How does your relationship operate? Do you do nice things for your partner with the expectation that they will then do something for you? Do you know which of you does more for the other person? If so, you might be in a transactional relationship.
Lots of the relationships in our lives are transactional. For example, most of us wouldn’t show up to work and follow our boss’s instructions if we weren’t getting paid at the end of the month. We offer our time and energy in exchange for money. It’s a transaction.
When it comes to your romantic relationships, focusing on the transaction or reciprocity isn’t always helpful or even healthy. Instead, we can work together to achieve something that is bigger than either of us individually. These are sometimes known as transformational relationships.
In this article, we’re going to show you how you can tell which kind of relationship you currently have and how to change it to something more collaborative.
Table of Contents
Let’s start out by looking at exactly what we mean by a transactional relationship. A transactional relationship is one in which you and your partner both give the other person time, attention, care, and love… but you do so on the proviso that they need to do the same in return1.
This can sometimes mean that you don’t give your partner as much as you can, or even as much as they need, because there’s no realistic chance that they will be able to “repay” you fully.
For example, you might limit how much time and effort you put into looking after a partner with a chronic health condition because they’re not ever going to be healthy enough to do the same for you.
If that sounds a bit selfish and heartless, you’re not wrong. It’s often not the most generous kind of relationship you could have. But it’s also not entirely bad or wrong.
The opposite of a transactional relationship is sometimes called a transformational relationship. We’re going to talk about these and why they are great shortly, but it’s important to understand that they’re not actually the opposite end of the spectrum from a transactional relationship. They’re closer to the middle ground.
The actual opposite of a transactional relationship is one based on pure giving. It’s beyond altruistic and has no limits or boundaries. While this may sound loving or romantic, it’s actually really dangerous to both you and your partner2.
Boundaries and limits are what keep us safe. Sometimes, we need to ask ourselves what we are getting out of our relationships. It’s essential to recognizing and stopping toxic or abusive behavior.
A purely giving-based relationship is codependent and often involves enabling or supporting a partner’s bad behavior. This puts you at risk, but it also takes away any incentive for the other person to change or learn or grow3.
So although making our relationships less transactional can be good and healthy, it’s also important not to have a knee-jerk reaction that takes us too far in the other direction.
Now that you understand what transactional relationships are, and why they’re not ideal, it’s time to look at the main signs that you’re in one.
As we’ve already mentioned, there are times when it’s definitely healthy and important to ask yourself this question. Typically, however, this is about the big picture. If you find yourself wondering “what do I get out of this?” about small requests or favors, that’s a warning sign that your relationship is probably transactional.
For example, if your partner asks you to pick up some groceries from the store, a healthy response is to check which groceries are needed and whether there’s a specific time they’re needed by. If you think “why can’t you do it?” or “why should I?” – that’s transactional.
In the example where your partner asks you to pick up groceries from the store, we highlighted that asking “why” was a sign that you might be in a transactional relationship. It is a little more nuanced than that, however.
Both of the examples we gave were demands for justification, rather than curiosity. In a transactional relationship, your aim is to make things “fair.” If you’re being asked to do something for your partner, you ask for a justification as to why this is fair. For example, “why can’t you do it?”
The alternative is to ask with curiosity. For example, you might say “sure. No problem. Are you having a manic day?” Wanting to understand why someone is asking you to do something for them isn’t transactional. Wanting them to justify it usually is.
If you keep score about how much you and your partner do for each other, the chances are that you’re in a transactional relationship. Most people are comfortable with the idea that thinking “I did all this for you so now you owe me” is transactional, but what about the other side?
Thinking “oh god, my partner did all these wonderful things for me. I need to find a way to pay them back” isn’t selfish or mean, but it is still transactional. You’re still keeping score and counting up acts of care and kindness. You’re trying to match your partner, rather than focusing on what feels right and natural and loving at that moment.
One of the side effects of keeping score, especially if you see yourself as being the more giving partner, is that you can easily become resentful4. You’ve probably heard the phrase “comparison is the thief of joy”. This is especially true in a relationship.
When you compare the efforts you make to those your partner makes, you will almost always feel at least slightly resentful. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, we know exactly how hard we have worked, while we will often underestimate how much effort goes into a task we don’t do.
Secondly, we will usually do things for our partner that align with our values and what would be meaningful for us. They do the same. This means that we will often see our own efforts as being more valuable or important than theirs.
You are also more likely to forget things that someone else has done for you than things you do for them. Doing something for someone else will usually involve a period of time thinking about what to do and planning it, then time doing it, and finally time spent letting the other person know that it has been done.
This gives you lots of cues that can remind you about what you did. In contrast, when someone else does something for you, you’ll probably only have a short conversation about it. This means it’s much easier to forget about.
All of this means that even a relationship that is objectively relatively equal can leave you feeling resentful or hard done by.
Transactional relationships are based on what you can get from your partner. If you find yourself thinking about all of the different things you ‘get’ from your partner, this might be what is going on for you.
Remember that what you ‘get’ from a relationship doesn’t have to be money or things. We can also have transactions involving social or emotional benefits. For example, if your partner is really emotionally aware and empathetic, they might be acting as an unpaid therapist for you.
You might also be bringing each other additional “social capital.” For example, lots of people enjoy having a beautiful partner. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all want someone we find attractive. But some people value having a partner that other people find attractive because they think it makes them look more impressive5.
Most of us are aware of the social capital and emotional labor in our relationships, but if either of you focuses on it, that is a sign that you might be in a transactional relationship.
Although we tend to think of people in a transactional relationship focusing on how to get what they want, there is another side to it. If you’re a naturally loving and generous person, feeling as though your partner has done more for you than you have for them can be upsetting. You will often feel the need to “make it up to them.”
This is a really common expectation. For example, if your partner throws you a fantastic birthday party, you will probably feel an obligation to make a big deal of their birthday.
Although this might feel relatively innocuous when we’re thinking of throwing a party, it can be more worrying if you start feeling obligations in other areas of your relationship. If you feel you need to do things that make you unhappy because you “owe” it to your partner, that can be unhealthy.
It’s an even more worrying sign if your partner tells you that you have to do something for them because you “owe” them.
There are lots of things that you need to compromise on in a relationship, from which film to watch to whose family you spend holidays with. It can be difficult to work out how to sort these issues out fairly and lots of people resort to taking turns as a way to resolve them.
Unfortunately, this is setting you up for a reciprocal or transactional relationship. You’re not working out which film to watch based on finding something that you will both enjoy. Instead, you’re watching what they choose this time in exchange for getting your own way the next time.
Although having a transactional relationship isn’t ideal, emotional reciprocity can actually be quite healthy. Knowing that you and your partner have complementary strengths and that you work together to build a balanced relationship is wonderful.
One way to tell the difference is to think about how specific you feel you have to be to return someone’s care and emotional effort. The more specific reciprocation needs to be, the more likely it is to be harmful.
It’s also important to note that some things should almost never be included in ways to balance your relationship. For example, sex needs to be based on mutual desire.
If you feel obliged to have sex because your partner has done something nice for you, that’s an unhealthy sign. Similarly, if one of you offers sex to gain something, that’s not a transaction that either of you should be ok with.
A transformational relationship is one in which you are supported and protected but also encouraged to grow and thrive. Both of you are supportive when the other person needs it, but you also have your own boundaries.
Both of you are working together to try to build a great relationship. You are pooling your efforts to achieve something better than either of you could manage alone.
We all have things we want out of a relationship. Some of these are going to be really important to us while others are going to be things that are just “nice to have.” Learning to tell the difference and being honest with your partner about them, is an essential first step in helping you to build a more collaborative relationship.
Working with a great relationship coach or therapist can help you learn how to best communicate your boundaries.
Lots of the problems in a transactional relationship come from the way that it pushes you to maximize your “value” in a relationship to ensure that you get what you want.
Avoid this by focusing on being as authentic as possible. Rather than trying to create a “good impression,” think about how you can show your partner who you really are. This means being honest and open, rather than trying to show them what you think they want to see.
The flip side of being authentic with your partner is that you also need to accept them when they are being authentic. You need to accept your partner for who they are, acknowledging that they will have traits and characteristics that you don’t particularly like. You need to be ok with the fact that you don’t get to change them.
Having said that, this doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate poor behavior. If your partner shouts at you or treats you badly, that isn’t them being “authentic.” It’s them being cruel or hurtful and you don’t have to put up with it.
When you’re in a transformational relationship, both you and your partner regularly look for ways that you can help each other out and make each other’s lives easier. Look for ways that you can offer your support and care, and try not to worry about who gets the credit.
As part of being authentic and accepting, try to be curious about your partner. This doesn’t mean prying into things that they don’t want to talk about. Instead, try to have an open mind about what they might be thinking or feeling.
Arguments are a normal part of relationships. That’s fine. The important thing is how you approach those arguments and what kind of resolution you’re aiming for.
Lots of us have unhelpful mindsets when it comes to arguments. We think about them in terms of “winning” and “losing.” Often, we think that what one person gains, the other person must have lost. This is a “zero-sum” approach. If you add up what one of you gains and what the other one loses, the total is zero6.
In a relationship, things are rarely that simple. When you compromise, you can often find something that is better for both of you. Try to see a disagreement as a chance to work with your partner to find a solution that makes both of you happy.
A transactional relationship often comes from a lack of trust. Deep down, we don’t trust that other people will look after us or care for us as much as we care about them. We try to compensate for that by keeping track of how much we give and how much we receive.
Rather than continue this pattern, work toward a transformational relationship by building deep, meaningful trust with your partner7. Try giving them the chance to show you that you are loved without needing to keep score.
Transactional relationships are focused on keeping track of who gives what. It makes it hard for you to work together or to compromise. If you’re in a transactional relationship, you’ll often feel resentful or obligated.
A transactional relationship isn’t ideal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t real love behind it. Lots of social cues can push you toward expecting a transactional relationship, as well as what you learned from parents and family members.
Transactional relationships can last, but they sometimes shouldn’t. A transactional relationship doesn’t usually give you the support or space to grow that a transformational one can. If you can’t turn your transactional relationship into a more transformational one, you might need to move on.
Transactional relationships aren’t always unhealthy, but they always have room for improvement. If a relationship is highly transactional, it is almost certainly not healthy. A healthy relationship can sometimes have some transactional aspects.
Having a transactional relationship isn’t good for you in the long run. You become so focused on who deserves what that you miss opportunities to work together and learn and grow. Luckily, you can help your relationship to become more transformational.
Have you ever been in a transactional relationship? Or have you ever experienced one that wasn’t transactional? What was the difference? Let us know in the comments. If you have a friend who is constantly feeling resentful or obligated, try sending her this article to help.