Improvising Commitment in Close
Relationships: A Relational
Erin M. Sahlstein University of Richmond
Leslie A. Baxter University of Iowa
Jazz exemplifies artistic activity that is at once individual and communal, performance that is both repetitive and innovative, each participant sometimes providing background support and sometimes flying free.
—Mary Catherine Bateson (1989, pp. 2–3)
Jazz improvisation starts with and gets its bearings from a melody, returns occasionally to that melody, but the melody becomes the pretext to generate new experience that can only be dimly glimpsed in advance.
—Karl Weick (1989, p. 243)
These two epigrams are about jazz improvisation but could just as easily reference relationship commitment. Jazz improvisation and relational commitment are performances characterized by the ongoing interplay of contradictory themes. The purpose of this discussion is to elaborate on the improvisational process of relationship commitment from a relational dialectics perspective (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). From this perspective, commitment is conceived as the ongoing interplay of opposing yet unified forces, themes, or elements.
Relational dialectics (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996) is one of several dialectical approaches to relating within the field of close relationships that focuses on the contradictory and contingent nature of relating (see Montgomery & Baxter, 1998, for an edited collection of dialectical perspectives). Our approach to relating, like other dialectical approaches, has several key organizing principles that provide the basis of understanding close