

    Idea #2: We come to understand our relationships based on various “tensions” that are reflected in our communication.

    Since those two ideas may sound a bit odd, let’s dig into them a bit more with some examples. First, let’s talk about Idea #1

    Think about the last time you were in the grocery store and saw an individual that you did not know. At that moment, you had never communicated with that individual and thus did not share any type of relationship with them. However, if you were to approach them and say, “Hey! I like your Dallas Cowboys t-shirt. Are you from Dallas?” The communication you share (assuming they respond) begins to construct the relationship you share, even if your only communication with them is in that moment.

    For example, consider the different ways that individual might respond. They might say, “Yeah! I’m from Dallas and have been a Cowboys fan all my life!” or “No, not from Dallas. I just wear it because my partner likes the Cowboys. I actually hate football.” How might your relationship change? You might have more or less in common with them depending on your interests and which response you get. Regardless, that interaction and the communication you share begins constructing your relationship in some way.

    Now let’s turn to Idea #2 and talk about how our communication about “tensions” we experience shapes how we come to understand our relationships. But first, let’s take a minute to define “tensions”. RDT uses the concept of tensions to describe competing needs or desires (i.e., dialectics) that we often experience within relationships. In other words, these tensions are like an ever-shifting game of “tug of war” between various needs or desires that we have.

    For example, maybe you’ve wanted reassurance, comfort, and support from your parents during a difficult time. But you’ve also likely desired independence at some point (i.e., the ability to make your own decisions rather than be told what to do). This would be an example of competing desires of connection and autonomy: at times, we want to be close to our parents, but other times we want to be independent or more distant.

    RDT proposes that we experience three primary tensions (i.e., competing needs or desires) within our interpersonal relationships: connection vs. autonomy, certainty vs. uncertainty, and openness vs. closedness. Figure 7 describes these tensions further.

    Connection vs. Separation
    The desire for… Can be described as…


    The need to feel close, connected, together


    The need to feel independent, self-sufficient, separate
    Certainty vs. Uncertainty
    The desire for… Can be described as…


    The need for stability, predictability, consistency


    The need for spontaneity, novelty, excitement

    Openness vs. Closedness
    The desire for… Can be described as…


    The need for full disclosure, honesty, mutual information sharing


    The need for selective disclosure, privacy, individual information ownership

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Description of Dialectical Tensions

    Now that we understand these relationship tensions, let’s think about how we might see evidence of these tensions in our relationship talk. Fox et al. (2014) provide a great example in their study exploring the role of Facebook in adult romantic relationships. Although their study examined many aspects of Facebook, one specific focus was on the idea of making a relationship “Facebook official.” Fox et al. (2014) provide the following quote from a research participant:

    When we first started dating, we had to have that conversation of, ‘‘Okay, are we ready to make it Facebook official?’’ Because we had both come out of, like, rough relationships before. Like, do we want those people to know that we’re in a relationship? Like, do we feel comfortable with essentially the rest of [xxx] knowing that we’re in a relationship? We were exclusively dating each other, but we weren’t ready to make it public online” (p. 530).

    If we were to use RDT to make sense of this quote, what stands out to you? Hopefully you can see some relationship tensions emerging. Using an RDT perspective allows us to better understand this individual’s relationship experiences by examining how they communicate about their relationship, as well how their communication highlights the tensions that they experience.

    For example, hopefully you can see how the “Openness vs. Closedness” tension is present, particularly in the relationship between the couple and their social network (i.e., should we be open about our relationship on Facebook or not?). You may also sense a possible “Connection vs. Separation” tension, especially when it comes to tensions in whether we communicate our Facebook identities as being separate (“Single”) or connected (“In a Relationship”).

    Now that we understand the tensions on which RDT often focuses, it is worth noting that RDT is often misinterpreted and limited as being a theory that simply explains the types of tensions we experience in relationships. Rather, RDT is concerned with how studying these tensions allows us to better understand how individuals make sense of their relationships.

    Most specifically, RDT “is a theory of the meaning-making between relationship parties that emerges from the interplay of competing discourses [i.e., tensions]” (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008; p. 349). It is through resolving and managing the tensions that emerge in our communication with others that we get a better understanding about who we are and how we relate to others.

    For an example of how this might happen, consider the following quote from Simmons et al.’s (2013) study about African-American students’ experiences in higher education:

    Student 1 (female): As a group, we do not need the university to recognize us. We can make it on our own.

    Student 2 (male): No, we don’t need them, but still, if we want an education, if we want financial aid, we can’t piss ’em off. We have to extend the hand.

    Student 1 (female): But is it worth selling ourselves out in order to be a part of this university? We should be able to achieve it on our own.

    Student 3 (female): Saying we should do it on our own is like you think everybody who belongs to a group or ethnicity shouldn’t give or receive help from anyone else. That’s the problem with our culture. We don’t know when to stand up and fight and when to join hands in unity.

    Student 2 (male): It’s just hard to know when to ‘‘play the game’’ and when to assert yourselves.

    Student 3 (female): It’s not about getting help, it is about being a part of the university, this community. Do we want to be or not?

    Student 1 (female): Sure, we want to be recognized, to be a part. But how? Life is just easier when I’m just with my [African-American peers]” (p. 386).

    First, we see the tension of “Connection vs. Autonomy” emerge in the students’ struggle in determining their desired connection with the university and their desired autonomy or separation from the university. Second, for the students, these quotes also demonstrate how communicating about these tensions illuminates an understanding of who they are and how they relate to others (i.e., autonomous African-American students connected to the dominant White culture of the university).

    In summary, RDT provides a unique way of explaining how communication affects our relationships, but also how our communication reflects the various tensions that we experience within our relationships. And as we mentioned before, the process of managing these tensions helps us get a better understanding about who we are and how we relate to others.

    Doesn’t managing these tensions get difficult at times though? Yes, at times, that can be a challenging “tug of war” within our relationships. But whether we face managing relationship tensions or other relationship challenges, it may be useful to consider how seeking advice, support, or assistance from others might be beneficial for us amidst such challenges.

    Therefore, to help us explore this idea of obtaining this type of support for ourselves or giving it to others, let’s turn to our second theory in this module: the dual-process theory of supportive communication.

    Dual-Process Theory of supportive communication

    The Dual-Process Theory of Supportive Communication (DPTSC; Burleson, 2009) broadly explains 1) how supportive communication works and 2) why some supportive communication interactions produce positive results while others do not. But what exactly do we mean by “supportive communication”? As in many cases, definitions will vary. However, most researchers define supportive communication as “verbal and nonverbal behavior produced with the intention of providing assistance to others perceived as needing that aid” (Burleson & MacGeorge, 2002, p. 374).

    So in short, we could say that supportive communication happens when we attempt to help others in some way. For example, if you’ve ever given a friend advice about a problem, offered condolences to a coworker for a lost loved one, or provided a family member encouragement when they were facing a major life challenge, then you’ve engaged in supportive communication. But is supportive communication always helpful or effective?

    DPTSC says that not all supportive communication is helpful. But to determine what leads to supportive communication actually being helpful, DPTSC explains that there are three important characteristics that predict effective and helpful supportive communication interactions:

    Characteristic #1: The listener is highly motivated to pay attention and process the message.

    Examples of what often influences motivation include the severity of the problem, message timing, and how much control the listener feels like they have in solving the problem.

    For instance, listeners would likely have much higher motivation to carefully process supportive messages after realizing they failed a class than after they simply lost 50 Instagram followers (i.e., significant differences in severity of problem and control over solving the problem).

    Characteristic #2: The listener is able to effectively process and understand the message.

    The ability to process and understand a supportive message can depend on simple factors like distractions and age, as well as more complex factors like cognitive complexity (i.e., the ability to understand more complex ideas and messages).

    For example, if you gave the same supportive message to an 8-year old and a 23-year old, their cognitive complexity and ability to process the message would vary greatly. So you would likely need to adapt your message depending on who you are talking with.

    Characteristic #3: The message is high-quality.

    The quality of supportive messages is often influenced by clearly communicating an intention to be helpful and adhering to politeness norms, as well as acknowledging, affirming, and supporting the perspectives and feelings of the listener (i.e., verbal person centeredness).

    For example, if your friend was devastated by being unexpectedly dumped by their long-time boyfriend, a low-quality (and likely offensive) message might be, “You’ll get over it. He was a jerk anyway.” (i.e., the message contains no communication of a helpful intent and a dreadful lack of verbal person-centeredness).

    In contrast, a higher-quality message might be, “I’m so sorry (effort at social politeness after a loss). I certainly understand why you feel so hurt and how losing such an important part of your life is so devastating right now (acknowledging and affirming listener’s feelings). I want to support and help you get through this however I can (communication of helpful intent).

    So what does this mean for you? First, recognize that you have a significant amount of control in shaping the supportive communication you share with others.

    Although we may not be able to control a listener’s motivation (Characteristic #1), you do control how you can adapt your message based on what you know about your listener, such as their age and the context (Characteristic #2). Furthermore, you also control the content (i.e., what you say) and delivery (i.e., how you say it) of the supportive communication messages you share with others (Characteristic #3).

    Second, because of this, you contain the profound ability to have a positive impact on others by providing effective supportive communication during times of need. But remember that not all attempts at providing supportive communication are helpful. The quality of the communication matters. Thankfully, DPTSC provides some useful explanations that help us identify factors 1) that predict the helpfulness of supportive communication and 2) that we can control to make our supportive communication as helpful as possible.

    If we consider when we might need to provide support to other people, the possibilities are endless. However, one situation where people often need a lot of support is during what is called relationship dissolution (i.e., break ups, divorce, etc.). But as with any communication situation, our ability to provide support during these times would likely benefit from better understanding what people are actually experiencing in the relationship dissolution process.

    So to help provide some understanding of this process, let’s turn to our third theory in this module: the model of relationship dissolution.

    A model of relational dissolution

    Earlier in this unit, we presented Altman and Taylor’s (1973) social penetration theory (SPT) delineating how self-disclosure facilitates relationship development. As you might also remember, the authors of SPT also proposed a model of relational depenetration as a reverse process of relational development. During relational depenetration, the width and depth of disclosure decrease, and the perceived intimacy lessens. The relational depenetration process conceptually corresponds with the process of relational dissolution (Rollie & Duck, 2006).

    Scholars have been coming up with ways to describe and explain the process of relational dissolution; one example is Duck’s (1982) Model of Relational Dissolution. Duck proposed that relational dissolution generally involves four distinct phases: intrapsychic phase, dyadic phase, social phase, and the grave-dressing phase.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Relational Dissolution Model

    In the intrapsychic phase, individuals brood over issues that bother them in their relationships, such as whether they are compatible with each other and where the future of the relationship is. They then are likely to make an internal decision about whether to continue the relationship or not.

    In the dyadic phase, individuals communicate with their romantic partners regarding their thoughts and feelings about the current and future states of their relationships. At this point, both partners may make a decision about the possibility of repairing the amended relationship, postponing changing the current status of the relationship, or terminating their relationship. When one partner insists on breakup or when both partners agree with the decision of relational dissolution, they will enter into the next phase: the social phase.

    In the social phase, one or both partners will inform their social networks about the relational dissolution. According to Duck (1982), relational dissolution does not happen in vacuum, but affect and are affected by individuals’ relationships with their social networks. Think of the time when you see your friend changed their Facebook status from “in a relationship” to “single”. You can see it as an official announcement of relational termination to a social network.

    Last, in the grave-dressing phase, individuals come up with narratives to explain their relational dissolution to others. You probably have heard many different kinds of narratives from people you know of about why they broke up, such as “While, I am not the right person for her. She deserves someone better” or “We have different working schedules and it was hard to maintain a relationship when you only saw each other twice a week. We simply grew apart.”

    Duck (2005) later modified the original model by emphasizing the role everyday communication plays during the process of relational dissolution. For example, Duck (2005) identified a new phase following the grave-dressing phase, which is labeled as the resurrection phase.

    In this phase, individuals reflect on the ceased relationships, regain self-identity, and achieve growth, which altogether prepares themselves for a fresh start to future relationships. You might better recognize this phase as the moment a person stops following their ex-partner’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, does activities they used to enjoy before the relationship, and meet new people.

    Current research has applied Duck’s relational dissolution model to individuals’ Facebook behaviors during relational dissolution (LeFebvre, Blackburn, & Brody, 2015). These researchers identified specific online behaviors in each phase. For example, individuals engaged in relational cleansing (e.g., change relationship status on Facebook) during the social phase, account modification in the grave dressing phase, and impression management in the resurrection phase.

    It should be noted that relational dissolution does not equate to the end of communication between ex-partners; nor does it permanently terminate a dissolved romantic relationship. In fact, researchers have examined how communication often continues between ex-partners in the post-dissolution phase (e.g., Koenig Kellas et al., 2008) and may affect the potential renewals of dissolved relationships (i.e., on-again/off-again relationships; Dailey et al., 2012).

    Based on this research, it is important to understand relational dissolution as a nonlinear (i.e., not straightforward), idiosyncratic (i.e., complex), and communicative process that is influenced by individual, relational, and contextual factors.

    As we close our discussion of the theory, let’s reflect on what we have learned in this module as a whole. We have examined three important theories that help explain how communication plays an important role in navigating, managing, and facilitating various relationship challenges.

    Our discussion has taken us from the tensions of relational dialectics theory, to the keys of supportive communication suggested by the dual process theory of supportive communication, and into the understanding of how communication changes when relationships dissolve, as explained in the relationship dissolution model.

    Through this, hopefully you have achieved a better understanding of the relationship between our communication and the relationship challenges we face.


    Our discussion in this unit has taken you through a diverse set of theories highlighting important areas of interpersonal communication. We began by defining a theory as an evidence-based principle or idea that explains a given phenomenon. In other words, a theory generally attempts to explain questions of how or why something happens.

    From there, we examined nine important theories that explained questions about the role of communication in relationship development, relationship interactions, and relationship challenges.

    As you leave this unit, we hope this has helped you develop a more advanced understanding of 1) fundamental theories in interpersonal communication and 2) how these theories can help us explain how communication affects relationships, as well as how relationships affect communication.


    Activity 1: Identifying Dialectical Tensions: Think – Pair – Share

    1. On a sheet of paper, students should write down the three dialectical tensions described within the Relational Dialectics Theory section.
    2. Ask students to identify how they see these tensions happening in two different types of relationships (think of as many examples as possible):
    3. Students should then get in pairs and discuss their findings together.
    • What similarities do they share?
    • What tensions seem most prominent?
    • How do they try to navigate these tensions?

    4. Discuss findings together as a class. Along with reviewing the “pair” findings, explore other areas of discussion:

    • Do we share any common strategies for how we navigate the tensions in our relationships?
    • Do you ever talk about these tensions with your friends and families? If yes, why? Is it helpful? If no, why not?

    5. Consider possible connections with communication privacy management theory

    Activity 2: Discussing Connections Between Social Support and Health

    1. Watch Chandra Story’s TEDx talk on social support and wellness. Source:
    2. The talk will provide a very general link between social support and health. However, it sets the stage for important discussions about our supportive communication might be incredibly influential in helping others achieve better health.
    3. Generate discussion using the prompts below either 1) as a class or 2) start in pairs and move to larger class discussion later (“Think – Pair – Share” process)
    • In what way(s) do you think supportive communication could help others achieve their health goals?
    • Can you think of any examples where someone has given you supportive communication and it made a positive difference, whether health-related or not?

    4. Practice creating high-quality supportive communication message in response to the statements below. Feel free to “role play” with your partner. (Refer to the characteristics of high-quality supportive communication [Characteristic #3] as a reminder of how we should craft these messages.)

    • “I really want to lose weight, but I just can’t do it by myself.”
    • “I feel so depressed, but I’m not sure what to do.”
    • “Why should I do a routine medical check-up? I haven’t done one in years and I’ve been fine.”
    • “I’m so stressed because I don’t feel like I can manage my job, school, and my family stuff.”


    Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

    Baxter, L. A., & Braithwaite, D. O. (2008). Relational dialectics theory: Crafting meaning from competing discourses. In D. O. Braithwaite & L. A. Baxter (Eds.), Engaging theories in interpersonal communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 349-361). Sage.

    Baxter, L. A., & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Relating: Dialogues and dialectics. Guilford.

    Burleson, B. R. (2009). Understanding the outcomes of supportive communication: A dual process approach. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(1), 21–38.

    Burleson, B. R., & MacGeorge, E. L. (2002). Supportive communication. In M. L. Knapp & J. A.Daly (Eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication (3rd ed., pp. 374–424). SAGE.

    Dailey, R. M., Rossetto, K. R., McCracken, A. A., Jin, B., & Green, E. W. (2012). Negotiating breakups and renewals in on-again/off-again dating relationships: Traversing the transitions. Communication Quarterly, 60, 165-189.

    Duck, S. W. (1982). A topography of relationship disengagement and dissolution. In S. W. Duck (Ed.), Personal relationships: Vol. 4. Dissolving personal relationships (pp.1-30). Academic Press.

    Duck, S. W. (2005). How do you tell someone you’re letting go? A new model of relationship break up. The Psychologist, 18, 210-213.

    Fox, J., Osborn, J. L., & Warber, K. M. (2014). Relational dialectics and social networking sites: The role of facebook in romantic relationship escalation, maintenance, conflict, and dissolution. Computers in Human Behavior, 35, 527-534.

    Koenig Kellas, J., Bean, D., Cunningham, C., & Cheng, K. Y. (2008). The ex-files: Trajectories, turning points, and adjustment in the development of post-dissolution relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 23-50.

    LeFebvre, L., Blackburn, K., & Brody, N. (2015). Navigating romantic relationships on Facebook: Extending the relationship dissolution model to social networking environments. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 78-98.

    Rollie, S. S., & Duck, S. (2006). Divorce and dissolution of romantic relationships: Stage models and their limitations. In M. A. Fine & J. H. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of divorce and relationship dissolution (pp. 223–240). Erlbaum.

    Simmons, J., Lowery-Hart, R., Wahl, S., & Mcbride, M. (2013). Understanding the African-American Student Experience in Higher Education Through a Relational Dialectics Perspective. Communication Education, 62(4), 376–394.


    Dyadic phase: The phase of the relational dissolution model in which individuals talk about the viability of breakup with their romantic partners

    Grave-dressing phase: The phase of the relational dissolution model in which individuals develops accounts to explain their breakups to others

    Intrapsychic phase: The phase of the relational dissolution model in which individuals think about the possibility of break up

    Resurrection phase: The phase of the relational dissolution model in which regain identity and achieve personal growth following breakup

    Social phase: The phase of the relational dissolution model in which individuals inform their social networks about their breakup

    Supportive communication: Verbal and nonverbal behavior produced with the intention of providing assistance to others perceived as needing that aid

    Tensions (dialectical): Competing needs or desires (i.e., dialectics) that we often experience within relationships

    Verbal person centeredness: Acknowledging, affirming, and supporting the perspectives and feelings of someone else

    This page titled 10.3: Relationship Challenges is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

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