Are Transactional Relationships Bad?

Author’s update: This post has been so tremendously popular that it inspired me to pen a whole series on Transactional Relationships. You can find them listed here.

Folks who read my book Exhausted Wives, Bewildered Husbands frequently write in with feedback on the included communication skills. Most are pleased with the setup, but every so often I receive an email with a question 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 NO.

Exploitation is not the target. Instead, the goal is to create a system of open and honest transactions rather than destructive hidden expectations.

I’ll explain the difference.

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 present the explicit negotiation of needs, wherein the parties are assumed to love one another. Marriage, long-term romance, parent-child bonds, and 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 needs 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 an openly stated 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.

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 born from love, but from fear and insecurity. And they will tear your marriage apart.

Loving transactional relationships are at the core of the human experience. Do not fear reciprocal sharing of desires or the explicit negotiation of needs. Just make sure the person you’re sharing with wants to meet your needs in return.

If this level of open communication seems too frightening right now, check out my book Slaying Your Fear for tips on crushing your insecurity and developing confidence in relationships.

And if you’re looking for additional resources on transactional relationships, check out my whole series dedicated to Transactional Relationships right here.

One thought on “Are Transactional Relationships Bad?

  1. This is interesting concept. Perhaps expectations, and goals and ideals should be written down and agreed with. It sounds like less heartbreak.
    No longer meeting each needs they could renegotiate. I’ve often thought recently that if the relationship gets closer to romantic the pair should ,
    Make a contract so they know what’s expected. For example…. if my partner g
    Had an affair I could reconcile that to myself… however. If they went to jail, stole money from people… I would find that inexcusable and want a divorce!!!! An affair is from passion. Stealing is from evil. Unless it a woman trying to provide for her children… that again a crime of passion
    Not skilled premeditation. Maybe I’m off the cue.. but I feel that way.

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