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12 Objective InterpretiveCHAPTER ● Phenomenological tradition Relational Dialectics of Leslie Baxter & Barbara Montgomery Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery are central figures in a growing group of communication scholars who study how communication creates and con- stantly changes close relationships. Baxter directs an extensive program of research at the University of Iowa. Montgomery is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Colorado State University-Pueblo. The first time Baxter conducted a series of in-depth interviews with peo- ple about their personal relationships, she quickly gave up any hope of dis- covering scientific laws that neatly ordered the experiences of friends and lovers. I was struck by the contradictions, contingencies, non-rationalities, and multiple realities to which people gave voice in their narrative sense-making of their rela- tional lives.1 Baxter saw no law of gravitational pull to predict interpersonal attraction, no co-efficient of friction that would explain human conflict. She found, instead, people struggling to interpret the mixed messages about their relationship that they both spoke and heard. Although Montgomery worked independently of Baxter, her experience was much the same. Baxter and Montgomery each analyzed tensions inherent in romantic rela- tionships and began to catalog the contradictions that couples voiced. They soon recognized the commonality of their work and co-authored a book on relating based on the premise that personal relationships are indeterminate processes of ongoing flux.2 Both scholars make it clear that the forces that strain romantic relationships are also at work among close friends and family members. They applaud the work of William Rawlins at Ohio University, who concentrates on the “commu- nicative predicaments of friendship,” and the narrative analysis of Art Bochner at the University of South Florida, who focuses on the complex contradictions within family systems. Whatever the form of intimacy, Baxter and Montgomery’s basic claim is that “social life is a dynamic knot of contradictions, a ceaseless interplay between contrary or opposing tendencies.”3 153
154 INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATIONRelational dialectics Relational dialectics highlight the tension, struggle, and general messiness ofA dynamic knot of con- close personal ties. According to Baxter, the best way we can grasp relationshiptradictions in personal dialectics is to look at a narrative in which competing discourses are etched inrelationships; an unceas-ing interplay between bold relief. The 2002 movie Bend It Like Beckham is especially helpful in illustrat-contrary or opposing ing tensions within family, friendship, and romantic ties. Audiences of all agestendencies. and every ethnicity can identify with the relational struggles of Jesminder Bhamra, an Indian teenage girl brought up in the west end of London. Like many British teenage males, Jess is passionate about soccer, but she’s better than any of the guys she plays with in pickup games at the park. A poster of England’s football superstar David Beckham hangs on her bedroom wall and she often talks to his image about her game and her life. In the close-knit Indian expat community, Jess is at an age where girls are supposed to focus on marry- ing a well-regarded Indian boy—a union often arranged by their parents. Her mother insists that Jess quit “running around half-naked in front of men.” Her dad reluctantly agrees. “Jess, your mother’s right. It’s not nice. You must start behaving as a proper woman. OK?” Jules, an English girl who sees Jess play, recruits her to play for an amateur women’s soccer team. Jess and Jules quickly become “mates,” bonded together by their goal-scoring ability and joint efforts to keep Jess’ participation a secret from her mom and dad. Their friendship is soon ruptured by Jules’ jealousy over a romantic interest between Jess and Joe, the team’s coach. Of course, that kind of relationship is out of bounds for Jess. The resulting tensions in Jess’ conversa- tions with her dad, best friend, and admired coach allow us to see the opposi- tional pull of contrasting forces, which is relational dialectics at work.THE TUG-OF-WAR DIALECTICS OF CLOSE RELATIONSHIPS Some viewers might assume that Jess’s up-again, down-again relationships with Joe, Jules, and her dad are due to her age, sex, birth order, ethnicity, or obsession with soccer. But Baxter and Montgomery caution us not to look at demographics or per- sonal traits when we want to understand the nature of close relationships. Neither biology nor biography can account for the struggle of contradictory tendencies that Jess and her significant others experience in this story. The tensions they face are common to all personal relationships, and those opposing pulls never quit. Contradiction is a core concept of relational dialectics. Contradiction refers to “the dynamic interplay between unified oppositions.”4 A contradiction is formed “whenever two tendencies or forces are interdependent (the dialectical principle of unity) yet mutually negate one another (the dialectical principle of negation).”5 According to Baxter, every personal relationship faces the same tension. Rather than bemoaning this relational fact of life, Baxter and Montgomery suggest that couples take advantage of the opportunity it provides: “From a relational dialectics perspective, bonding occurs in both interdependence with the other and indepen- dence from the other.”6 One without the other diminishes the relationship. Baxter and Montgomery draw heavily on the thinking of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian intellectual who survived the Stalinist regime. Bakhtin saw dialectical tension as the “deep structure” of all human experience. On the one hand, a centripetal, or centralizing, force pulls us together with others. On the other hand, a centrifugal, or decentralizing, force pushes us apart. In order to picture Bakhtin’s simultaneous and conflicting forces, imagine yourself playing “crack the whip” while skating with a group of friends. You
CHAPTER 12: RELATIONAL DIALECTICS 155 volunteer to be the outermost person on a pinwheeling chain of skaters. As you accelerate, you feel the centripetal pull from the skater beside you, who has a viselike grip on your wrist. You also feel the opposing centrifugal force that threatens to rip you from your friend’s grasp and slingshot you away from the group. Skill at skating doesn’t reduce the conflicting pressures. In fact, the more speed you can handle, the greater the opposing forces. Baxter emphasizes that Bakhtin’s fusion-fission opposites have no ultimate resolution. Unlike the thesis-antithesis-synthesis stages of Hegelian or Marxist dialectics, there is no final synthesis or end stage of equilibrium. Relationships are always in flux; the only certainty is certain change. For Bakhtin, this wasn’t bad news. He saw dialectical tension as providing an opportunity for dialogue, an occasion when partners could work out ways to mutually embrace the conflict between unity with and differentiation from each other. Many Westerners are bothered by the idea of paradox, so Baxter and Mont- gomery work hard to translate the concept into familiar terms. At the start of her research interviews, Baxter introduces a dialectical perspective without ever using the phrase itself. She talks about people experiencing certain “pulls” or “tugs” in different directions. Her words call up the image of parties engaged in an ongoing tug-of-war created through their conversations. Within this metaphor, their communication exerts simultaneous pulls on both ends of a taut line—a relational rope under tension. It’s important to understand that when Baxter uses the term relational dialec- tics, she is not referring to being of two minds—the cognitive dilemma within the head of an individual who is grappling with conflicting desires. Instead, she’s describing the contradictions that are “located in the relationship between par- ties, produced and reproduced through the parties’ joint communicative activ- ity.”7 So dialectical tension is the natural product or unavoidable result of our conversations rather than the motive force guiding what we say in them. And despite the fact that we tend to think of any kind of conflict as detrimental to our relationships, Baxter and Montgomery believe that these contradictions can be constructive. That’s fortunate, because these theorists are convinced that dia- lectics in relationships are inevitable.THREE DIALECTICS THAT AFFECT RELATIONSHIPS While listening to hundreds of men and women talk about their relationships, Baxter spotted three recurring contradictions that challenge the traditional wis- dom of the theories described in the relationship development section. Recall that Rogers’ phenomenological approach assumes that closeness is the relational ideal, Berger’s uncertainty reduction theory posits a quest for interpersonal cer- tainty, and Altman and Taylor’s social penetration theory valorizes the transpar- ent or open self (see the introduction to Relationship Development, Chapter 10, and Chapter 9). But from the accounts she heard, Baxter concluded that these pursuits are only part of the story. Although most of us embrace the traditional ideals of closeness, certainty, and openness in our relationships, our actual communication within family, friendship, and romance seldom follows a straight path toward these goals. Bax- ter and Montgomery believe this is the case because we are also drawn toward the exact opposite—autonomy, novelty, and privacy. These conflicting forces can’t be resolved by simple “either/or” decisions. The “both/and” nature of
156 INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION Internal Dialectic External Dialectic (within the relationship) (between couple and community) Integration – Connection – Autonomy Inclusion – Seclusion Separation Stability – Certainty – Uncertainty Conventionality – Uniqueness Change Expression – Openness – Closedness Revelation – Concealment Nonexpression FIGURE 12–1 Typical Dialectical Tensions Experienced by Relational Partners Based on Baxter and Montgomery, Relating: Dialogues and Dialectics dialectical pressures guarantees that our relationships will be complex, messy, and always somewhat on edge. Baxter and Montgomery’s research has focused on three overarching rela- tional dialectics that affect almost every close relationship: integration–separation, stability–change, and expression–nonexpression. These oppositional pairs are listed on the left side of Figure 12–1. The terms within the chart label these contrastingInternal dialectics forces as they are experienced in two different contexts. The Internal DialecticOngoing tensions played column describes the three dialectics as they play out within a relationship. Theout within a relationship. External Dialectic column lists similar pulls that cause tension between a couple and their community. Unlike a typical Hollywood love story, the portrayals ofExternal dialectics Jess’ key relationships in Bend It Like Beckham are credible due to each pair’sOngoing tensions continual struggles with these contradictions. Since Baxter insists that dialecticsbetween a couple and are created through conversation, I’ll quote extensively from the characters’ dia-their community. logue in the film. All researchers who explore contradictions in close relationships agree that there is no finite list of relational dialectics. Accordingly, the ragged edge at the bottom of the figure suggests that these opposing forces are just the start of a longer list of contradictions that confront partners as they live out their relation- ship in real time and space. For example, Rawlins finds that friends continually have to deal with the paradox of judgment and acceptance. In this section, how- ever, I’ll limit my review to the “Big Three” contradictions that Baxter and Mont- gomery discuss. Integration and Separation Baxter and Montgomery regard the contradiction between connection andIntegration–separation autonomy as a primary strain within all relationships. If one side wins this me-weA class of relational tug-of-war, the relationship loses:dialectics that includesconnection–autonomy, No relationship can exist by definition unless the parties sacrifice some individualinclusion–seclusion, and autonomy. However, too much connection paradoxically destroys the relationshipintimacy–independence. because the individual identities become lost.8
CHAPTER 12: RELATIONAL DIALECTICS 157 Throughout Bend It Like Beckham, Jess and her father portray a “stay-away close”ambivalence toward each other that illustrates the connection–autonomy dialectic.Through much of the story she defies his “no soccer” ban, going so far as taking astealthy overnight trip with the team to play in Germany. As for her father, his wordsto her suggest that he’s more worried about what the Indian community thinks thanhe is about her—an external dialectic. Yet when an Indian friend offers to rush heraway from her sister’s wedding reception to play in the championship game, Jessturns to her father and says, “Dad, it doesn’t matter. This is much more important.I don’t want to spoil the day for you.” He in turn tells her to go and “play welland make us proud.” Later that night at home with the extended family he strength-ens his connection with Jess by defending his decision to his irate wife: “Maybeyou could handle her long face. I could not. I didn’t have the heart to stop her.” Bakhtin wrote that dialectical moments are occasions for dialogue. Perhaps thebest example in the film comes after Jess receives a red card in a tournament gamefor retaliating against an opponent who fouled her. Although her shorthandedteam holds on to win, Joe reads her the riot act in the locker room: “What the hellis wrong with you, Bhamra? I don’t ever want to see anything like that from youever again. Do you hear me?” Without waiting for an answer, he turns and marchesout. Jess runs after him and their dialogue reflects the ongoing tension betweenconnection and autonomy in their relationship:Jess: Why did you yell at me like that? You knew that the ref was out of order.Joe: You could have cost us the tournament.Jess: But it wasn’t my fault! You didn’t have to shout at me.Joe: Jess, I am your coach. I have to treat you the same as everyone else. Look, Jess, I saw it. She fouled you. She tugged your shirt. You just overreacted. That’s all.Jess: That’s not all. She called me a Paki, but I guess you wouldn’t understand what that feels like, would you?Joe: Jess, I’m Irish. Of course I’d understand what that feels like. [Joe then holds a sob- bing Jess against his chest, a long hug witnessed by her father.] Baxter and Montgomery maintain that even as partners struggle with thestresses of intimacy in their relationship vis-à-vis each other, as a couple they alsoface parallel yin–yang tensions with people in their social networks. The seclusionof private togetherness that is necessary for a relationship to gel runs counter tothe inclusion of the couple with others in the community. The observed embracecertainly complicates Jess and Joe’s relationship. And unless they find a way towork through the dilemma between inclusion with outsiders and seclusion forthemselves, the future of their relationship is in doubt. These opposing externalforces surface again when Jess runs into Joe’s arms on a dimly lit soccer field totell him that her parents will allow her to go to an American university on a soc-cer scholarship. But as Joe seeks their first kiss, she stops him, saying, “I’m sorryJoe. I can’t.” To a baffled Joe she explains, “Letting me go is a really big step formy mum and dad. I don’t know how they’d survive if I told them about you.”Stability and ChangeBerger’s uncertainty reduction theory makes a strong case for the idea that peo-ple strive for predictability in their relationships (see Chapter 10). Baxter andMontgomery don’t question our human search for interpersonal certainty, but
158 INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION “Would you guys mind if I slept alone for a change?” Copyright by Don Orehek, reproduced by permission.Stability–change they are convinced that Berger makes a mistake by ignoring our simultaneousA class of relational efforts toward its opposite, novelty. We seek the bit of mystery, the touch ofdialectics that includes spontaneity, the occasional surprise that is necessary for having fun. Without thecertainty–uncertainty,conventionality– spice of variety to season our time together, the relationship becomes bland,uniqueness, predictability– boring, and, ultimately, emotionally dead.surprise, and Early in their friendship, Jess asks about Jules’ romantic interest in Joe. Theirroutine–novelty. brief conversation can be seen as a novel fantasy expressed in the imagery of the familiar—a conventional marriage to a partner who is out of bounds: Jess: Jules . . . you know Joe, do you like him? Jules: Nah, he’d get sacked if he was caught shagging one of his players. Jess: Really? Jules: I wish I could find a bloke like him. Everyone I know is a prat. They think girls can’t play as well as them, except Joe of course. Jess: Yeah, I hope I marry an Indian boy like him, too. The girls then laugh together—a tension release—and hug before they part. But dealing with dialectics is always tenuous. When the romantically unthink- able becomes possible for Jess, Jules lashes out: “You knew he was off-limits. Don’t pretend to be so innocent. . . . You’ve really hurt me, Jess! . . . You’ve betrayed me.” It would be easy to see Jess’ family relationships as a simplistic face-off between the conventionality of life in their culture versus the shocking uniqueness of an Indian girl playing soccer. That’s because so much of what Jesminder’s
CHAPTER 12: RELATIONAL DIALECTICS 159 sister and parents say reproduces time-honored Indian norms and practices. As her sister warns, “Look, Jess . . . do you want to be the one that everyone stares at, at every family [gathering], ’cause you’ve married the English bloke?” And Jess’ dream to go to college in California, play pro soccer, and have the freedom to fall in love with her Irish coach seem a unified pull in the opposite direction. But neither Jess nor her father speak in a single voice. In conversations with friends Jess depicts herself as a dutiful daughter who gets top grades and doesn’t sleep around with guys. She also describes her parents’ real care for her, her desire not to hurt them, and her fear that her dad might no longer talk with her. And despite his apparently firm stance against Jess playing English football, her father goes to watch her play and says he doesn’t want to see her disappointed. In compelling drama and in real life, the contradictory forces created through dialogue are quite complex. Expression and Nonexpression Recall that Irwin Altman, one of the founders of social penetration theory, ulti-Expression–nonexpression mately came to the conclusion that self-disclosure and privacy operate in aA class of relational cyclical, or wavelike, fashion over time.9 Baxter and Montgomery pick up ondialectics that includes Altman’s recognition that relationships aren’t on a straight-line path to intimacy.openness–closedness, They see the pressures for openness and closedness waxing and waning likerevelation–concealment,candor–secrecy, and phases of the moon. If Jess’ communication to her parents seems somewhattransparency–privacy. schizophrenic, it’s because the dialectical forces for transparency and discretion are hard to juggle. Through most of the movie, Jess is closemouthed with her parents about the extent of her soccer playing and her romantic attraction to Joe, even after her dad discovers both secrets. But on the night following her sister’s wedding (and the tournament final) she decides to come clean about one of them: Mum, Dad . . . I played in the final today, and we won! . . . I played the best ever. And I was happy because I wasn’t sneaking off and lying to you. . . . Any- way, there was a scout from America today, and he’s offered me a place at a top university with a free scholarship and a chance to play football professionally. And I really want to go. And if I can’t tell you what I want now then I’ll never be happy whatever I do. Just as the openness-closedness dialectic is a source of ongoing tension within a relationship, a couple also faces the revelation and concealment dilemma of what to tell others. Baxter and Montgomery note that each possible advantage of “going public” is offset by a corresponding potential danger. For example, pub- lic disclosure is a relational rite of passage signaling partners and others that the tie that binds them together is strong. Jess seems to sense this relational fact of life when she tells Joe on the soccer field that her parents wouldn’t be able to handle the news of their attraction for each other. She doesn’t buy much time for their romance to develop because she’s leaving for school, and Joe can’t stand the uncertainty. As Jess and Jules say goodbye to their families before boarding the plane to America, Joe comes running down the concourse calling to Jess. They move a few feet away from the others and Joe implores, “Look. I can’t let you go without knowin’. . . . that even with the distance—and the concerns of your family—we still might have something. Don’t you think?” She gives Joe
160 INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION (and her parents, if they turn to look) the answer through a long first kiss. At this climactic point in the film, the viewer realizes that the force field of dialectics has irrevocably changed, but will never disappear.RDT 2.0: DRILLING DOWN ON BAKHTIN’S CONCEPT OF DIALOGUE Baxter says theories are like relationships—they aren’t stagnant. The good ones change and mature over time. As you know, Baxter’s early emphasis with Montgomery was on contradictory forces inherent in all relationships. But with- out abandoning anything said so far, Baxter now backgrounds the language of contradiction and dialectics, even to the point of referring to the second genera- tion of the theory as RDT 2.0 rather than relational dialectics. In her recent book Voicing Relationships: A Dialogic Perspective, Baxter focuses on the relational implications of Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of dialogue. She explains that she uses the verb form of the word voice in the title “to suggestDialogueCommunication that is that relationships achieve meaning through the active interplay of multiple, com-constitutive, always in peting discourses or voices.”10 RDT 2.0 highlights five dialogic strands withinflux, capable of achiev- Bakhtin’s thought, as the Russian writer insisted that without dialogue, there ising aesthetic moments. no relationship. Dialogue as Constitutive—Relationships in Communication Baxter states that a “constitutive approach to communication asks how commu- nication defines or constructs the social world, including our selves and our personal relationships.”11 This dialogical notion is akin to the core commitments of symbolic interactionism and coordinated management of meaning (see Chapters 5 and 6). Recall that Mead claimed our concept of self is formed by interaction with others. Pearce and Cronen state that persons-in-conversation co-construct their own social realities and are simultaneously shaped by the worlds they cre-Constitutive dialogue ate. If Baxter and these other theorists are right, it’s confusing to talk aboutCommunication thatcreates, sustains, and “communication in relationships,” as if communication were just a feature of aalters relationships and couple’s relationship. A constitutive approach suggests that it works the otherthe social world; social way around—communication creates and sustains the relationship. If a pair’sconstruction. communication practices change, so does their relationship. Perhaps nowhere is the constitutive nature of dialogue more fascinating than in the study of interpersonal similarities and differences.12 Traditional scholar- ship concentrates on similarities, regarding common attitudes, backgrounds, and interests as the positive glue that helps people stick together. (“My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me.”) Within this framework, self- disclosure is seen as the most valuable form of communication because, by mutual revelation, people can discover similarities that already exist. In contrast, a dialogic view considers differences to be just as important as similarities and claims that both are created and evaluated through a couple’s dialogue. For example, a relative of mine married a man who is 20 years older than she is. The difference in their age is a chronological fact. But whether she and her husband regard their diverse dates of birth as a difference that makes a difference is the result of the language they use to talk about it. So is the extent to which they see that age gap as either positive or negative. Meaning is created
CHAPTER 12: RELATIONAL DIALECTICS 161 through dialogue. Amber, a student in my communication theory class, gives voice to the tension created by conflicting discourses. My boyfriend Tyler is on the swim team and I know most of the guys well. The exceptions are the new freshmen, who Tyler said refer to me as “the girlfriend.” When I heard this I was surprised how much it irritated me. I obviously value my connection with him, otherwise we wouldn’t be dating. But as I told Tyler, I also have my own separate, independent identity outside of our relationship. This has become a very real tension. Dialogue as Utterance Chain—Building Block of Meaning An utterance is what a person says in one conversational turn. For example, we’ve already looked at the statement Jess makes to her friend Jules about her coach, Joe: “I hope I marry an Indian boy like him.” According to Bakhtin and Baxter, that’s an utterance. But it isn’t simply a statement reflecting her autono- mous desire for a certain type of man. The utterance is embedded in an utterance chain that includes things Jess has heard in the past and responses she anticipatesUtterance chains hearing in the future. In that sense, the utterance chain that Baxter describesThe central building looks something like the CMM model of communication shown on page 74.blocks of meaning- Baxter highlights four links on the chain where the struggle of competing dis-making, where utterances courses can be heard.are linked to competingdiscourses already heard 1. Cultural ideologies (throughout Jess’ past):as well as those yet to be Collectivism says, Marry an Indian man; honor your family’s wishes.spoken. Individualism says, It’s your choice; marry the man who makes you happy. Romanticism says, Marry for love; only one man is right for you. Rationalism says, Cross-cultural marriages are risky; don’t be impulsive. 2. Relational history (from the immediate past): Jules is a friend, a valued teammate. Jules is a co-conspirator, keeping your soccer secret from your folks. Jules is your rival for Joe’s affection. 3. Not-yet spoken response of partner to utterance (immediate future): Jules says I’m silly and laughs at me. Jules tells me to stay away from Joe. Jules swears that she’ll keep my secrets. Jules shares her frustration that Joe is off-limits. 4. Normative evaluation of third party to utterance (further in future): Mother may say, Jesminder was selfish. Sister may say, Jess was setting herself up for a fall. Her children may say, Jess was courageous. All of these competing voices within the utterance chain are in play with Jess’ statement about the man she hopes to marry. It’s as if she’s had an inner dialogue with all of these discourses, probably listening more to some than to others. Baxter regards the utterance chain as the basic building block in the con- struction project of creating meaning through dialogue. That’s why she says, “The core premise of dialogically grounded RDT is that meanings are wrought from the struggle of competing, often contradictory discourses.”13
162 INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION Dialogue as Dialectical Flux—The Complexity of Close RelationshipsDialectical flux We’ve already explored Bakhtin’s and Baxter’s conviction that all social life is theThe unpredictable, unfi- product of “a contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity of two embattled tenden-nalizable, indeterminate cies.”14 The existence of these contrasting forces means that developing and sus-nature of personal taining a relationship is bound to be an unpredictable, unfinalizable, indeterminaterelationships. process—more like playing improvisational jazz than following the score of a familiar song. Since a relationship is created through dialogue that’s always in flux, Baxter thinks we shouldn’t be surprised that the construction project moves “by fits and starts, in what can be an erratic process of backward-forward, up- and-down motion.”15 It’s messy. Figure 12–2 is an attempt to capture the complexity of relationships as seen through the lens of dialectical flux. Note that each of the relational forces dis- cussed in the chapter is shown in tension with every other pole. For example, autonomy is in opposition not only with connection but also with certainty and all the other relational forces. This chaotic jumble of contradictions is far removed from such idyllic notions of communication as a one-way route to interpersonal closeness, shared meaning, or increased certainty. Simultaneous expression of opposing voices is the exception rather than the rule, according to Baxter. At any given time, most relationship partners bring one voice to the foreground while pushing the other one to the background. Baxter and Montgomery have identified two typical conversational strategies for responding to relational dialectics:Spiraling inversion 1. Spiraling inversion is switching back and forth between two contrastingSwitching back and forth voices, responding first to one pull, then the other. This spiraling shiftbetween two contrasting describes the inconsistency of Jess’ communication with her family. Her liesvoices, responding first to about what she’s doing are followed by incredible candor. Her open admis-one pull, then the other. sions precede times of silence and deception.Segmentation 2. Segmentation is a compartmentalizing tactic by which partners isolate dif-A compartmentalizing ferent aspects of their relationship. Some issues and activities resonate withtactic by which partners one dialectical tug, while other concerns and actions resonate with the oppos-isolate different aspects ing pull. For example, Joe seeks to separate his roles as coach and boyfriend,of their relationship. a distinction Jess tries to duplicate. His “I am your coach” statement makes a clear-cut distinction. When Jules askes Jess whether Joe is treating her too hard, her response is more mixed. “He was really nice. Just really profes- sional.” Viewers may smile at this mixed message, but from a dialogical per- spective, her answer is a healthy reflection of the multiple discourses that create her ever-changing relationship with Joe. closedness connection inclusion revelation uncertainty certainty seclusion uniqueness openness autonomy conventionality concealment FIGURE 12–2 The Messiness of Personal Relationships
CHAPTER 12: RELATIONAL DIALECTICS 163 Dialogue as Aesthetic Moment—Creating Unity in DiversityAesthetic moment Taking her lead from Bakhtin’s work, Baxter describes dialogue as an aestheticA fleeting sense of unity accomplishment, “a momentary sense of unity through a profound respect for thethrough a profound disparate voices in dialogue.”16 Parties are fully aware of their discursive strug-respect for disparate gle and create something new out of it. That mutual sense of completion or whole-voices in dialogue. ness in the midst of fragmented experience doesn’t last. It’s a fleeting moment that can’t be sustained. Yet memories of that magic moment can support a couple through the turbulence that goes with the territory of any close relationship. For romantic partners, turning points such as the relationship-defining talk or the first time they make love may be aesthetic moments. Baxter suggests that a meaningful ritual can be an aesthetic moment for all participants because it’s “a joint performance in which competing, contradictory voices in everyday social life are brought together simultaneously.”17 For example, a marriage renewal cere- mony where a couple exchanges newly crafted vows is often the occasion of an aesthetic moment for all participants.18 So too the communion rail where people with diverse beliefs and practices may feel that they are one before the same God. The turning point in Bend It Like Beckham occurs in a moving scene in the Bhamra home after Jess has fervently made known her dream of playing soccer in America. Hers is a desire that clearly rejects the traditional role of women in this close-knit Indian enclave—a role that her sister has enthusiastically embraced in her wedding earlier that day. As one family friend whispers to another after Jess’ declaration, “She’s dead meat.” Yet the sisters’ father takes these polar-opposite visions of life and integrates them into a unified whole. He recounts a story of his own timidity and suffering when he experienced rejection, and then says: I don’t want Jessie to suffer. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes her father made of accepting life, or accepting situations. I want her to fight. I want her to win. Because I’ve seen her playing. She’s—She’s brilliant. I don’t think anybody has the right stopping her. Two daughters made happy on one day. What else could a father ask for? Dialogue as Critical Sensibility—A Critique of Dominant VoicesCritical sensibility The fifth sense of dialogue is an obligation to critique dominant voices, especiallyAn obligation to critique those that suppress opposing viewpoints. Bakhtin’s analysis of a medieval car-dominant voices, nival laid the groundwork for Baxter’s understanding of this function.19 Muchespecially those that sup- like the court jester, the carnivalesque eye is characterized by “mockery of allpress opposing view-points; a responsibility to serious, ‘closed’ attitudes about the world.”20 Power imbalances, hierarchal rela-advocate for those who tionships, and judgments are set aside. The lofty and low, the wise and the foolishare muted. co-mingle. Competing discourses are still present, but opposition is temporarily suspended in a playful quality of interplay. Within the scholarly study of personal relationships, Baxter believes that a critical sensitivity provides a needed correction to the theories of relationship development presented in Chapters 9 through 11. Each of these theories offers a single path to romance, friendship, or close family ties. And within relational practice, she is critical of those who regard their partners as objects of influence. This manipulative mindset frames a relationship as one of power and domination, which then ridicules or silences opposing points of view.21 Baxter opposes any communication practice that ignores or gags another’s voice.
164 INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION Consistent with this multivocal emphasis, the entirety of Bend It Like Beckham can be seen as the triumphant story of a young girl who resists traditional forces that would keep her silenced—a journey from monologue to dialogue. The direc- tor and co-writer of the film, Gurinder Chadha, admits it’s autobiographical. She notes that “Beckham’s uncanny ability to ‘bend’ the ball around a wall of play- ers into the goal is a great metaphor for what young girls (and film directors) go though. You see your goal, you know where you want to go, but you’ve got to twist and turn and bend the rules to get there.”22ETHICAL REFLECTION: SISSELA BOK’S PRINCIPLE OF VERACITY Does lying only bend the rules, or does it break and trash them as well? By looking at lies from the perspective of all who are affected by them, philosopher Sissela Bok hopes to establish when, or if, lies can be justified.Consequentialist ethics Bok rejects an absolute prohibition of lying. She believes that “there areJudging actions solely at least some circumstances which warrant a lie . . . foremost among them,on the basis of their when innocent lives are at stake, and where only a lie can deflect the dan-beneficial or harmful ger.”23 But she also rejects consequentialist ethics, which judge acts on the basisoutcomes. of whether we think they will result in harm or benefit. That approach repre- sents a kind of bottom-line accounting that treats an act as morally neutral until we figure out if it will have positive or negative outcomes. Bok doesn’t view lies as neutral. She is convinced that all lies drag around an initial neg- ative weight that must be factored into any ethical equation. Her principle of veracity asserts that “truthful statements are preferable to lies in the absence of special considerations.”24Principle of veracity Bok contends that we need the principle of veracity because liars engage inTruthful statements are a tragic self-delusion. When they count the cost of deceit, they usually anticipatepreferable to lies in the only their own short-term losses. Liars downplay the impact of their falsehoodabsence of special cir- on the persons deceived and almost always ignore the long-term effects on them-cumstances that overcomethe negative weight. selves and everyone else. Bok warns, “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.”25 Jess may not be dead meat, but the things she says to her folks in the future might be tough for them to swallow.CRITIQUE: MEETING THE CRITERIA FOR A GOOD INTERPRETIVE THEORY Some communication scholars question whether relational dialectics should be considered a theory at all: It lacks the structural intricacies of formal theories of prediction and explanation; it offers no extensive hierarchical array of axiomatic or propositional arguments. It does not represent a single unitary statement of generalizable predictions.26 You may be surprised that Baxter and Montgomery agree with that judgment. In fact, they are the ones who wrote those words. That’s because the traditional goals of a scientific theory that they mention are not at all what these theorists are try- ing to accomplish. They don’t even think these goals are plausible when theorizing about relationships. Instead, they offer relational dialectics as a sensitizing theory, one that should be judged on the basis of its ability to help us see close relation- ships in a new light.27 So an appropriate critique of their theory should apply the standards for evaluating an interpretive theory that I introduced in Chapter 3.
CHAPTER 12: RELATIONAL DIALECTICS 165As I briefly address these five criteria, you’ll find that I think relational dialecticsstacks up quite well. 1. A new understanding of people. Baxter and Montgomery offer read-ers a whole new way to make sense out of their close relationships. I findthat many students feel a tremendous sense of relief when they read aboutrelational dialectics. That’s because the theory helps them realize that theongoing tensions they experience with their friend, family member, or roman-tic partner are an inevitable part of relational life. Competing discoursesaren’t necessarily a warning sign that something is terribly wrong with theirpartner or themselves. 2. A community of agreement. Leslie Baxter’s two decades of work inrelational dialectics has received high acclaim from scholars who study closepersonal ties. The International Association for Relationship Research designatedher monograph “Relationships as Dialogues” as its 2004 Distinguished ScholarArticle, an honor bestowed only once a year. Baxter’s research has changed thelandscape within the field of study known as personal relationships. 3. Clarification of values. By encouraging a diverse group of people totalk about their relationships, and taking what they say seriously, Baxter andMontgomery model the high value that Bakhtin placed on hearing multiplevoices. Yet Baxter continues to critique her own research for heavy reliance onself-report data from surveys and interviews, and she laments the relative lackof dialogue studies focusing on talk between relational parties. Given her increas-ing emphasis on dialogue, however, this disconnect between theory and researchmethodology will hopefully soon be bridged.28 4. Reform of society. Not only does Baxter listen to multiple voices, buther theory seeks to carve out a space where muted or ignored voices can beheard. Relational dialectics creates a critical sensibility that encourages dialoguerather than monologue. In this way the theory is a force for change—not onlyin personal relationships, but in the public sphere as well. 5. Aesthetic appeal. Figure 12–2 illustrates the difficulty of crafting anartistic representation when the objects of study—in this case, relationships—areinherently messy. Baxter’s task becomes even more difficult given her commit-ment to unraveling Bakhtin’s multistranded conception of dialogue. Since theRussian philosopher wrote in his native language, it’s difficult to translate hisnuanced ideas into English in an elegant way. Accuracy has to come beforeartistry. Baxter’s Voicing Relationships is a tough read as well. Yet in describingfleeting moments of wholeness, Baxter holds out the promise of an aesthetic idealto which all of us can aspire—an image that could make slogging through themorass of relational contradictions feel less frustrating. And Montgomery’simagery suggests that dealing with dialectics can actually be fun: I have been told that riding a unicycle becomes enjoyable when you accept that you are constantly in the process of falling. The task then becomes one of continually playing one force against another, countering one pull with an opposing motion and adapting the wheel under you so that you remain in movement by maintaining and controlling the fall. If successful, one is propelled along in a state of sustained imbalance that is sometimes awkward and sometimes elegant. From a dialectical perspective, sustaining a relationship seems to be a very similar process.29
166 INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATIONQUESTIONS TO SHARPEN YOUR FOCUS 1. How many different synonyms and equivalent phrases can you list that come close to capturing what Baxter and Montgomery mean by the word dialectic? What do these words have in common? 2. Which of the seven theories discussed in previous chapters would Baxter and Montgomery consider simplistic or nondialogical? 3. What conflicting pulls place the most strain on your closest personal rela- tionship? To what extent do you and your partner use spiraling inversion, seg- mentation, and dialogue to deal with that tension? 4. Why wouldn’t typical scale items like the following reveal opposing dis- courses in a close relationship, even if they exist? What characterizes your relationship? Intimacy :____:____:____:____:____:____:____: IndependenceSELF-QUIZ www.mhhe.com/griffin8CONVERSATIONS At the start of our conversation, Leslie Baxter states that all communication involves the interplay of differences, which are often competing or in opposition to each other. She explains why this dialectic tension isn’t a problem to be solved, but an occasion for a relationship to change and grow. Baxter cautions that we’ve been seduced into thinking relating is easy, when in fact it’s hard work. Most of our discussion centers on ways to cope with the interplay of dif- ferences we experience. She urges partners to reflect carefully on rituals that celebrate both their unity and diversity, and offers other practical suggestions as well.View this segment online atwww.mhhe.com/griffin8 or www.afirstlook.com.A SECOND LOOK Recommended resource: Leslie A. Baxter and Barbara M. Montgomery, Relating: Dia- logues and Dialectics, Guilford, New York, 1996. RDT 2.0: Leslie A. Baxter, Voicing Relationships: A Dialogical Perspective, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2011. Dialogue: Leslie A. Baxter, “Relationships as Dialogues,” Personal Relationships, Vol. 11, 2004, pp. 1–22. Summary statement: Leslie A. Baxter and Dawn O. Braithwaite, “Relational Dialectics Theory,” in Engaging Theories in Interpersonal Communication: Multiple Perspectives, Leslie A. Baxter and Dawn O. Braithwaite (eds.), Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2008, pp. 349–361. Personal narrative of the theory’s development: Leslie A. Baxter, “A Tale of Two Voices,” Journal of Family Communication, Vol. 4, 2004, pp. 181–192.
CHAPTER 12: RELATIONAL DIALECTICS 167 Bakhtin on dialectics: Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imag-ination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, Cary Emerson and Michael Holquist (trans.), Uni-versity of Texas, Austin, TX, 1981, pp. 259–422. Bakhtin on utterance chain: Mikhail Bakhtin, “The Problem of Speech Genres,” in SpeechGenres & Other Late Essays, Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (eds.), V. W. McGee(trans.), University of Texas, Austin, TX, 1986, pp. 60–102. Friendship dialectics: William Rawlins, Friendship Matters: Communication, Dialectics, andthe Life Course, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 1992. Comparing, contrasting, and critiquing different dialectical approaches: Barbara M. Mont-gomery and Leslie A. Baxter (eds.), Dialectical Approaches to Studying Personal Relationships,Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, 1998. Critique: Leslie A. Baxter, “Relational Dialectics Theory: Multivocal Dialogues ofFamily Communication,” in Engaging Theories in Family Communication: Multiple Perspec-tives, Dawn O. Braithwaite and Leslie A. Baxter (eds.), Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2006,pp. 130–145. To access titles and cue points from feature films that illustrate relational dialectics and other theories, click on Suggested Movie Clips under Theory Resources at www.afirstlook.com.