The dialectical approach to communication examines the tension between two desirable goals or values. When two contradictory "goods" are in dialectical tension with one another, you may want both of them. For instance, you may feel a contradiction between liking the companionship that comes from being with other people but still need some time to be by yourself. Or you may enjoy the comfort of being in a predictable and stable relationship, in which the rules are crystal clear, yet want to "break out of the box" from time to time and do something zany and unpredictable. Finally, you might feel the value of sharing information while simultaneously recognizing that a particular disclosure is better left unsaid. In each of these kinds of situations, you feel tension between conflicting "goods."
Studies by Baxter (1994) identify three major types of contradictions in interpersonal relationships (see Figure 5.9). Dialectical tensions are likely to occur over these issues:
- Integration and separation
- Stability and change
- Expression and privacy
Internal Tensions within a Relationship
Baxter (1994) observes that internal dialectical tensions are experienced directly by people within a relationship, such as a dyad or a few people who have an exclusive relationship. Opposing wants and needs create internal contradictions in relational members (see Figure 5.10). However, Baxter describes these tensions as being inherent to relationships and necessary for intimacy. This last thought bears repeating: Internal dialectical tensions can actually bring the people in a relationship together when they are managed well.
Within a relationship, the tension of integration and separation is experienced as need for connection when we recognize the value of togetherness and closeness along with the need for autonomy, which manifests itself in independence. Maintaining both of these opposites contributes to the well-being of the relationship.
The dialectic of stability and change is experienced within a relationship by having predictability in order to achieve a sense of stability, which enables us to predict how the other will act and shape expectations about how we are supposed to act while at the same time having novelty as part of the value of change so that a relationship does not get stuck in a rut.
The dialectic of expression and privacy is experienced with the value of openness when partners disclose information while at the same time, they appreciate the importance of closedness and recognize that sometimes it is better to choose not to disclose.
A humorous illustration of these internal dialectical tensions can be seen in the recent film My Big Fat Greek Wedding in terms of how the main character, Toula Portokalos (played by Nia Vardalos), relates to her extremely ethnic, large, and close-knit family. That family, headed by Toula's father, Gus (with decidedly subtle input from her mother, Marie), holds firmly onto their Greek identity and celebrates everything in the Greek manner. Toula's decisions to break away from that identity and experience life outside the Greek communityincluding most importantly, a romantic relationship with a man who is not Greekcreate a variety of dialectical tensions for her.
Internal Dialectic of Integration and Separation: Connection and Autonomy
Some of us may be able to relate to tensions such as those experienced by Toula. In the film, she works for her family in their restaurant yet desires to go to college and have her own career. For her, it is not simply a question of wanting to have either a close connection with her family or being independent of them. Rather, she recognizes that both are desirable. Thus, dialectical tensions are not questions of either/or but of both/and. To manage the tension, we look for ways to satisfy both needs or desires.
Internal Dialectic of Stability and Change: Predictability and Novelty
Baxter (1994) observes that the dialectic of stability and change is often about how we experience a sense of continuity as well as moments of discontinuity. Predictable relationships provide continuity and a sense of security that comes from following a routine. As My Big Fat Greek Wedding opens, Toula is being driven to the family restaurant at the crack of dawn by her father, Gus (who is played by Michael Constantine). This daily opening of the restaurant is so tightly scripted that Toula and Gus can almost do it in their sleep. Toula's life seems to be predictable, too. She is expected to marry a man from a Greek family and continue the family identity. But she eventually realizes that she wants a different life. Along with an education and career, Toula wants to marry Ian Miller (played by John Corbett), who is not Greek. This development illustrates the third dialectic of openness and closedness.
Internal Dialectic of Expression and Privacy: Openness and Closedness
The dialectical tension surrounding being open and being closed goes beyond simply deciding whether to self-disclose information or how much to share about your self. Self-disclosure is a dialogue that encompasses being open to another (by acknowledging and accepting what another person discloses) as well as being open with another (by sharing self-disclosures about your self). When we are open to someone else, we indicate our willingness to listen to them and to their feelings, and demonstrate responsiveness, understanding, and empathy. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula decides initially not to be open with her family about the fact that she is dating a person who is not Greek. Perhaps, she senses that her parents are not likely to be open to her disclosures.
Baxter and Montgomery (1996) suggest that when we enter into a dialogue of being open with and to one another, we create the opportunity to construct new relational selves. This process of creating new selves is like going on a journey of shared discovery and redefinition of one another as well as of ourselves. As Baxter and Montgomery state the matter: "Relationships become 'close' and 'personal' to us because they celebrate the ongoing creation of ourselves with those who have been most crucial in inviting our potential" (p. 151). And so when Toula's parents do eventually learn of her involvement with Ian and even become open to the idea that she will marry him, it creates the opportunity for all to grow and acquire new selves.