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Donna R. Pawlowski

Rubber Bands and Sectioned Oranges:
Dialectical Tensions and Metaphors Used to Describe Interpersonal Relationships



This study explored dialectical tensions and metaphors throughout relational development. Participants identified stages of relationships with stages of "beginning/attraction," "insecurity/decision-making," and "contentment/stability" being most prevalent in relational development. Dialectic tensions that characterized relationships include all six of Baxter's (1988) internal and external relational contradictions: autonomy-connection, prediction-novelty, openness-closedness, inclusion-seclusion, conventionality-uniqueness, and revelation-concealment. Internal tensions were more primary in relationships than external tensions. Metaphors were analyzed and coded into five themes: attraction, development, uncertainty, unsettled, and content. These metaphors were also evident in several of the tensions. Overall, this study contributes to theoretical development of the dialectic perspective and extends research on metaphors in interpersonal relationships.


Various scholars have voiced their opinions regarding future directions for interpersonal communication. Some common issues prevail. First, researchers call for the need to identify features characteristic of relational development (Baxter, 1990; Duck & Pittman, 1994). Scholars (Altman & Taylor, 1987; Lewis, 1972) have argued that relationships undergo changes resulting in developmental stages. Developmental models must take into consideration various aspects of relational development, without presupposing a particular stage progression (Delia, 1980; Werner & Baxter, 1994). Thus relational development should not be presumed by researchers, rather the stages of relationships should emerge from participants' descriptions of the relationship.

Second, it is important for interpersonal scholars to examine the language of relational pairs. Duck (1990) indicates there are implications of narratives and accounts that individuals construct about the past. Talk of individuals may reveal attitude, intimacy, and self-disclosure about relationships. The creation of stories tends to reflect a person's needs, illustrate the relationship's present, as well as indicate the individual's expectations about the future. Language can also indicate how individuals think about their relationships. The nature of the relationship is communicated through nonverbal and verbal elaboration. This language can serve a variety of relational functions, acting as an index of relational status or an instrument of relational change (Sillars, Shellan, McIntosh, & Pomegranate, 1997). Therefore, investigation of how individuals discuss their relationships can be used to help scholars understand relational changes.

Third, interpersonal researchers must examine the dialectical tensions that exist in relationships. Duck (1990) and Duck and Pittman (1994) advance the need for scholars to look at dyadic dilemmas of resolving contradictions. Duck (1990) argues that social, relational, and individual forces influence relationships through dialectics that create patterns as individuals attempt to resolve tensions. The identification of dialectical tensions existing in interpersonal relationships warrants further investigation.

Finally, Bochner (1984) states we should use more metaphors in studies to help understand relationships. Baxter (1990) and Owen (1984) have also discussed the need for metaphor research to aid in understanding perceptions that individuals have about their relationships.

Given these concerns, the purpose of this exploratory study is to explore the dialectic tensions and metaphors that emerge from individuals' perceptions of romantic relationships. Two areas of literature review warrant explanation--dialectic research and metaphoric language.


Dialectic Perspective

The dialectical perspective was chosen as the theoretical grounding for this study. The dialectical approach is considered a meta-theory or a perspective for studying interpersonal relationships (Baxter, 1988; Cupach, 1992; Duck & Pittman, 1994). This particular approach examines contradictory tensions in relationships that lead to relationship change (Cupach, 1992).

Major components of dialectics include those of contradiction, process and interconnection. Contradiction is formed whenever two tendencies or forces are interdependent, yet mutually negate each other (Baxter, 1988, 1990; Cornforth, 1968; Montgomery, 1993). In general terms, it refers to the dynamic tension between opposing forces. For example, both spontaneity and predictability within a relationship may be desired.

Contradictions of relationships are normal phenomena seen as neither inherently positive nor negative--they just exist. Both poles of the opposition are assumed to possess potentially positive and negative attributes as well as to have possibly positive and negative ramifications for the relationship (Montgomery, 1992a, 1992b, 1993). By realizing inevitable forces exist, and that such tensions are not unhealthy, people will better understand the process of interpersonal relationships.

Scholars from the dialectical perspective concern themselves not only with the contradictions that exist in relationships but also with the process of how contradictions produce developmental change (Baxter, 1990; Wood, Dendy, Dordek, Germany, & Varallo, 1994). Process refers to the notion that relationships involve opposing forces that are dynamic, ever changing, and continuous (Baxter, 1990; Bruess & Pearson, 1997; Conville, 1991, 1994; Cornforth, 1968; Cupach, 1992; Rawlins, 1983a, 1989; Werner & Baxter 1994).

Stamp (1992) claims that process implies dialectics as always being present within relationships and experienced to various degrees by relationship interactants.

Mao (1953, 1965) proposes that contradictions are characteristic of developmental processes, thus occurring throughout the course of relationships. Communication scholars have looked at the process of relational development using the dialectical perspective. Wiseman (1986) looks at friendships. Dialectics and relational development also have been studied in romantic relationships (Baxter, 1990; Montgomery, 1992a; Pawlowski, 1996). Finally, Masheter and Harris (1986) look at divorced couples and their encounters with tensions and dissolution of the relationship. Indeed, it appears that the dialectical perspective is applicable for examining relational development as it is capable of delineating among various developmental stages of relationships.

In addition to contradiction and process, several scholars identify interconnection or totality as an essential component of the dialectical perspective (Baxter, 1993; Montgomery, 1992a, Rawlins, 1983b, 1992; Sabourin, 1992; Werner & Baxter, 1994). Interconnection generally refers to the interdependence of the tensions such that no single contradiction can be considered in isolation of other contradictions (Rawlins, 1989; Werner & Baxter, 1994). It should not be possible then to have just one contradiction operating in a relationship. The problem with most dialectic research is that studies usually center on only one contradiction. If a fundamental theoretical concept is that contradictions are interconnected, then more research needs to examine whether various contradictions emerge at one time in actual relationships.


Identified Tensions

Dialectical research also focuses on internal and external contradictions (Baxter, 1990). Though others have studied contradictions in relationships, the main contributor to the identification of contradictions for this study is Baxter (1988, 1990). Baxter's work mainly focuses on romantic relationships with three main dialectical categories: integration-separation, stability-change, and expression-privacy (Baxter, 1988, 1990, 1993, & 1994; Werner & Baxter, 1994). Integration-separation captures the basic tension between social integration and social division. Stability-change includes the opposition of continuing and discontinuing the relationship. Expression-privacy identifies what is said and what is left unsaid; what is expressed and not expressed. These three main dialectics are illustrated in two forms--internal and external. Internal contradictions are bound to those within the dyadic social unit of study--the relationship itself, or the "interpersonal dialectical process" (Altman, 1993; Brown, Altman & Werner, 1992). External contradictions are constituted between the social unit and the larger system in which they are embedded--the dyad in connection to outside social networks of friends, family, and the society (Brown et al., 1992; Montgomery, 1992b).

Table 1 outlines the typology of Baxter's contradictions. Three internal tensions occur within the privacy of the relationship, between the relational partners: autonomy-connection, prediction-novelty, and openness-closedness. Autonomy-connection is considered the primary internal strain within a relationship (Baxter, 1988; Griffin, 1994). This contradiction explains the tension exploring the difference between the need for partner independence and autonomy and the need for partner connection or interdependence in relationships. Relationships must undergo some sacrifice of individual autonomy in order for a relationship to exist.

Predictability-novelty refers to the routine and uncertainty of perceptions and behaviors in relationships (Baxter, 1993). This contradiction revolves around a partner's need for predictability, certainty, and routinization, on the one hand, and the need for novelty, stimulation, and spontaneity, on the other hand (Werner & Baxter, 1994). Without some element of surprise, the relationship may become boring and emotionally dead.

The last internal contradiction is openness-closedness. This contradiction refers to the amount of candor and discretion in partners' interactions (Baxter, 1993). Open self-disclosure is necessary for relationship intimacy. However, privacy is also desirable as individuals may not want to fully discuss matters for fear of vulnerability or hurt resulting from excessive honesty.

Three parallel external tensions exist between the social unit and outside social system within which the social unit is embedded: inclusion-seclusion, conventionality-uniqueness, and revelation-concealment. Inclusion-seclusion involves a couple's management of coping with the demands to withdraw from others and to interact with others (Baxter, 1993; Werner & Baxter, 1994). Werner and Baxter (1994) assert that couples need time alone and privacy from others to establish their own dyadic relationship. In addition, couples need to create identity as a social unit requiring integration with others.

Conventionality-uniqueness relates to the tension of conforming to societal norms and creating a unique pair identity. Baxter (1993) notes that compliance with social conventions provides social identity known to outsiders allowing the couple to easily interact with others so as to fit into society. Although conforming to society is desirable, couples do not want to be carbon copies of other couples. Thus, couples also feel a need for uniqueness in their couple presentation to outsiders.

The final external tension is revelation-concealment involving the decision to reveal relational information to outsiders. Deciding what to reveal or not to reveal creates a dilemma for relational partners. Support and legitimization by others is important, however, public exposure comes at a cost of privacy to the relational pair.

Baxter's work is substantial in examining dialectics of interpersonal and romantic relationships. Other research on dialectical contradictions also investigates specific contradictions. For example, researchers have looked at autonomy-connection (Goldsmith, 1990; Montgomery, 1992a), autonomy (or differences) of couples (Wood et al., 1994), openness-closedness of relational couples and their social networks (Baxter & Widenmann, 1993), closedness in relation to taboo topics (Baxter & Wilmot, 1985), self-disclosure and privacy in terms of openness and closedness (Petronio, 1991; Petronio & Martin, 1986), and autonomy-connection and openness-closedness of marital couples (Hoppe & Ting-Toomey, 1994). Only one study to date has examined all six contradictions within relationships (Pawlowski, in press). These studies contribute important information to the study of dialectics; however, most do not attempt to consider multiple contradictions.

From this review of literature thus far, it appears the dialectical perspective is concerned with relational development. Given the importance of understanding the developmental stages of relationships and interdependency of contradictions within relationships, the following research questions were examined:

RQ1: What stages do people use to describe their relational development?

RQ2: Do the tensions identified by individuals fit within Baxter's typology of dialectical contradictions: autonomy-connection, prediction-novelty, openness-closedness, inclusion-seclusion, conventionality-uniqueness, and revelation-concealment?


Metaphoric Language

Up until the mid 1980s, no research existed on the role metaphors play in the construction of relationships (Owen, 1985). Current research shows that individuals use metaphors in describing their interpersonal relationships (Atwood & Levine, 1991; Baxter, 1992; Gatz & Christie, 1991; Kovecses, 1991; Owen, 1985). In general, most scholars agree that metaphors help in creating individuals' perceptions of their world (McCorkle & Mills, 1992; Owen, 1985; Tourangeau & Rips, 1991; Waggoner, 1990; Yamamoto, Hardcastle, Muehl, & Muehl, 1989; Turner & West, 1998).

Metaphors are cognitive structures that help individuals understand and interpret their world (Galvin & Brommel, 1996; McCorkle & Mills, 1992). Lakoff and Johnson (1980) identify a metaphor as "understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another" (p. 5). Lakoff and Johnson also argue that our everyday life is metaphorical in nature. Not only do we speak in metaphors, but we also think and act metaphorically.

Metaphors allow individuals to express their feelings and emotions more freely without overtly discussing them. Individuals may not be able to communicate their true feelings, but they may be able to describe how they feel through the use of metaphors. Thus, metaphors are beneficial in studying relationships as literal language of individuals may not be able to fully convey the complexities of the relationship experiences.

Metaphors have been used to study various interpersonal relationships. Owen (1984) conducts one of the earliest studies on interpersonal relationship metaphors. Owen collected self-reports from individuals in various types of relationships in order to discover communication people use in their relationships. Interpretative thematic analysis uncovered seven main themes: commitment, involvement, work, unique/special, fragile, consideration/ respect, and manipulation.

Owen (1990) continued his research of relational metaphors by allowing individuals to identify the progression of their relationship and to indicate any changes they experienced within their relationship. Written diaries and interviews of two case studies were used for analysis. Participants were not specifically asked to identify any metaphors or turning points in describing their relationships. Owen extracted relational turning points and metaphors from data.

Although tapping into new metaphor research, this study includes drawbacks. First, individuals were currently in relationships with an average duration of six months. Research should encompass metaphoric language used to describe stages prior to, during, and after perceived breakup. Second, Owen claims researchers could ask individuals to think of their relationships in metaphorical language to discover which transitions of relational development require changes in participants' language. This approach would sensitize participants; however, it would begin to tell researchers what changes in relational development influence changes in metaphorical language.

Baxter (1992) also examines metaphors in romantic relationships by studying the root metaphors used in accounts of developing romantic relationships. Seven root metaphors emerged: work, journey of discovery, uncontrollable force, danger, organism, exchange, and game. As demonstrated, scholars study the use of metaphors and relational development in various types of relationships. Since research calls for a need to further examine metaphors of relational developmental, research question three is posed:

RQ3: What metaphors do people use to describe their relational development?


Metaphors and Dialectical Perspective

Most research on dialectics involves examples of respondents' descriptions from interviews. Much of the language in the examples is metaphorically laden. For example, in Rawlins (1989, 1992) studies of friendship, descriptions include some of the following: "I'm a hothead," "we all start chasing her," "pick yourself up," and "I grew up to like him."

Other studies relating to romantic relationships (Baxter, 1990; Pawlowski, 1996) include language such as "I needed my space and ways to get that space...," "relationship dies off real fast," "we decided we're going to give this a shot," "vacations were like a shot in the arm," and "we were caught in the school rut."

From these examples depicting two different types of relationships, metaphoric language seems present within various tensions of interpersonal relationships. Thus, the dialectic perspective can be used as a basis for metaphor research of interpersonal relationships. This relationship between metaphors and dialectic research fosters a final research question as no other study has examined such a relationship:

RQ4: What dialectic tensions are embedded within metaphoric language?




Ten participants were obtained through a network method and were chosen on the basis of their interest and willingness to participate in this exploratory study. Individuals needed to be currently in a relationship or having recently been in a past relationship (within the last two months). Six women and four men participated. Five individuals were single and five were married. Three were divorced, one is remarried, and two experienced recent break-ups. Current relationship length ranged from 2 weeks to 7 1/2 years. Past relationship length ranged from 1 1/2 years to 16 years. The ages ranged from 23-49; seven of whom were in their twenties. All individuals were Caucasian and in heterosexual relationships. Three participants were secretaries, four were in professional jobs and obtained advanced degrees, and three were graduate teaching assistants.


Research Procedures

Individuals were called on the phone or approached in person asking their permission to participate in the study. Participants were interviewed. Each interview was audio taped, completed in one session, and varied in length from 60 minutes to 90 minutes. Interviews were in depth face-to-face interviews and took place by the researcher in a location chosen by the interviewee.

Interviews followed an interview guide approach. This approach allows a question protocol for the interviewer to pursue, while allowing the interviewee to shape the content of the interview and encourages emergence of related issues (Patton, 1990). Questions were created to tap into the specific stages and metaphors used to describe the relational development. This allowed for some structure and guidance for the interviewees to follow in creating their relationship history. Although these data were specifically asked, questions did not inquire about dialectical tensions. Since much of the dialectical research has examined only internal tensions, one purpose of this study was to determine if the respondent would identify both internal and external tensions, rather than the researcher soliciting such information. Thus, the questions did not ask for specifics about any dialectical tensions.

As this was an exploratory study, a limited number of questions were asked in order to answer the research questions. Samples of questions included the following:

How do you know when you are in a romantic relationship?

How does it feel? (Emotionally, physically.)

How would you describe your relationship at the present time?

Or one from the most recent past?

In thinking about the development of your relationship, describe the stages your relationship has/had gone through?

In thinking about the stages, please identify and describe metaphors that fit each of the stages?

What did you experience in this particular stage?

A brief explanation and a non-relationship example of a metaphor were given to provide the individuals an understanding of a metaphor. Allowing open-ended questions allowed individuals to speak from their own experiences without impositions of the researcher (Polkinghorne, 1983). Probes were asked as needed for further information.


Data Analysis

After interviewing the couples, tapes were transcribed. Among these transcripts, dialectical tensions and metaphors were identified. Dialectic responses were coded according to Baxter's typology of contradictions. First, the tensions described were identified and written on notecards. Two independent coders who separated them into the six tensions identified by Baxter analyzed the notecards. Inter-coder agreement was at 91% and Cohen's kappa was .89.

A similar procedure was used to identify metaphors. Transcripts were analyzed and metaphors (whether specified by participants or extracted from data) also were written on notecards. Metaphors were initially separated by the researcher according to 5 emergent themes: attraction, development, uncertainty, unsettled, and content. To verify the accurateness of the five themes, the two independent coders used the five created labels and sorted the metaphors. Inter-coder agreement was at 88% and Cohen's kappa was .87. The research and coders resolved discrepancies in both procedures.


Results and Discussion


In addressing the first research question of what stages do people use to describe their relational development, 45 specified stages were identified. The stages ranged from 3-8 with the average being 4 stages in each relationship.

Regardless of the number of stages, three stages were predominant in responses: beginning/attraction, insecurity/decision-making, and commitment/stability. All individuals identified a beginning/attraction stage, regardless of whether relationships started as acquaintances or strangers. Individuals still involved in relationships identified all three stages, thus assuming that commitment/stability may be a necessity of relational continuation. This stage appeared to be a significant stage in relationships.

The insecurity/decision-making stage did not appear in any specific point in relationship. This stage did however, characterize important relational changes as many individuals identified this stage more than once. Individuals experiencing recent breakups revisited this stage throughout their relational development, whether it was before or after any commitment/stability stage was identified. Those who are still in relationships, identified the insecurity/decision-making stage prior to the commitment/stability stage. Thus, insecurity and decision-making are important as they may occur at any time during the relationship.

Although other stages were depicted, these three stages were the most predominant throughout the interviews. Individuals provided specific examples, narratives, and dialogue to illustrate stages. Even though stages were identified, they were explained in terms of "process," "transitions," "development," and "changes." This demonstrated that individuals see their relationships as a developmental process over time. Asking individuals to create their own developmental progress eliminates previous problems of researchers presupposing specific stages. From this evidence, then, it also may be assumed that people do see their relationships in terms of processes of relational development regardless of the term (stage) used in labeling the development.


Dialectical Tensions

One hundred sixty dialectical tensions emerged from the transcripts to provide data in answering research question two: Do the tensions identified by individuals fit within Baxter's typology of dialectical contradictions: autonomy-connection, prediction-novelty, openness-closedness, inclusion-seclusion, conventionality-uniqueness, and revelation-concealment? Analysis shows that all six dialectical tensions were identified in the data. Table Two identifies a breakdown of numbers and percentages. As indicated by the percentages, internal tensions were more prevalent than external tensions in descriptions of the relationships.



According to dialectic research, the tension of autonomy-connection is a primary tension in relationships (Baxter, 1990; Montgomery, 1993; Pawlowski, in press). From the great number of responses, this tension also appears primary in this study. Individuals described autonomy-connection in a variety of ways. Individuals characterized this tension as being a struggle, an internal conflict, and contentment. The following are examples from respondents:


It was like a drama of trying to decide if you want to spend the rest of your life with someone or not. It was challenging--he didn't want to give up his bachelor-hood and all his stuff.

We just decided to call it off about 3 weeks ago--We're not going cold turkey because we are still best friends. We're trying to do things together, but it's tough; I'm not the one who broke it off.

A sectioned orange--deciding to pull each piece apart and look at each one or take the orange as a whole and deal with it all at once.


These examples indicate that some individuals saw autonomy and connection in competition with each other or a problem that needed to be solved.

In the beginning stages of relationships, most individuals were satisfied to give up their own autonomy so as not to jeopardize the relationship itself:


It was me and you [sic] against the world--had an ally in everything. We couldn't do anything without each other. Very enmeshed. Spent all our time together.

I wanted to physically be near him. To put my arm around him and try to hold his hand. This comes from wanting to be close to him and developing a bond.


When describing the relationship as it develops over time, individuals seemed content with not having to be at each other's side. The partners felt comfortable searching for their independence once again:


We are still dependent and close, but we are settling down now. We can spend more time apart now.

You reach a comfort stage. You don't need to be with them all the time. You can have independence.

You're confident that you don't need immersion. You can be in the same room and not talk to each other and still be together.



Most dialectic research identifies autonomy-connection and openness-closedness as the two largest categories (Baxter, 1990; Montgomery, 1992; Werner & Baxter, 1994). Though in this study predictability-novelty was much larger than openness-closedness. Some individuals described "newness" during the initial stages of the relationship:


In the beginning, we did a lot of things that were just exciting. Fun things like white water rafting, something I never pictured myself doing.

When you thought of him, you became twitterpated.

Like a Valentine's Day party when you were kids and everyone brought their packages valentines. The little bags we all made were different and you tried to find the cutest one for the guy you really liked.

It's new, innocent, cutesy.


Other individuals expressed the need to bring some excitement back into the relationship. These individuals appeared to be lacking spontaneity in their relationships. In these instances, individuals saw the tension as problematic. This frustration is demonstrated with the following:


Sometimes I think he should give me a little present or a note or call me and say something sweet - but it's not going to happen. I know it's not going to happen&emdash;so why force it. I don't want anything forced.

So the relationship is on hold. It's like 'put everything on hold and we will deal with each other when we have time--later--not right now.' But the more I wait, the more hostile I get. So I feel pathetic. I really want someone to be romantic and attentive to my needs. I need some spark.


In addition, others felt comfortable with the amount of predictability and novelty in their relationships. These incidents seem to occur after the relationship had been established:


There are different emotions at the same time&emdash;like an umbrella or a cloud with many raindrop emotions that go with it. Happy raindrops--don't wake me in the morning raindrops. You become attuned to the emotions. I know what angry is--I know what to expect from my emotions when a relationship develops.

It's early summer now. Things are more relaxed and you really enjoy the give and take. Flowers are on occasion--but not as much as in the springtime. But it may be the little comments. It's more relaxed--more secure. Not as many quick changes in the weather pattern.


Finally, individuals demonstrated this tension through negative feelings. They did not see the novelty as fun, rather the surprise element in the relationship was destructive:


Then it was like dropping the bomb. She told me she lost the spark--there wasn't anything there. It was complete news to me. I mean a week before we had actually gone and looked at engagement rings.

It was like she went overboard in thinking bad things.


This particular incident shows how both poles of the tensions were operating in the same instance where the novelty created a negative result.

Predictability-novelty seems to be an important tension in relationships. It appears to be a prevalent tension occurring equally in all stages of relational development.



In regard to openness/closedness, no pattern existed as to when either pole dominated in the relationship. Individuals indicated both self-disclosure and non-disclosure during the beginning of relationships:

Apprehension of saying the wrong thing--fear my feelings won't be reciprocated.

During dinner, he spilled his beans about everything--about all his old girlfriends. You'd ask him anything and he'd answer it. I thought how odd for him to disclose so much on the first date.

You want to know everything about them and they want to know everything about me. It's heavy emotional time--take off the masks--risk level is high.


As the relationship developed, conflict emerged as a force in the openness-closedness tensions. This conflict was internal or external, and was expressed as follows:


I will tend to avoid conflict. I will avoid it--but that's not healthy. One thing I've learned is that maybe I should just blow up and let it run its course.

You can get pissed off at him now. You know you'll still love him but you can tell him you're really really mad and you're still glad he's your partner--but you can say you're depressed because he yelled at you.


The apparent association between conflict and openness-closedness may have implications for those interested in relational conflict.

Finally, this tension was characterized by the comfort and ease of openness in the relationship. Such instances were described as follows:


Now, I feel comfortable--100% comfortable. We can talk about anything. He wouldn't think gross or anything--I like that--I can say how I feel. He knows I'm just venting--he knows what I'm thinking--I like that.

We have total honesty. The desire to make it work. We talk and work out our problems.


A great deal of research argues that the intimacy and self-disclosure are important to relationships (Hoppe & Ting-Toomey, 1994; VanLear, 1991). The importance of openness-closedness is also evident in this study as several individuals expressed deep emotions when struggling with this tension.



The inclusion-seclusion tension, which is the first of the external contradictions seemed to be broken down into three parts--dominant pole of inclusion, dominant pole of seclusion and an identification of both poles. When individuals talked of others being included in their activities, inclusion was both voluntary and involuntary. For example, instances occurred where individuals wanted or included others:


We created a history--we shared the same friends--the same experiences.

At Christmas time--I was ready to break up with him. My sister said "You're right, you need to focus more on you a little more and not so much on what he's doing." She said, "Make a list of reasons why you should and should not break up with him." I was mad and made a list of all the bad things and I was ready to break up with him. I practiced with my sister.


This appreciation of others was not always the case. One individual indicates instances where others were not invited:


Engagements are a pain--that's the time when you should decide if this is really right. Once you're engaged--everyone else is planning the wedding and asking "What else needs to be discussed?"

I felt like no one was listening to me. I kept hearing, "This is your day." But it was not my day&emdash;--t ended up being everyone else's day.


The dominant pole of inclusion is important in relationships as it may indicate the inclusion of others is not always by choice but more of an imposition by others.

In opposition, this tension was characterized as seclusion being dominant in the relationship. It may not be a struggle between inclusion, rather a purposeful decision not to include others:


This was our screw-up stage. My family wanted us to come to dinner and if we both didn't want to come we would say "He doesn't want to...--She doesn't want to...." We used each other for excuses--we were so dependent on each other we'd make excuses to our families.

Then you reach immersion&emdash;immerse yourself in the other person. All you see is each other&emdash;all you do is each other&emdash;you ignore everyone else.


Individuals use seclusion from others as a means of strengthening their own connection to each other.

Finally, inclusion-seclusion can encompass both poles within the relationship. This tension can be seen as a transition from one pole to another where the change is perceived as comfortable. These descriptions identify the shift between both poles of the tension:


I never went to Dad's by myself--we always went together to the house. Then when we settled down, I could go by myself to Dad's for a couple of hours and he could go play baseball.

That's when I think you are in a good relationship. When you move from being so close no one else could penetrate the circle, to expanding that circle to involve each other's friends--family--and become part of a bigger community.


Again the perception of comfort emerged which demonstrated the flexibility individuals in the relationship yield to each other. Not all individuals felt a comfort level, but a real struggle between the poles:


At first I thought he was a loser--hanging out with his fraternity friends. I was insecure--it was my first real relationship. We realized we had to stop partying and drinking. You have to distance yourself from your friends. We had a lot of friends. They wanted to pull us apart&emdash;they wanted us to date--but also wanted girls/boys night out. We'd meet at midnight. We could meet each other later--but not at 8:00--we had to be with our friends then.

It was a tug-of-war--a rubber band. Friends tugging one way--or we were tugging each other too.

Friends said, "No, you don't need him." We were pulled and stretched--tugging between friends--between us.



Conventionality-Uniqueness was the smallest category identified. Most of this dialectic was manifested in terms of what is expected from society--what is considered traditional in the American culture.


My mom was really cool about the wedding. But everyone else wanted everything to be what they envisioned a wedding should be like. I thought "You know, let's just get married in the meadow outside."

I fully expected to be married by 25 and thinking about kids. The all-American boy. That's not even nine months away and I'm not even close now.


The expected norm for relational events was specified in these quotations. Even though individuals talked of the "ideal" tradition, conventionality was not always desired. Thus couples may conform to the ideals to satisfy others and not themselves.



The last tension is revelation-concealment. This tension was exemplified with examples of one pole or another and the struggle of both poles operating at the same time. Description of this tension appeared throughout relational development. The beginning of the relationship related more to revealment of the relationship itself.


We'd go to the movies together--but we were just friends. That's what we told people. We were adamant we were just friends.

I was dating another guy when we first began--but we began as friends. Then I had to tell the other guy about us and break it off with him.


As the relationship became more involved, individuals provided examples to show how they dealt with changes in the relationship. The development of a relationship is something people may want to share with others; however, these two examples show a contrast between revealment and concealment:


Then I ended up living with him. My whole family knew we were living together&emdash;but his parents didn't know.

He slipped the ring on my finger and we started calling people from the bar saying, "We're engaged!"


Relationship break-up seemed to be a revealing process. Dissatisfaction of the relationship was shared with others in hopes of redefining and rejuvenating the relationship:


The last six to eight months we've been coasting along--but going nowhere. We've talked to different people to help us--her parents--other people--ministers.


Another individual explains how revealment was used as a sense of finality for the relationship:


Then it ended and everyone knew it. It may not have totally ended--but it ended legally and we were no longer together.


In summary, individuals identified all six tensions. Scholars argue that autonomy-connection and openness-closedness are the primary strains within relationships (Baxter, 1988, 1990; Altman, Vinsel, & Brown, 1981; VanLear, 1991). However, in this study, primary tensions were autonomy-connection and predictability-novelty. Given this analysis, it is evident that all three internal contradictions need consideration in dialectic research.

It is also apparent that different poles of the tensions may be operating at different times of the relationship. For example, in early relationship stages, connection was greatly favored over autonomy, and novelty was more predominant than predictability. The openness/closedness tension appeared somewhat equal across the relationship development as individuals expressed both high degrees of openness and closedness in the beginning of their relationships.



Metaphor analysis was done in two phases and answered research question 3 and 4: What metaphors do people use to describe their relational development?, and What dialectic tensions are embedded within metaphoric language? First, individuals were asked to provide metaphors for their identified relational stages. This generated a list of 46 different metaphors. Some of the metaphors used to describe the beginning/attraction stages of relationships included "winter," "Valentine's Day party," "excitement," "pals," "twitterpated," "magic," "budding flower," "points of contact," and "opening a book." These metaphors characterize the newness and excitement of initial encounters.

Another common stage of relationships is insecurity/decision-making. This stage is depicted by "seeding," "darkroom," "wheelbarrow," "tug-of-war," "ultimatum," roller coaster," "drama," "exploration," and "rubber band." These metaphors demonstrate the unpredictability that many individuals described as not knowing what will come of the relationship.

The commitment/stability stage of development was illustrated as "confidence," "mature plant," "finding the right angle of a photograph," "old pair of shoes," "contentment," "same vector," "parallel lines," "not having to cling to the vines," "circle," and "ring." These metaphors show the connectedness of individuals in the relationship. A healthy stable relationship is the image created by the connotation of these phrases.

Individuals delineating break-ups chose metaphors such as "dying from lack of water," "clean break," "betrayal," and "dropping the bomb." The picture created in these descriptions shows a sense of finality to the relationship.

As people described their relationship development, their language changed. For example, one man used the metaphor of a plant in describing how the plant begins as a vulnerable seedling needing water and room to grow. The plant then develops and needs nutrients (from others) to grow and mature into a stable plant. Once stable, the plant does not need to depend on other plants, not having to cling to other vines. If the plant becomes too stagnant, it may lack nutrients and start dying from lack of water. From this example, it is obvious that the metaphoric language changes throughout the development of the relationship. Owen (1990) previously argued for the need to study metaphors described prior to- during- and after breakups. He also questioned whether changes in relationship development would require change in individuals' language. As evidenced, metaphoric language does change as people describe their relational development. It seems important then that language of participants may help to characterize the relational points of development.

After investigating the identified metaphors, a second analysis was conducted with the metaphors. Throughout the reading of the transcripts metaphoric expressions were being illustrated. Individuals described their relationships using metaphors even before they were asked to provide metaphors for the actual stages. The number of metaphors appeared significant such that 273 metaphors were extracted from the transcripts. These metaphors were arranged into five categories: attraction, development, uncertainty, unsettled, and content. A breakdown of numbers and percentages is seen in Table Three.



Attraction refers to the initial stages of development and is expressed through feelings of excitement and getting to know the partner. Some attraction metaphors include "being twitterpated," "cloud nine," "Valentines Day party," "euphoria," "deep conversation," "limited sight - only have eyes for each other," "magical," "warm and gooey," "attraction," "magnetic," "vacation in the mountains," "little butterflies," "sunshine glow on your shoulders," "cool like winter - frozen - distant--getting to know each other," swept off your feet," "good ice cream cone--something you can't get enough of," budding flower," "candle in a dark room--all you see is that candle and flame," and "finding a cute little animal in your back yard and getting to know it."

These metaphors create vivid pictures of happiness and warmth. The excitement and time spent with each other is important to an individual's perception of the relationship, at least in its initial stages. Continuation of the relationship is apparent through the metaphors perceived. The language used in this stage appears to be a significant factor in the success of relationship development.

Attraction metaphors were represented by the three internal tensions--autonomy/connection, predictability/novelty, and openness/closedness. Although not all at the same level of frequency, several tensions emerge in initial interactions with individuals. Interestingly, all positive images and comfort within the tensions are depicted through individuals' feelings during this time period. Is it possible that individuals easily manage these tensions at the beginning of relationships, or that individuals do not see any struggle between the poles of the tensions given their emotional state to be with each other.



The development category includes the process of the relationship. Themes of growth, changes, progression, adjusting, development, process, and explorations exemplify this category. Most metaphors delineated the relationship as movement and had more description in their explanations. Metaphoric images consist of "a growing plant" from a seedling, getting nutrients from others, germinating to a mature plant, and wanting to create new little plants; "a photographer" taking pictures, developing them, and choosing the picture to frame on the wall; "watching the instamatic polaroid" come into being--watching the blank picture being processed; "a map" with rivers, mountains, connected roads--finding where you have been, people you've met, and where you will travel in the future; a walk on the beach where you leave prints and impression where ever you go; and "a wheelbarrow" with different amounts of dirt being pushed through the backyard over smooth and rough terrain. These images were described with several different metaphors showing a variety of pictures as if individuals were creating a photo album as they were describing their relationships. It is evident from these descriptions that individuals see relationships as a process of development.

Within this process, individuals also identified particular events or situations that created pivotal changes in the relationship. Such metaphors include "opening the door," "spilling the beans," "visiting your favorite park," and "waiting for the bus." These instances were memorable times for individuals, but they were connected to some part of the development process and many times included the interactions of others.

The three internal dialectic tensions are represented throughout this metaphor. Individuals are learning to communicate and interact with each other, focusing a great deal of concern on building the relationship itself. Partners want to spend time with each other, watching the newness and surprises and understanding each other's feelings. These tensions are evident as couples want to spend more time with each other. A few metaphors were explained with the meeting of each other's friends and families and expanding their social networks, thus indicating the appearance of the inclusion/seclusion tension. As scholars argue for the need to examine the process of relationships (Baxter, 1990; Duck & Pittman, 1994; Werner & Baxter, 1994), these illustrations of developmental metaphors and dialectic tensions seem to be headed in the right direction.



Images of uncertainty were evident in expressions of the unknown or unpredictability. These illustrations were perceived as both positive and negative within the relationship. Such metaphors included "a roller coaster," "unleashing creativity," "an umbrella with several emotions," "when he pulled the ring out--it was like a flood," "mystery turns into suspicion," "cold feet," "deciding if you want to dump out some dirt and slow down or just go for it and try to run to get there quickly," "a sectioned orange--deciding to pull each piece apart and look at each one or take the orange as a whole and deal with it all at once," "leftovers--wondering what the hell to do with them," "taking a bunch of pictures and choosing the one you want," and "a pressure cooker."

A majority of the metaphors identified an element of decision-making and contained internal tensions of predictability/novelty and autonomy/connection. Individuals decided whether to continue the relationship, and yet seemed to enjoy the challenge of creating the relationship's future. These metaphors and tensions also demonstrated the impulsive behaviors that take place in relationships. Metaphors seem to depict both positive and negative feelings associated with this unpredictability. External tensions of inclusion/seclusion also appeared within this metaphor. Individuals explained talking to others when deciding to continue the relationship with their partners. Attempting to reduce uncertainty about the relationship was not as much discussed with the relational partner, rather with other externally who helped partners in their decision-making processes.



The "unsettled" category includes metaphors describing conflict (internal and external) and stagnation in the relationship. Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness were frequently described. For example, individuals depicted metaphors such as "for her--the spark, the fire had died out," it's not twitterpated --it's just agitated," "it was like there was a barrier between us about everything," "hogging each other's sunlight and water and no one else is feeding you," "now it's on hold--not much romance there," "it's like being lost," and "you are really scarred by disaster." These metaphors characterize individuals contemplating the state of the relationship. Though the relationship may not dissolve, individuals are at least, temporarily dissatisfied with the current status of the relationship.

Contradictions of autonomy/connection and predictability/novelty are represented by these metaphors. These metaphors appear opposite to those Baxter (1992) labeled as "danger." In Baxter's study, danger was used to describe the beginning of relational development and the loss of autonomy, whereas in the current study, danger is considered a possible loss of connection. Individuals approach the relationship with caution as they fear the break-up of the relationship. They also feel the relationship is not progressing, and thus losing the spontaneity that was once created. Interestingly, this metaphor did not indicate any external tensions, at least with this sample. One would think that if partners were uncertain about the relationship and tapped into external networks, that conflict or unsettling within the relationship would also seek outside individuals. This finding warrants further study in order to examine more carefully how individuals seek social networks during dissatisfaction of relationships.



Content is the last metaphoric category of analysis where people exhibit stability and security in the relationship. Individuals are committed to the relationship and are established as a couple. Metaphors representing contentment include "support," "settled down," "stable current," "solid," "knowing the old shoes will always be there," "peace of mind," "allies," "dependent on itself," "circle - you can close a book, or water can wash away footprints, but this circle is never ending," "older wiser rabbit," "getting used to a certain wattage," "knowing where the roads go and where they will end up," and "walking hand in hand down the same path." The impression of understanding each other and understanding the relationship is depicted in these metaphors. Individuals are satisfied with the state of the relationship and appear content with staying in the relationship. Individuals have accepted their partners and sense predictability in the relationship. This predictability does not assume stagnation in the relationship, rather a comfort of knowing what to expect.

Given the images of togetherness and contentment within the relationship, these metaphors are embedded with autonomy/connection and predictability/novelty tensions. Uniquely, it appears these tensions are not seen as problematic. Both poles of the tensions are operating at the same time, but do not appear to be in competition with each other. This indicates individuals have adapted to the tensions and no longer struggle with trying to satisfy one pole over another, which aligns with the images of being content.


Conclusions and Future Directions

This study has expanded research of metaphors and the dialectic perspective. As past research concentrated on specific dialectics, this study explored any emergent tensions from respondents' descriptions of their relational development. Individuals did describe relationships in terms of felt contradictions. Internal tensions were more prevalent; however, both internal and external emerged from the data. Therefore trying to explicate couples' behaviors and interactions with how internal and external contradictions operate in relationships warrants further research.

Analysis also revealed five categories of metaphors (attraction, development, uncertainty, unsettled, and content) that reflect the stages individuals identified for relational development. Many scholars argue against the use of "stage" models of relationships; however, this study did not presuppose stages, rather descriptions and labels came from respondents. Interestingly, stages were a way for partners to easily identify the changes in relational development but did not use the term "stages" in their explanations. It appears that partners themselves see relationships in terms of a developmental process. Thus the term used did not seem to influence how partners talked about their relationships.

Metaphoric descriptions revealed "uncertainty" as being a floating stage that occurs several times throughout relational development. These findings have implications for development models that argue against a prescribed set of stages. As seen in several examples, relationships appear to progress in similar fashion, and still show the fluidity of stages but not a constant progression or dissolution. Implications also can be seen for the Uncertainty Reduction Theory. Results support previous notions that self-disclosure and relational building do not necessarily eliminate uncertainty, but uncertainly has a curvilinear relationship and may actually increase or recur as partners get to know each other better.

Findings also represent several dialectic tensions operating within relationships. The metaphors mainly represent internal tensions, which may be due to the significance number of the internal tensions characterized in initial analysis of the transcripts. A limitation of this study is that individuals were asked to describe their own romantic relationship and not specifically asked to describe their interactions with others outside the relationship. The exploratory nature of the study was to see if partners' descriptions would inherently contain dialectics, without being presupposed or asked by the researcher.

Discovering the connection between metaphors and dialectic tensions is important. It aids in understanding the tensions operating within relationships, as well as capturing cognitive structures or schema from which people are operating. Dialectics then can serve two purposes by examining the literal and figurative language of relational partners. Examination of metaphors and dialectic tensions can extend theoretical application of the dialectic perspective and cognitive schemata theories, as well as help interpret relational pairs' perceptions of relational development.

The dialectic perspective is a positive alternative to other approaches as it can look at the dyad of the relationship and not the individual (Griffin, 1994). The study of both individuals within relationships needs further attention. Second, dialectics and metaphors also can be used for the study of many types of relationships (friend, marital, cultural, and homosexual). Additional research could focus on these relationships. Third, analysis of partner differences could be examined. Do relational pairs identify similar metaphors and tensions within the same relationship?

Overall, this study helped to fill some holes of dialectic and metaphoric examination of relational development. It is hoped that future scholars will stretch the rubber band of data and peel apart a section their own orange to complete another chapter of interpersonal research.




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