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8.4: Communication in Relationships

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    Learning Outcomes
    • Learn how communication varies.
    • Analyze relationship dialectics.
    • Understand self-disclosure in relationships.

    Relationship Dialectics

    We know that all relationships go through change. The changes in a relationship are usually dependent on communication. When a relationship starts, there is a lot of positive and ample communication between the parties. However, sometimes couples go through a redundant problem, and it is important to learn how to deal with this problem. Partners can’t always know what their significant other desires or needs from them

    Dialectics had been a concept known well to many scholars for many years. They are simply the pushes and pulls that can be found every day in relationships of all types. Conversation involves people who must learn to adapt to each other while still maintaining their individuality.19 The theory emphasizes interactions allowing for more flexibility to explain how couples maintain a satisfactory, cohesive union. This perspective views relationships as simply managing the tensions that arise because they cannot be fully resolved. The management of the tensions is usually based on past experiences; what worked for a person in the past will be what they decide to use in the future. These tensions are both contradictory and interdependent because without one, the other is not understood. Leslie A. Baxter, the scholar who developed this theory, pulled from as many outside sources as she could to better understand the phenomenon of dialectical tensions within relationships. The development began by closely studying the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, who was a Russian scholar of culture, literature, philosophy, and language. Baxter was interested in his life’s work; the theory often was referred to as dialogism. Bakhtin argued that life is a social process of dialogue that is characterized by the concurrent coming together and separating of individual perspectives.

    Early in Baxter’s career, she noticed that while she was interested in the termination of relationships, her colleagues were interested in the beginnings. Although her colleagues were interested in disclosure, she was interested in non-disclosure. At this point, it still had not occurred to her that these opposing. interests in research would lead her to the understanding of dialectical tensions. She continued to research these subjects and read as much as she could on Marxist and Hegelian dialectics as she found these writings to be both fascinating and frustrating. She processed these writings slowly, and the concepts slowly began to show up in her work. In 1993, Baxter and Montgomery began writing a book on dialectics called Relating: Dialogues and Dialectics. This was her first official work done on dialectics and its conversational effects. She continued writing about dialectics and continued to expand the concepts as she further researched families, romantic relationships, and friendships. Since then, Baxter has continually changed and shifted her studies to find new and better ways to use the theory. After conducting a series of in-depth interviews, both Baxter and Montgomery began to see themes in the tensions experienced in romantic relationships. Their overarching research premise (which is applicable to all relationships, including mother/daughter relationships) is that all personal ties and relationships are always in a state of constant flux and contradiction. Relational dialectics highlight a “dynamic knot of contradictions in personal relationships; an unceasing interplay between contrary or opposing tendencies.”20 The concept of contradiction is crucial to understanding relational dialectics. The contradiction is when there are opposing sides to a situation. These contradictions tend to arise when both parties are considered interdependent. Dialectical tension is natural and inevitable. All relationships are complex because human beings are complex, and this fact is reflected in our communicative processes. Baxter and Montgomery argue that tension arises because we are drawn to the antitheses of opposing sides. These contradictions must be met with a “both/and” approach as opposed to the “either/ or” mindset. However, the “both/and” approach lends to tension and pressure, which almost always guarantees that relationships are not easy.

    Dialectical tension is how individuals deal with struggles in their relationship. There are opposing forces or struggles that couples have to deal with. It is based on Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery’s Relational Dialectics Theory in 1996. Below are some different relational dialectics.21


    This is where partners seek involvement but are not willing to sacrifice their entire identity. For instance, in a marriage, some women struggle with taking their partner’s last name, keeping their maiden name or combining the two. Often when partners were single, they might have engaged in a girl’s night out or a guy’s night out. When in a committed relationship, one partner might feel left out and want to be more involved. Thus, struggles and conflict occur until the couple can figure out a way to deal with this issue.


    This deals with rituals/routines compared to novelty. For instance, for some mothers, it is tough to accept that their child is an adult. They want their child to grow up, at the same time it is difficult to recognize how their child has grown up.


    Disclosure is necessary, but there is a need for privacy. For some couples, diaries work to keep things private. Yet, there are times when their partner needs to know what can’t be expressed directly through words.


    This tension deals with self vs. others. Some couples are very similar in their thinking and beliefs. This is good because it makes communication easier and conflict resolution smoother. Yet, if partners are too similar, then they cannot grow. Differences can help couples mature and create stimulation.


    Couples will perceive some things as good and some things as bad. Their perceptions of what is real may interfere with or inhibit perceptions of what is real. For instance, a couple may think that their relationship is perfect. But from an outsider, they might think that the relationship is abusive and devastating.

    Another example might be that a young dating couple thinks that they do not have to marry each other because it is the ideal and accepted view of taking the relationship to the next phase. Thus, the couples move in together and raise a family without being married. They have deviated from what is an ideal normative cultural script.22

    Every relationship is fraught with these dialectical tensions. There’s no way around them. However, there are different ways of managing dialectical tensions:

    • Denial is where we respond to one end. • Disorientation is where we feel overwhelmed. We fight, freeze, or leave. • Alternation is where we choose one end on different occasions. • Recalibration is reframing the situation or perspective. • Segmentation is where we compartmentalize different areas. • Balance is where we manage and compromise our needs. • Integration is blending different perspectives. • Reaffirmation is having the knowledge & accepting our differences.

    Not every couple deals with dialectical tensions in the same way. Some will use a certain strategy during specific situations, and others will use the same strategy every time there is tension. You have to decide what is best for you based on the situation.


    In Chapter 7, we started our discussion of self-disclosure. We discussed Sidney Jourard’s basic definition of self-disclosure, “the act of making yourself manifest, showing yourself so others can perceive you.”23 Jourard believed that self-disclosure was necessary to have good mental health. All in all, Jourard took a very humanistic or health approach to self-disclosure because he deemed that it was an essential and integral part of our wellbeing.

    Individuals disclose for a variety of reasons. Sandra Petronio has presented five potential reasons for self-disclosure: (a) expression, (b) self-clarification, (c) social value, (d) relationship development, and (e) social control and influence.24 Petronio explained, “for each type of disclosure, there is a corresponding expectation communicated that influences the choice of response.”25

    Four considerations are pertinent to disclosure.26 First, the type of relationship will affect individuals’ need to disclose. The more significant the disclose is to the discloser, then the greater the need more to disclose information. Second, the disclosure has a risk-to-benefits ratio. In other words, individuals who disclose certain types of information, may risk losing certain things (i.e., career or pride) or may benefit certain things (i.e., trust or security). Third, the appropriateness and relevance to the situation impacts what gets disclosed and what does not get disclosed. Fourth, disclosure depends on reciprocity. Individuals will disclose similar amounts of information to each other.

    The amount of disclosure that we are willing to share with others also depends on other factors. It is based on honesty, depth, availability of information, and the environment.

    First, when we disclose to others, we can truly reveal characteristics about ourselves, or we can lie. In a recent study, it was found that most college students lie when initially meeting someone new for the first time. The cause is because we want to impress others. A lot of deception occurs in online chatrooms because sometimes people do not want to reveal who they really are, because of possible repercussions.

    Depth is another factor of self-disclosure. When I talk to my parents, I can share hours of information about my day with them. I can talk about all sorts of things with them. However, I have a friend who is only willing to talk about the weather and what he ate with his parents. As you can see, the depth of information is very different. One person only talks about superficial facts, and the other person delves a lot deeper and is willing to discuss more themselves.

    The availability of information has an impact as well. For instance, if you have more information on a certain topic, you might be willing to share more comments on the matter. For instance, say you and your friends are trying to decide which presidential candidate to support in the next election. You might be more willing to self-disclose what you know about a candidate and your opinions about that candidate based on your information. However, you might be less willing to comment on another candidate if you don’t know their platform or background.

    The context or environment also has an impact on self-disclosure. For instance, have you ever noticed that people tend to open up about themselves when they are in a confined space, such as an airplane? It is so interesting to see how people are willing to share personal information about themselves with a total stranger only because the other person is doing it as well.

    Alternatives to Self-Disclosure

    So, if you don’t want to self-disclose to others, what are some techniques that you can use? First, you can use deception. Sometimes people lie simply to avoid conflict. This is true in cases where the person may become extremely upset. They can lie to gain power or to save face. They can also lie to guide the interaction.

    Second, you can equivocate. This means you don’t answer the question or provide your comments. Rather, you simply restated what they said differently. For instance, Sally says, “how do you like my new dress?”, you can say “Wow! That’s a new outfit!” In this case, you don’t provide how you feel, and you don’t disclose your opinion. You only offer the information that has been provided to you.

    Third, you can hint. Perhaps, you don’t want to lie or equivocate to someone you care about. You might use indirect or face-saving comments. For example, if your roommate has not helped you clean your apartment, you might say things like, “It sure is messy in here” or “This place could really use some cleaning.”

    Key Takeaways
    • Communication is personalized. It can be symmetrical or complementary. Communication has two levels – content and relational.
    • Relationship dialectics are tensions that happen in a relationship. Partners have to deal with integration vs. separation, stability vs change, and expression vs. privacy.
    • Self-disclosure is important in relationships because it allows you to share more information about yourself with another person.
    • Find a transcript of your favorite television sitcom on the Internet. See if you can identify which types of communication is relational/content and which are symmetrical/complementary.
    • Consider three different issues that you might be dealing in a relationship that you have with another person. What are the relationship dialectic tensions? How are you handling these tensions? Identify what strategy you are using to deal with this tension. Why?
    • Create a list of all the reasons you would disclose and why you would not disclose. Discuss the finding in class. Were there differences or similarities?

    This page titled 8.4: Communication in Relationships is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.