Relational Dialectics Theory

The Relational Dialectics Theory explores tensions in relationships, recognizing their dynamic nature and the role of communication patterns. It guides effective communication to navigate tensions and maintain healthy relationships, offering a deeper understanding of relationship complexities, although it may oversimplify real-world intricacies. This theory finds application in couples counseling, therapy, and interpersonal communication improvement.

Defining Relational Dialectics Theory

Relational Dialectics Theory is rooted in the belief that relationships are not straightforward or one-dimensional but are, in fact, multi-layered and filled with contradictions. The central premise of this theory is that relationships are characterized by dialectical tensions, which are opposing forces or contradictory desires that exist within the relationship.

The term “dialectics” is derived from the Greek word “dialegesthai,” which means “to converse.” In the context of this theory, dialectics refer to the ongoing and dynamic nature of communication and interaction within relationships.

Relational Dialectics Theory identifies three primary dialectical tensions that are present in most interpersonal relationships:

  1. Autonomy vs. Connection: This tension revolves around the desire for independence and individuality (autonomy) versus the desire for connection and closeness (connection). People in relationships often grapple with the need to balance their personal space and identity with the need to be emotionally connected to their partner.
  2. Openness vs. Closedness: This tension involves the desire for transparency, honesty, and self-disclosure (openness) versus the desire for privacy, boundaries, and protection (closedness). Individuals in relationships may struggle with how much to share with their partner and where to set boundaries.
  3. Predictability vs. Novelty: This tension pertains to the desire for stability, routine, and predictability (predictability) versus the desire for spontaneity, excitement, and novelty (novelty). Couples often find themselves oscillating between the comfort of familiarity and the thrill of new experiences.

Key Concepts of Relational Dialectics Theory

To understand Relational Dialectics Theory more deeply, let’s explore some of its key concepts:

1. Dialectical Tensions

Dialectical tensions are the core concept of this theory. They represent the ongoing struggles and contradictions that exist within relationships. While the three primary tensions mentioned above are common, there can be additional tensions that emerge in specific relationships.

2. Totality

The concept of totality suggests that relationships are interdependent and connected systems. The well-being of one partner in the relationship is intricately linked to the well-being of the other. This interdependence highlights the importance of managing dialectical tensions effectively.

3. Praxis

Praxis refers to the idea that relationships are not just something people have but something they do. It emphasizes that relationships are actively constructed through communication and interaction. Effective communication and negotiation are critical components of praxis.

4. Contradiction

Contradiction is a fundamental element of Relational Dialectics Theory. It suggests that relationships are inherently contradictory, and these contradictions are not to be avoided but embraced and managed.

Applications of Relational Dialectics Theory

Relational Dialectics Theory has several practical applications in various aspects of life:

1. Relationship Counseling

Therapists and counselors often use this theory to help couples navigate conflicts and tensions within their relationships. By identifying and addressing dialectical tensions, couples can improve their communication and understanding.

2. Interpersonal Communication

In everyday interactions, understanding dialectical tensions can enhance communication skills. Individuals can learn to balance the competing desires for autonomy and connection, openness and closedness, and predictability and novelty when engaging with others.

3. Family Dynamics

This theory is relevant in understanding the dynamics of family relationships, including parent-child relationships and sibling relationships. It can help family members navigate conflicts and maintain healthy connections.

4. Workplace Relationships

In a professional context, Relational Dialectics Theory can be applied to improve workplace relationships. It can help colleagues manage tensions related to hierarchy, collaboration, and work-life balance.

Managing Relational Dialectics: Practical Insights

To effectively manage dialectical tensions in relationships, consider the following practical insights:

1. Communication

Open and honest communication is essential for addressing dialectical tensions. Partners should create a safe and non-judgmental space to discuss their desires, concerns, and needs. Active listening and empathy play crucial roles in effective communication.

2. Negotiation

Negotiation involves finding compromises that satisfy both partners’ desires. It may require flexibility and a willingness to adapt. For example, in the autonomy vs. connection tension, couples can negotiate how they spend time together while also respecting each other’s need for personal space.

3. Mindfulness

Being mindful of the dialectical tensions in a relationship can help individuals and couples proactively address them. It involves self-awareness and an understanding of one’s own desires and those of the partner.

4. Balance

Achieving balance between opposing desires is an ongoing process. It’s essential to recognize that no relationship is entirely free from tension, and seeking a harmonious balance is a realistic goal.

5. Seek Professional Help

In cases where dialectical tensions lead to persistent conflicts and difficulties in a relationship, seeking the assistance of a relationship counselor or therapist can be beneficial. Professional guidance can provide valuable insights and strategies for managing tensions effectively.


Relational Dialectics Theory offers a profound perspective on the complexities of interpersonal relationships. It challenges the notion of perfect harmony in relationships and instead acknowledges the inherent contradictions and tensions that exist. By recognizing and managing dialectical tensions, individuals and couples can cultivate healthier, more resilient, and satisfying relationships. Ultimately, this theory reminds us that relationships are a dynamic journey filled with ups and downs, and it is the process of navigating these tensions that contributes to their growth and vitality.

Key highlights of the Relational Dialectics Theory:

  • Dynamic Nature of Relationships: The theory recognizes that relationships are not static but constantly evolving, and it focuses on understanding the changes and tensions that occur within them.
  • Tensions and Contradictions: It emphasizes the presence of inherent tensions and contradictions within relationships, such as the struggle between independence and closeness.
  • Communication-Centered: Relational dialectics theory places communication at the core of understanding and managing these tensions, highlighting the role of effective communication in relationship dynamics.
  • Types of Dialectics: The theory identifies several types of dialectics, including autonomy vs. connection, openness vs. closedness, and novelty vs. predictability, which represent common tensions in relationships.
  • Practical Implications: It offers practical tools for individuals and couples to navigate these tensions and improve their relationships by recognizing and addressing these dialectical struggles.
  • Benefits: The theory provides a deeper understanding of the complexities of human relationships, offering insights that can be applied in various contexts, including couples counseling and interpersonal communication.
  • Challenges: While valuable, the theory may oversimplify the intricacies of real-world relationships in its attempt to categorize and explain relational tensions.

Connected Communication Models

Aristotle’s Model of Communication

The Aristotle model of communication is a linear model with a focus on public speaking. The Aristotle model of communication was developed by Greek philosopher and orator Aristotle, who proposed the linear model to demonstrate the importance of the speaker and their audience during communication. 

Communication Cycle

The linear model of communication is a relatively simplistic model envisaging a process in which a sender encodes and transmits a message that is received and decoded by a recipient. The linear model of communication suggests communication moves in one direction only. The sender transmits a message to the receiver, but the receiver does not transmit a response or provide feedback to the sender.

Berlo’s SMCR Model

Berlo’s SMCR model was created by American communication theorist David Berlo in 1960, who expanded the Shannon-Weaver model of communication into clear and distinct parts. Berlo’s SMCR model is a one-way or linear communication framework based on the Shannon-Weaver communication model.

Helical Model of Communication

The helical model of communication is a framework inspired by the three-dimensional spring-like curve of a helix. It argues communication is cyclical, continuous, non-repetitive, accumulative, and influenced by time and experience.

Lasswell Communication Model

The Lasswell communication model is a linear framework for explaining the communication process through segmentation. Lasswell proposed media propaganda performs three social functions: surveillance, correlation, and transmission. Lasswell believed the media could impact what viewers believed about the information presented.

Modus Tollens

Modus tollens is a deductive argument form and a rule of inference used to make conclusions of arguments and sets of arguments.  Modus tollens argues that if P is true then Q is also true. However, P is false. Therefore Q is also false. Modus tollens as an inference rule dates back to late antiquity where it was taught as part of Aristotelian logic. The first person to describe the rule in detail was Theophrastus, successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school.

Five Cannons of Rhetoric

The five canons of rhetoric were first organized by Roman philosopher Cicero in his treatise De Inventione in around 84 BC. Some 150 years later, Roman rhetorician Quintilian explored each of the five canons in more depth as part of his 12-volume textbook entitled Institutio Oratoria. The work helped the five canons become a major component of rhetorical education well into the medieval period. The five canons of rhetoric comprise a system for understanding powerful and effective communication.

Communication Strategy

A communication strategy framework clarifies how businesses should communicate with their employees, investors, customers, and suppliers. Some of the key elements of an effective communication strategy move around purpose, background, objectives, target audience, messaging, and approach.

Noise if Communication

Noise is any factor that interferes with or impedes effective communication between a sender and receiver. When noise disrupts the communication process or prevents the transmission of information, it is said to be communication noise.

7 Cs of Communication

The 7Cs of communication is a set of guiding principles on effective communication skills in business, moving around seven principles for effective business communication: clear, concise, concrete, correct, complete, coherent, and courteous.

Transactional Model of Communication

The transactional model of communication describes communication as a two-way, interactive process within social, relational, and cultural contexts. The transactional model of communication is best exemplified by two models. Barnlund’s model describes communication as a complex, multi-layered process where the feedback from the sender becomes the message for the receiver. Dance’s helical model is another example, which suggests communication is continuous, dynamic, evolutionary, and non-linear.

Horizontal Communication

Horizontal communication, often referred to as lateral communication, is communication that occurs between people at the same organizational level. In this context, communication describes any information that is transmitted between individuals, teams, departments, divisions, or units.

Communication Apprehension

Communication apprehension is a measure of the degree of anxiety someone feels in response to real (or anticipated) communication with another person or people.

Closed-Loop Communication

Closed-loop communication is a simple but effective technique used to avoid misunderstandings during the communication process. Here, the person receiving information repeats it back to the sender to ensure they have understood the message correctly. 

Grapevine In Communication

Grapevine communication describes informal, unstructured, workplace dialogue between employees and superiors. It was first described in the early 1800s after someone observed that the appearance of telegraph wires strung between transmission poles resembled a grapevine.

ASE Model

The ASE model posits that human behavior can be predicted if one studies the intention behind the behavior. It was created by health communication expert Hein de Vries in 1988. The ASE model believes intention and behavior are determined by cognitive variables such as attitude, social influence, and self-efficacy. The model also believes that intention predicts behavior such that one’s attitude toward a behavior is influenced by the consequences of that behavior. Three cognitive variables are the primary determinants of whether the intention to perform a new behavior was sustained: attitude, social influence, and self-efficacy. Various external variables also influence these factors.

Integrated Marketing Communication

Integrated marketing communication (IMC) is an approach used by businesses to coordinate and brand their communication strategies. Integrated marketing communication takes separate marketing functions and combines them into one, interconnected approach with a core brand message that is consistent across various channels. These encompass owned, earned, and paid media. Integrated marketing communication has been used to great effect by companies such as Snapchat, Snickers, and Domino’s.

Social Penetration Theory

Social penetration theory was developed by fellow psychologists Dalmas Taylor and Irwin Altman in their 1973 article Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships. Social penetration theory (SPT) posits that as a relationship develops, shallow and non-intimate communication evolves and becomes deeper and more intimate.

Hypodermic Needle

The hypodermic needle theory was first proposed by communication theorist Harold Lasswell in his 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War. The hypodermic needle theory is a communication model suggesting media messages are inserted into the brains of passive audiences.

7-38-55 Rule

The 7-38-55 rule was created by University of California psychology professor Albert Mehrabian and mentioned in his book Silent Messages.  The 7-38-55 rule describes the multi-faceted way in which people communicate emotions, claiming that 7% of communication occurred via spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and the remaining 55% through body language.

Active Listening

Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.

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