A Guide to Transactional Relationships

Relationships are an essential part of the human experience. As we go through life, we develop many different types of relationships with everyone, from loyal customers through work to our spouses at home.

Each type of relationship in our lives requires a different type of bond. However, we can sometimes become so absorbed in our own needs and wants that we start treating all the relationships in our lives like an ATM — we expect others to just keep giving us what we want.

Unfortunately, these relationships aren't good for anyone in the long run, which is why it's important to recognize what this type of relationship is and how to fix it.

Things to know

  • A transactional relationship is one in which people focus more on what's in it for them than the bond they share with the other person.
  • Transactional relationships can happen in any type of relationship between two people, including friends and spouses.
  • Transactional relationships are vastly different than relational relationships, which focus more on establishing a deep bond.

If you want to establish lasting, meaningful relationships with other people, you need to understand what transactional relationships are, how they vary from other types of relationships, and what you can do to transform transactional relationships into something healthier.

Here's what we'll dive into today:


What Is A Transactional Relationship?

When most people hear the term “transaction,” they think about a business deal where money, goods, and services are exchanged in some way.

A transactional relationship follows the same principle — it’s a relationship in which the people involved view their bond in the same way as they view a business transaction.

These relationships involve a quid pro quo approach, in which one person only offers to do something in exchange for what they get from the other. This gives each person clearly defined responsibilities and expectations for themselves and the other person.

Although most people associate this type of relationship with situations like an arranged marriage or a high school friendship, any relationship between two people can be transactional.

Typical phrases used in transactional relationships include:

  • “You promised you would do (task) for me if I did (task) for you.”
  • “What’s in it for me?”
  • “Why should I help you with that?”
  • “I don’t think I can do that unless you do something for me first.”
  • “I’ll do more when you start doing more, too.”

Types Of Transactional Relationships

Arranged marriages are the most common form of transactional relationship people can think of. However, there are many types of transactional relationships in our everyday lives.

Some types of transactional relationships include:

  • Relationships with co-workers or subordinates at work
  • Bonds with extended family members
  • Connections with friends we met in a class or through some other form of networking
  • Customer relationships or sales relationships
  • Relationships where one person is significantly wealthier than the other
  • Marriages with prenuptial agreements or other contracts

Although these are all prime examples, any relationship can become transactional in nature. It just depends on the connection you share.

Transactional vs. relational relationships

Transactional relationships are focused on short-term, individual gain. Each person in a transactional relationship is more focused on what’s in it for them and how they can benefit. This keeps both people focused on themselves and the results they want.

In these types of relationships, there’s a lot of judgment, blame, and winning in the end. It isn’t focused on establishing a lasting relationship — it’s about taking everything they can.

A relational relationship, on the other hand, is focused more on building a long-term bond with the other person. Instead of looking for ways to gain something, people in a relational partnership ask, “What can I give to help you?” It’s not about getting back what you’ve put in or taking more than your fair share, but rather caring for the other person.

Relational relationships involve acceptance, forgiveness, flexibility, and validation. Win or lose; it’s about investing in the bond these people share because that’s ultimately what matters.

The longer transactional relationships go on, the more resentment builds between people.

Transactional vs. transformational relationships

A transactional relationship is completely focused on self-serving interests. Each person asks, “What’s in it for me?” It offers no safety, reassurance, comfort, or trust because each person is only focused on meeting their needs through exchanging money, goods, or services with the other.

On the other hand, a transformative relationship is one focused on mutual respect and love. Instead of worrying about what’s in it for them, people in a transformative relationship ask, “How can we achieve our hopes and dreams together? How can we help each other become the best version of ourselves?

This type of relationship offers loyalty, trust, and protection. People in a transformative relationship often feel safe and loved. They feel connected to the other person and know that no matter what, the other person will be there to support them. It’s very different than the tit-for-tat of a transactional relationship.


7 Signs Of A Transactional Relationship

Sometimes people go into a transactional relationship knowing exactly what they are doing. Other times you may not realize that you've entered into this type of relationship until it's already well established.

Luckily, there are several clear signs of a transactional relationship that you can look for:

1. One person gets much more than they give

Most meaningful relationships require a bit of give and take from both people. Each person is willing to compromise and make sacrifices for the benefit of the other person because they know that it's the right thing to do in a friendship or romantic relationship.

However, transactional bonds rely exclusively on one person benefitting from the other. They only give in situations where they can see the benefit. In more extreme cases, they may even ask, "What's in it for me?" before offering to lend a hand.

2. There are clear expectations in the relationship

The primary purpose of any transactional relationship is to receive the benefits from the efforts you or the other person put in. Unfortunately, these kinds of relationships come with a set of clear expectations, and these expectations typically only benefit one person.

For example, a transactional marriage may involve one partner serving as the "primary breadwinner" while the other partner is expected to maintain a clean house, cook every night, and handle all of the childrearing. The work may not be evenly distributed, but both partners live with these rules in place that dictate their assigned roles.

In a transactional environment with friends, two friends may only communicate when one friend needs a favor. This happens a lot in high school and college, where the person with the preferred social status may offer to take a friend to a party in exchange for them to "help" with math homework.

In both of these examples, both people have clear expectations of what the other person in the relationship will do.

3. Compromise feels like a business deal

Transactions sometimes require negotiations. Instead of sacrifice and compromise, conversations may feel more like a business transaction where one person tries to see what they can get for what the other person is offering.

Although this is perfectly acceptable in transactional situations like buying a new car, this isn't usually how true relationships with other people work.

Friendships and romantic partnerships aren't a sales pitch. They shouldn't involve "striking a deal." If they do, then it's an obvious sign that your relationship lacks an emotional connection and is more transactional in nature.

4. One person only cares about themselves

When we love a person, we usually care about them. We don't look at them as a means to an end but rather as family members, close friends, or romantic partners. It isn't a business partnership; it's love.

However, in a transactional relationship, usually, one person cares about themselves more than anything else about the relationship. It isn't subtle either — it happens on a regular basis.

5. There's always an ulterior motive

In a relational partnership, both parties work together to achieve mutual goals. They want to be happy together and do what it takes to make their goals a reality.

In a transactional bond, that's not the case. Instead, one person usually has an ulterior motive, a motive that serves their own desires. Everything they do, even when it looks like it is for the other person, is ultimately self-serving.

6. Mutual respect is missing

Most friendships and romantic relationships rely on mutual respect and love. Because transactional relationships are based more on the benefits the relationship offers than the actual connection the people share, that respect is often lacking.

7. Resentment builds over time

Nobody enjoys feeling like their connection with a friend or loved one is a business relationship instead of a true connection. Because of this, most transactional relationships cause resentment to build over time.


What Is Wrong With Transactional Relationships?

Although some people see transactional relationships as beneficial, they rarely are. They often seem positive because each person gets what they want. However, these relationships can quickly become problematic or even abusive in nature.

Without a deep connection built on trust and respect, people involved in these types of relationships are more likely to believe anything bad they hear and act on small behavior problems that they might otherwise ignore if love and admiration were present. They may even abandon the other person when they decide the benefits are no longer worth the downfalls.

Transactional relationships can create a sense of scarcity. This can lead to fighting over resources, evolving rules or boundaries, and other breakdowns in communication between the two people involved. One person may change the narrative, assign blame, and take things out on the other person when they don’t feel like they’re getting the most out of the situation.

If people don’t feel respected or cared for, they may eventually stop giving in to requests when they can’t see the immediate benefit from it.

The longer transactional relationships go on, the more resentment builds between people. This is especially true in relationships where one person feels slighted or like they are giving more than they are getting.


How To Foster Non-Transactional Relationships In Your Life

Transactional relationships do serve a purpose. However, we shouldn't develop these types of relationships with the majority of the people in our lives. Instead, we should try to form healthy, non-transactional relationships that are based on mutual respect and a deep connection.

The key to any healthy relationship isn’t determining how you benefit from it but rather seeing how you can help the other person. In other words, generosity is the key to turning a relationship into something non-transactional and pure.

So, if you’d like to change a relationship you have with someone, try seeing things from their perspective. What are they getting from the relationship they’ve established with you? How can you help them? What do they need?

This all requires empathy and a willingness to establish a connection with the other person.

Also, find ways to learn about the other person more. Instead of focusing on how they can help you, learn what makes them who they are. Figure out what they like, what upsets them, and what they wish they had.

This shows your generosity and willingness to see the other person as a human, not a business transaction.

Most importantly, make sure you are available for the other person. Make time for them. Offer to listen. When you spend time together, focus on them completely, without distractions or your own concerns.

This shows selflessness and a willingness to step outside of your own life for the sake of the bond you share with this other person.

The more you do these things, the more you will establish a relationship partnership or transformational relationship. Over time, this will wash away the transactional nature of your bond and help you both find a deeper, more meaningful connection with each other that feels safe, happy, and healthy.

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