Relational dialectics theory (RDT) is a communication theory. The 4 key features of RDT are: contradiction, totality process and praxis.
Briefly, the four features of RDT are:
- Contradiction: Relationships are always in ‘contradiction’ because they have inbuilt tensions.
- Totality: Relational dialectics theory believes that you should look at the ‘totality’ of the contradictions in a relationship (not just one) to see the challenges that exist and how to address them.
- Process: Relationships also are constantly in a ‘process of change’ so they never stay the same.
- Praxis: Lastly, ‘praxis’ is a word that explains how we act in a relationship: we can either accept and accommodate the other person’s needs, or act out negatively when tensions occur.
Definition of Relational Dialectics
Relational Dialectics Theory (RDT) is a communication theory that believes that relationships between people are always changing, that tensions in our relationships are normal, and that good clear communication is necessary to sustain positive productive interpersonal relationships.
Relational dialectics is a theory that is used by relationship counselors, researchers, and mentors to explore ways to create productive, positive, and happy relationships.
I know that’s a lot to take in all at once – that’s why scholars have broken the theory down into 4 principles (contradiction, change, totality and practice), which I discuss below.
- Read also: The Osgood-Schramm Model of Communication
- Read also: The Lasswell Model of Communication
Read also: The Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication
Because relational dialectics theory can be hard to understand, scholars have broken it down into 4 key features. These key features help us to understand what the theory is all about:
Within a relationship, we often come across two wants, needs, or desires that are contradictory.
Here are some examples:
- With my wife, I might want both intimacy and space. The two concepts contradict one another, but I want both these things from the relationship, at different times;
- With my parents, I want them to be available to me whenever I need them, but I also don’t want them to constantly be in my life
According to relational dialectics theory, contradictions within a relationship (also called tensions) are natural in any relationship. The theory aims to look at how to overcome and work with contradictions and tensions in relationships
‘Totality’ within the context of relational dialectics means that we need to look at all of the tensions in a relationship, rather than just one in isolation.
If we want a good overall view of a relationship, we need to look at the ‘totality’ of factors.
Here’s how Dumlao and Janke (2012, p. 156) explain totality:
- “Totality, another core concept in relational dialectics, emphasizes the idea that the social world is a series of interrelated contradictions”
That word ‘interrelated’ is important in the above quote. It means that all the contradictions we might experience in a relationship can impact each other.
To understand just how many contradictions there can be in relationships, scholars have split them into two categories: Internal and External contradictions
Here’s the difference:
- Internal contradictions: When two people in the relationship have contradictory needs, wants and desires;
- External contradictions: When the needs, wants and desires of the people within the relationship contradict with the needs, wants and desires of people outside of the relationship.
So, when trying to identify problems or challenges in a relationship, we’ll need to think about all of the internal and external contradictions that may be causing challenges.
Here are some examples of internal versus external contradictions:
- An internal contradiction: With my boss, I want support and guidance but also independence and autonomy. Somehow, these contradictory desires need to be met (this tension is between me and my boss);
- An internal contradiction: I want to eat meat, but my wife is a vegetarian. We always argue about what to cook for dinner.
- An external contradiction: My wife and I want to go on a vacation but my work won’t let me take time off (this tension is between me and my wife (on one team) and something outside our relationship: my work).
- An external contradiction: My friend and I want to go to the movies (we are on the one team) but we don’t have enough money (an external factor) is preventing us from going.
‘Process’ refers to the fact that relationships are things that change.
We might say that relationships “go through a process of change”.
This means that:
- We can resolve some contradictions but others may arise: Sometimes a contradiction may be remedied, even for just a short period of time. But, it may turn up again … or, a new contradiction may merge. Relationships are complex things that always need to be worked on.
- Our feelings, needs, wants and desires may change: Let’s say one contradiction in your relationships is that you desire both intimacy and space (alone time). Sometimes you want intimacy, other times you want alone time. We go through these processes of change and flux in our relationships – and that’s normal.
Lastly, we use the term ‘Praxis’ to talk about the ways we behave in relationships to either ease, ignore, or exacerbate (make worse) the tensions that currently exist.
The term ‘praxis’ comes from the term ‘practice’ or ‘practical behaviors’. So, here, we’re referring to what people do in their relationships to address contradictions and tensions that they come across.
Here’s how Dumlao and Janke (2012, p. 157) explain praxis:
- “praxis refers to ways people respond to ongoing tensions” (e.g. competing discourses)
Ideally, ‘praxis’ will involve the two people in the relationship recognizing each other’s needs and the contradictions in the relationship, then making an effort to make compromises to ensure both members of the relationship feel like they’re being thought about.
Scholars have identified a taxonomy (list) of types of contradictions that might exist in relational life.
The list is split under 3 categories of contradictions: Integration-Separation, Stability-Change, and Expression-Nonexpression. Here’s the list, with examples.
- Connection–Autonomy – Relationships (relational life) can have tensions between a need to be connected to one another for safety and security, and still the desire to free to make decisions without the need of the other’s approval or consideration of their needs.
- Intimacy-Independence – Romantic and close familial relationships can have a tension between the need for intimacy (often physically) and separation.
- Inclusion–Seclusion – Often an ‘external contradiction’, couples feel the need to exclude themselves to spend time alone together, but also at times include themselves in social interactions with people outside of the couple.
- Certainty–Uncertainty – All relationships have some certainties (or ‘knowns’) and uncertainties (or ‘unknowns’). We can also move along this spectrum, where certainties become uncertain, or uncertainties become certainties, when change occurs in the relationship.
- Conventionality–Uniqueness – We may experience a tension between wishing to be unique and different from others or our partner, and conventional or traditional.
- Predictability–Surprise – Sometimes we crave the predictability that comes from being in a reliable relationship, while other times we may desire surprise and spontaneity.
- Routine–Novelty – In relationships, we may want routines such as the same TV shows each night of the week to feel comfortable, yet at times we will still desire something new to mix things up and bring excitement into our lives.
- Openness–Closedness – Whether we are open or closed when engaging with our partner is an ongoing tension; sometimes we may be open, other times we may close them off.
- Revelation–Concealment – Similarly, we may feel a tension between revealing information to others and concealing this information. Particularly in external contradictions, partners may feel tension in what to reveal and what to conceal about themselves to others
- Candor–Secrecy – Candor (or ‘honesty’) may be something we feel tension with when our candor may cause pain to the other member of the partnership.
- Transparency–Privacy – Similarly, being transparent may come in conflict with the need for privacy.
Examples of Relational Dialectics Theory
Social workers work within communities to help individuals work through challenges in their lives.
Examples of cases social workers work on include: working with someone who has lost a family member, working with people with behavioral or family violence issues, helping the unemployed or displaced, and so on.
Social workers will use relational dialectics to help people work through interpersonal communication issues. For example:
- Example: Sarah is a social worker who helps children in schools who are having trouble with their families. Sarah has one client named Jane. Jane is lying to her parents about having a boyfriend because her she feels her parents will not allow her to be with her boyfriend.
Relational dialectics tell us that:
- Jane is experiencing an internal contradiction: Jane and her parents (the couple) are facing am interpersonal communication tension between one another.
- There is a Cando-Secrecy tension: Jane feels the interpersonal communication tension of wanting to date boys but also cannot do this without lying to her parents.
Sarah might identify this tension and work with Jane on issues of candor and secrecy. They may discuss how Jane can talk to her parents about her desires more openly. Similarly, Sarah might ask Jane to bring her parents into school so they can have a discussion about the struggles of parenting adolescents.
People who study media often look at how media depicts the complexities of everyday life.
A media studies student might use relational dialectics theory in an essay examining relationships in a movie:
- Example: John is studying examples of how new media depicts relationships in one of his courses. He decides to use relational dialectics theory to examine relationships in the film The Lion King. He examines how Simba, the main character, feels a tension between his duty to his family and tribe, and his desire to be independent from them.
John uses relational dialectics to show:
- Simba is experiencing an external contradiction: Simba’s main relationship is between himself and his tribe (mainly: Nala and Sarabi). However, an external force (Scar) causes him to feel the need to distance himself from his family.
- There is Inclusion-Exclusion tension: Simba wants to be included in his tribe, but feels the need to exclude himself because he does not believe he is worthy of being a member of his tribe.
- Praxis: The praxis (what is done) involves Simba talking with his mentor Rafiki about the importance of duty to family. He learns that he should overcome his tension by maturing as a lion. He learns that his place in life is to be with his family to protect them from outsiders.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Relational Dialectics Theory
|1. It is logical and relatable||1. It’s not quantifiable|
|2. It is transferable across a wide range of relationship types||2. It fails to address human motivations|
|3. It is practical||3. It is descriptive rather than predictive|
- Logical and relatable: The theory follows an internal logic that most people should be able to relate to. We have all felt internal and external tensions in relationships in our own lives.
- Transferrable across a wide range of personal relationships types: The theory provides a blueprint for examining relationships both within couples and between couples and external factors. It has been used for family counselling, examining LGBTQI relationships, school relationships, and workplace relationships.
- Practical: The theory gives a practical framework for analyzing relationships. By using the theory, people can examine relationships in their counselling practice (or even in movies or their own life) and seek out the contradictions based on the taxonomy explained above.
- Not quantifiable: It is difficult to quantify the tensions that arise in relationships through scientific methods. It would be hard, for example, to get an objective picture of the severity of contradictions. As this theory works within a social constructivist framework, there is no ‘objective fact’ to be found here.
- Fails to address motivations behind human needs and desires: While the theory effectively describes tensions and contradictions, it does not explain why they exist within relationships.
- Descriptive rather than predictive: While it describes relationship tensions well, it cannot predict how the tensions can be relieved, or what new tensions may arise in the future.
- “Relational dialectics concern opposing tensions or connected opposites” (Dumlao & Janke, 2012, p. 152)
- “Dialectical tensions manifest as interdependent, mutually exclusive ideas reflecting the both/and nature of different perspectives rather than either/or thinking.” (Dumlao & Janke, 2012, p. 152)
- “experiencing tensions is typical and inherent in any relationship, not necessarily negative” (Dumlao & Janke, 2012, p. 152)
- “The core premise of dialogism, and of relational dialectics theory, is that meaning making is a process that emerges from the struggle of different, often competing, discourses. Simply stated, a discourse is a worldview or a system of meaning” (Leslie Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008, p. 65)
Please don’t cite this website in your essay. Instead, cite the following scholarly sources which will get you much better grades! (Better yet, actually read these sources). Your teacher wants to see that you are getting information from academic sources, not websites (even though I think this website is pretty good!)
Here’s a list of good sources to cite for an essay on RDT, in APA style:
Leslie Baxter, L. (2004). Relationships as dialogues. Personal Relationships, 11(1): 1–22.
Leslie Baxter, L.A. and D.O. Braithwaite. (2008) Relational dialectics theory. In Engaging theories in interpersonal communication: Multiple perspectives (349-361). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Dumlao, R.J and Janke, E. M. (2012). Using Relational Dialectics to Address Differences in Community-Campus Partnerships. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 16(2): 151-177. (free access here)
Sahlstein, E., K.C. Maguire, and L. Timmerman. (2009) Contradictions and praxis contextualized by wartime deployment: Wives’ perspectives revealed through relational dialectics. Communication Monographs, 76(4): 421-442.
Cools, C.A. (2006) Relational communication in intercultural couples. Language and Intercultural Communication, 6(3): 206-222.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]