Folks who read my book Exhausted Wives, Bewildered Husbands frequently write in with feedback on the presented skills. Most are pleased with the setup, but every so often I receive a specific sentiment I’ve heard many times:
“Your method turns every relationship into a transactional exchange. Isn’t that a bad thing?”
I understand the sentiment, and what I believe people are really asking is: “Are you encouraging people to exploit each other?”
The answer is a resounding “Yes.”
Just kidding. Exploitation is not the target. Instead, creating a system of open transactions rather than hidden ones is the goal.
Let’s explore why.
Conditioned to Fear Transactions
People today face dozens of transactions throughout their day. Financial ones especially dominate our thoughts as we live in a consumerist culture where we’re encouraged to go deeply into debt to accrue as many material possessions as we can. The very concept of transaction begins to smell like selfish exploitation for the sake of getting the highest possible value out of the other party while paying out as little as possible.
What some people hear, then, when I encourage partners to trade their needs back and forth openly is, “Make sure you’re getting what you want and paying out as little energy as possible. Use your partner to fulfill your own needs but maintain boundaries so you aren’t offering too much.”
It’s hard to fault people with this view because of the materialistic and selfish culture in which we live. But think for a moment if we lived in a culture which:
- Valued reciprocal sharing
- Viewed nurturing of others as a higher priority than accumulation of resources
- Prioritized the satisfaction of all parties instead of an us-versus-them balancing act
Such a system would be based on more than financial success. Such a system would be based on Love.
Relationships, Transactions, and Love
In Exhausted Wives, Bewildered Husbands I presented the explicit negotiation of needs, wherein the parties are assumed to love one another. Marriage, long-term romance, parent-child bonds, or friendships are all based on the assumption of existing love between the parties. The two parties involved share a given expectation that each will:
- Value reciprocal sharing
- View nurturing of others as a higher priority than accumulation of resources
- Prioritize the satisfaction of all parties instead of an us-versus-them balancing act
This means the transactions will not be one-sided selfish exploitation. In fact, if anything, the parties are expected to be overly generous to one another. Asking one’s spouse for a romantic evening together should elicit a response like “I want that too, here’s how we do it,” rather than “Only if you pay me $200 per hour.”
The assumption is that each party wants to meet the needs of the other out of love. While you do have needs of your own and present those as part of the transaction, getting your own need met is not your highest priority in the transaction.
Bear in mind that all relationships could be said to be transactional. One party may be charging zero on the surface, but there is still an exchange of time, energy, resources, and clear expectations for what will not be tolerated.
You may not believe your relationship with your best friend is transactional, but try stealing from them in plain sight and see how fast the relationship unravels. Or bluntly tell them you don’t feel like comforting them when they’re hurting and see how quickly their belief in your love for them disappears.
Boundaries are also transactions: “Respect my need for ______ and I’ll continue to spend my time on you.”
We live within systems of unstated transactions and hidden expectations every single day. It’s better to make them obvious with clear statements so we don’t stumble over secret needs and unintentionally cause hurt.
The Key Difference
The real point where the difference between loving transactional relationships and selfish transactional relationships becomes obvious is when one party fails to uphold their side of the bargain. This may come about due to lack of ability, an honest mistake, or even resentment, bitterness, or callous disregard.
The difference between love and selfishness is this:
A selfish transactional relationship would see the offended party disconnect in anger and refuse to meet any more needs of the other party without reparations.
A loving transactional relationship would see the offended party forgive their partner and continue to meet their needs in good faith while giving them a chance to repair the trust.
A loving partner acts not as a doormat, but out of a desire to see their partner fulfilled. It’s not that they ignore their unmet needs or stop caring if they’re fulfilled. Again, they are not a doormat. But getting their needs met is not a prerequisite for meeting the needs of their partner.
At such a time, the loving partner may actually recognize that their partner has another hidden need that is not being stated, and may not even be apparent to the lacking partner’s awareness. The loving partner may shift and point out the incongruous behavior and help their partner ferret out what is really underlying the refusal to meet their needs. After all, it’s not truly loving to remain in a relationship and enable someone to exploit you. But the loving partner would not make changes and apply boundaries for the sake of selfishness or out of not having their price paid: they’re doing it out of genuine love for their partner and seeking real fulfillment for both parties.
This is a tricky balancing act to strike, so I’m going to paint the picture using biblical analogies.
A Biblical Perspective
The human relationship with God is an openly transactional one. The Lord Jesus Christ died for the sins of each individual human to grant freedom from the debts accrued by sinful actions. In order to accept this forgiveness and have one’s debt paid, submission to the loving will of God is required in the form of obedience to the spirit of the Ten Commandments. This is an open and obvious transaction stated again and again throughout the course of the Bible and should be no shock to anyone.
However, God’s love does not end the moment a human transgresses the agreement and fails to uphold one of the Commandments. Mercy has been rejected by the individual in favor of a selfish act of will, so the person has placed themselves outside of the grace of God. Note that God does not withdraw grace, but because the person has made their sinful choice they are now choosing to live outside of the arranged relationship. Love does not cease, as God maintains enduring faithfulness. In order to return to the arrangement, the person apologizes with a confession and dedicates themselves again to upholding the arrangement. The relationship then continues in love and good faith.
The Bible makes it clear that humans are to God as a wife is to a husband. Each of us, then, could be compared to a negligent wife who continually disappoints her husband.
Picture it as a sitcom: The faithful husband arrives home each day to find his wife in some new transgression. She’s spent all the rent money on a thousand windchimes and they can’t even hear each other over the loud racket. She got drunk in the middle of the day and passed out without greeting him or making his dinner. She got distracted by a movie on TV and burned the pot roast. It makes for a great comedy, but a sad reality. Each of us continually fails to uphold the transactional relationship we hold with God, called a covenant.
And yet the love endures. The husband forgives his wife each time as she expresses genuine contrition. She really intends to be a better wife tomorrow, and he knows how fervently she desires to fulfill his needs. His forgiveness is equally genuine. The marriage continues.
In short, transactional relationships are not inherently bad. The true dangers are hidden expectations and secret transactions which one party is not privy to. These encourage tremendous resentment and fear, and leads to feelings of exploitation. Secret transactions are not built from love.
But loving transactional relationships are the core of the human experience. Do not fear the reciprocal sharing of desires or the explicit negotiation of needs.