Baxter & Montgomery's  Dimensions of the Dialectic

L. Smith Spring 2002

            Relationships revolve around the ways in which we communicate with each other.  The way we use language, our dialect, is key to maintaining a healthy relationship.  According to Littlejohn (238), dialectic is a tension between two or more contradictory elements of a system, and a dialectical analysis looks at the ways a system changes or develops.  Leslie Baxter, Barbara Montgomery, and their colleagues created a theory that organizes the dimensions of the dialectic used in relationships into four separate categories: contradiction, change, praxis, and totality.  These four dimensions are broken down further into sub-systems that help outline the realm of a personal relationship.

            According to Baxter and Montgomery (4), contradiction refers to the dynamic interplay between unified opposites.  Normally a contradiction would refer to opposites that are actively incompatible.  Dialectical opposites create a relational system because they are interdependent with one another.  Baxter and Montgomery broke up common contradictions into three clusters or “knots of contradiction” that can occur in relationships.

            The first cluster discussed is integration and separation.  In other words, this is the tension between moving apart or coming together from an interpersonal communication standpoint.  An example of this is when you are faced with the decisions of whether to meet the demands of your partner or interact with someone outside the relationship.  The second cluster described in Baxter and Montgomery’s theory is expression-non expression.  This is the tension faced when trying to decide whether hurtful information should be revealed or kept secret.  This is a very common strain felt between partners.  The third knot of contradiction described is stability-change.  Getting tired of doing the same old thing is always going to be an issue in any relationship.  This tension is a consistent one and relates to any dialectical position because it also means certainty-uncertainty, which is something everyone faces in their daily decision making process.  To make a decision at all you must think about what the outcome ‘might’ be and that involves change.          

            Change is the second element of Baxter and Montgomery’s dialectical theory.  What leads to change is contradiction, the strain of opposing forces in a relationship.  “Change refers to a difference in some phenomenon over time,” (Baxter and Montgomery 7).  This definition is very broad, but it is broken down to fit generalizations and contributors in an interpersonal relationship.  “How do you interact in a way that keeps things somewhat predictable and stable while allowing the relationship to change and grow?” (Littlejohn 17).

            In the dimensions of the dialectic theory Leslie Baxter and Carol Werner found five qualities that change as personal relationships develop.  The first quality is aptitude.  This is the amount of feelings that are involved at certain times in the relationship.  Sometimes one person may feel active and ready for change and at other times they may feel calm and won’t care to do anything differently.  Salience is the second quality described and involves concentration on the past, present, and where the where the relationship is headed.  Scale is the third quality that revolves around how long certain relational patterns are maintained.  A routine may develop between two individuals that stays consistent for a long time, aiding in the progression of the relationship.  A routine can also be very short lived resulting in either a positive or negative way. 

            The fourth quality discussed in Baxter and Werner’s findings is sequence.  This is “the order of events in the relationship,” (Littlejohn 17).  As a relationship changes a variety of things happen, but the events are usually organized differently throughout the length of the relationship.  The fifth quality described is pace/rhythm.  This is the rate of rapidity or interval between events in a relationship during certain periods of time.  Sometimes the pace of a relationship might be fast because of excitement or anger, and at other times it may be much slower because of the need for change or stability.

            At all times in a relationship a combination of these variables exists.  “Tracking the development of a relationship means watching the ways in which the profile changes over time” (Littlejohn 17).  In relationship development the concept of dialogic complexity was adopted by Baxter and Montgomery.  This is a view of relationship change that is multidirectional, polysemic, and unfinalized, a different view from most of her colleagues.

            Praxis is the third element in Baxter and Montgomery’s dialectical theory.  “The concept of praxis focuses on the simultaneous subject-and object nature of the human experience,” (Baxter & Montgomery, p.9).  Present actions are constrained because contradictions were created due to prior actions and decisions made during the course of the relationship.  According to Baxter in the dialectical, relational tradition, things are worked out incrementally and defined as the relationship evolves. 

            Totality is the fourth and final element in Baxter and Montgomery’s dialectical theory.  “Totality means wholeness or inseparability,” (Littlejohn 241).  Contradictions are interdependent with one another.  They are inseparable with a relationship and cannot work in isolation.  A relationship is defined by its many knots of contradictions or by its sense of totality.  “A second sense of totality is the contextual embedded ness of the dialectical experience; contradiction cannot be separated from its temporal temporal, spatial, and sociocultural settings,” (Baxter & Montgomery 11).  The context of a situation can alter the outcome of any event.

            It is impossible to know when a relationship ends and context begins.  They interplay and bleed in together with other phenomena.  However, for academic purposes, scholars separate the two to focus attention on certain aspects of the dialectical experience.  Some authors place an emphasis on the notion that relationships do not exist in isolation.  Baxter and Montgomery focus on the social embedded ness of relationships.  The distinction between internal dialectics and external dialectics is important.  Because you cannot have a relationship of any kind without communicating, internal dialects or intrapersonal communication is useful when dealing with contradictions before expressing them externally. 

            “Dialectical theory is a sensitizing tool, a prism that contains multiple related perspectives on the process of relating,” (Baxter & Montgomery 11).  It is a complex theory that applies that applies the ways we communicate appropriately to a relational setting.  It recognizes that all relationships must always work on their communication skills.  “Baxter & Montgomery use the lens of relational dialectics.  Further, they contrast their lens with that of other perspectives that are often used for understanding personal relationships,” (Turner 87).     

Works Cited

Baxter, Leslie A., and Montgomery, Barbara M. “A Guide to Dialectical  Approaches to Studying Personal Relationships.” Dialectical Approaches to Studying Personal Relationships. (Eds.) Barbara Montgomery & Leslie Baxter. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1998, pp. 1-15.   

Littlejohn, S.  Theories of Human Communication. (7th ed.) New Mexico: Wadsworth Thomson, 2001.

 Turner, L.  "Relating: Dialogues and Dialectics."_(book review).   Communication Quarterly 45 (1997): 87-89.