Saturday, June 18, 2011

Relational Dialectics: The Hope of Paradox

Coming to terms with Dialectics, realtionships, relational dialectics, dialectical models and dialectical tensions.


One of the basic terms we learn in the study of Communication, especially those of us who use humanities based methods, is the "dialectic." It is so basic we generally teach the term to freshmen and expect little from them until they understand it.

Dialectic is the working out of two opposing propositions. There are different methods by which this has been done. The Aristotelian model of resolving dialectic is to allow each side to present its best argument, and whichever argument seems to be the most logical and hold the most support is taken to be the right one. The American legal system is based in this philosophy. Hegelian models hold that when two opposing propositions are discussed, they eventually merge into a synthesis. If our legal system is Aristotelian, then we could see our political system with its arguments and compromises as being very Hegelian. A third method of dealing with dialectic is often associated with Spengler's thought. In this method, one side of a dialectic is given preƫminence for a period of time until it becomes untenable, then it switches the other side. This is seen as a cycle or pendulum swinging back and forth between opposing ideas. Another method of resolving dialectics is the paradox, which holds that although the propositions seem to be conflicting, they are both true. This is often the language of religious dialog: "it is more blessed to give than to receive," for instance.

Dialectics and Relationship.

Two Communication researchers, L. A. Baxter and W.K. Rawlins, published in the same year, 1988, articles in two different books, proposing that there are dialectics which exist in our interpersonal relationships that we are constantly attempting to resolve. They argued that much of the difficulty and argument within close relationships come from disagreements over how to solve our dialectics. While they each used different verbiage to describe these dialectics, over time they have been distilled by the scholarly community into six pairs
  • Autonomy and Connectedness
  • Favoritism and Impartiality
  • Openness and Closedness
  • Novelty and Predictability
  • Instrumentality and Affection
  • Equality and Inequality.
These six dialectics are felt as real and powerful needs within each individual, despite the fact that they exist in contradiction to each other. However, as will be illustrated below, the difficulty does not only lie in meeting needs in contrast to their opposite, but in ways of meeting needs in contrast to other dialectical tensions.

Exempli Gratia my own relationship with my wife.

Like all people, my wife and I feel these needs and have met them in different ways.

  • Autonomy and Connectedness
    • I meet my need for autonomy by needing free time to do what I wish and free, open space in which to move around. For connectedness I meet my need by physical closeness (I'm a cuddler).
    • My wife meets her need for autonomy by freely spending money and meets her need for connectedness by engaging in public activities together.
  • Favoritism and Impartiality
    • I see favoritism, being special, as having special services done. I try to show impartiality by including my wife in every decision.
    • My wife feels special by having special things and extra portions. For her impartiality is gained through generosity of the one that has to the one that doesn't.
  • Openness and Closedness
    • For me, openness is about not keeping things shut. My wife knows all my passwords (I think) for all my Internet accounts. She has keys to every place I am allowed to give her keys. I enjoy it when she looks over my shoulder to see what I am reading or writing. She can go through my closet and drawers as much as she likes (except at Christmas time). I don't however, volunteer much information verbally or talk much about what I see as confidences: problems in friends' relationships they've shared with me or what happens at work. For me, those things stay closed.
    • For my wife, openness is about verbally sharing confidences. She enjoys telling me secrets about her job and friends. She does not, however, like it if I read an email she is writing (so I try not to, but it is so, so hard), or peek in one of her storage bins.
  • Novelty and Predictability
    • For me, my need for novelty is met by having new experiences and learning new things. However, my need for predictability means having things like schedules, budgets, goal charts, menus and lists.
    • For my wife, the need for novelty is met by having new things (especially bear figurines). Her need for predictability is met by organizing those things in space.
  • Instrumentality and Affection
    • My need to be useful in the relationship corresponds quite literally to "putting food on the table." I work for money to buy food. I shop for food. I cook the food. I put it on plates and I put the plates on the table and I expect to be rewarded for these actions with extra affection. I expect unconditional affection when things are beyond my control, like sickness, when I make mistakes, or when I accidentally break something. That is when I need to be held and told everything is okay.
    • My wife feels that she is useful by providing "gifts" either by purchasing things for me or by telling me to purchase something she knows I want. She thinks that in doing so, she will earn my affection. She wants unearned, unconditional affection when she violates social, cultural or moral norms. She needs to know that she is loved no matter how "bad" she is.
  • Equality and Inequality.
    • For me, equality is all about portions. I want an equal portion of our spending money (although I enjoy spending it less). I want an equal portion of foods and drinks. When I make one of our favorite meals (Brats and Tots) I literally count each tater-tot and make sure they are the same for us each; if there is an odd number I rip one in half. If she has 20 square feet of shelf-space, I want 20 square feet of shelf space.
      But, I want to be "superior" too. Especially when it comes to making the final word on moral and ethical decisions (matters of value and policy). I expect her to fall in line.
    • For my wife, equality is more about sharing struggles together. She feels if one of us is hurting, angry or frustrated, the other one should feel equal pain about that subject. She likes to be superior on matters of fact. This is fine, because I can readily admit that she is. She knows the name of the actor that played in a movie or exactly how much our electricity bill averaged in our former house. I guess and estimate and don't care if I am wrong about facts as long as I am right in principle.

For the most part, our dialectics are resolved, sort of . . .

If you look at this, you can see we have mostly used a Hegelian model in resolving our dialectics. Here is the thing about Hegel's model, however. The emerging proposition that comes out the the opposites becomes a proposition to be countered in a new dialectic. In other words, solving ones problems via consensus, compromise and shared sacrifice and shared benefit results in new problems.

We have been married three years and while the whole thing might be thrown out of kilter when we have kids, right now we pretty much go at an even keel. The problems that we have don't come from the tensions described above, but when our method of resolving one tension messes with another. The way I manage my need for predictability with a stable budget does not interfere with my wife's need for novelty. It interferes with her need for autonomy. My wife meets her needs for predictability, not by interfering with my need for novelty, but my need for affection, specifically in times when her order is compromised. My need for equality does not interfere with her need to be superior, it interferes with her need for favoritism, to feel special. We can guess from this philosophical investigation that our arguments will probably go on forever.

But what are the other methods?

An Aristotelian model is another means of solving relational dialectics. In that model, someone wins and someone loses on each issue. While I love this method in resolving political and academic questions, it is not probably the best for interpersonal relationships. The winner take all mentality makes the winner into a bully. Perhaps in the dissolution of an interpersonal relationship, that is, a divorce, and Aristotelian model is necessary. You can't both have the house, so whoever has the best argument gets the house. There is unnecessarily adversarial for interpersonal relationships we hope to maintain.

A circular or pendulum method might work. I know couples who really do use this method: "you get what you need for a while then I get what I need." I suppose this is fine so long as you both are on the same cycle. I believe, however, that this merely necessitates cycles of tension. I see this as always being angry with the other one. To me this sounds like cycles of constant frustration.

Finally, we have the solution of paradox. Such a solution involves bringing into the interpersonal solution what Kenneth Burke referred to as the "both/and." From what I have seen, most mature relationships, those going on for 20 years or more, in which both members are relatively happy, use this model. It is probably the best in that it embraces the whole of the human condition. I could easily see this as the best.

But I don't know how to achieve it. I think that it may be a state reached over time spent in a relationship, if both members are committed to that relationship. I think it might come as a slow epiphany where eventually the couple realizes that the tensions are still there, but they are comfortable with them. My parents and my grandparents seem to be in this state. I think most of my Uncles and Aunts are too. My pastor and his wife look to all outward appearances like they are there. They are all great models and the method I seem to hear to arrive there seems to be "time in the relationship."

On the other hand, I can think of other long-term relationships where I know this is not the case. I know people who have maintained mean and nasty relationships for many, many years. So time, in and of itself, is not the answer. Time seems, from what I am seeing in my limited experience, to need to be coupled with a desire for self sacrifice and for the other party's happiness. I don't think one achieve's paradox without both.

Get ahold of me in 2031 and see what I think then.

1 comment:

  1. Baxter, L. A. (1988). A dialectical perspective of communication strategies in relationship development. In S. Duck. (Ed.) Handbook of personal relationships (pp. 257-273). New York: Wiley.

    Rawlins, William K. (1988). "A Dialectical Analysis of the Tensions, Functions and Strategic Challenges of Communication in Young Adult Friendships,"Communication Yearbook 12, ed. James A. Anderson (Newbury, CA: Sage),157-189.