Transactional Relationship


Exploring Transactional Relationships: Understanding its Importance and Key Features

Have you ever interacted with someone and felt like your relationship is entirely based on give and take? Sure, plenty of people, like your co-workers, classmates, or even your landlord, may come to mind, but what about your “close” relationships?

It turns out that many people find themselves in transactional relationships, where both people involved are focused on pursuing their self-interests. Let’s dig a little deeper to understand what does it mean to be in a transactional relationship, common characteristics, and what you can do to improve things.

What is a Transactional Relationship Anyway?

It’s when two parties enter a relationship with the purpose of serving their needs and benefiting themselves. This can be in the form of financial, personal, or any other practical gain. Because of the two parties’ intentions, the relationship will seem more like a business transaction than one based on feelings.

Is Transactional Love, Real Love?

Before we can talk about the different characteristics of a transactional relationship, it’s important to discuss what it means in the context of love and friendship. From the above definition, it may seem like transactional love isn’t love at all, but that’s not completely true. Love can be transactional, and it has been for a long time. The simplest example is arranged marriage.

What is a Transactional Partner?

Transactional PartnerTraditionally, marriage served the practical purpose of having children, delegating household tasks, gaining financial security, and strengthening a family’s status. At the time, just about anyone who married to retain social status or financial security was a transactional partner. Nowadays, you may see transactional partners as people who seek something from their significant other. Money and sex are common examples of tangible things such partners may desires, but they may also sign a prenuptial agreement to keep their financial matters separate.

The Transactional Personality

Because of how closely the transactional relationship is linked to romantic partnerships, people assume that it’s the only area where a person acts in a transactional manner. This isn’t the case, and it turns out that a person who thinks from a transactional point of view will have the same mindset for all their relationships.

Transactional Relationship: Psychology Behind It

The transactional personality doesn’t act unless they stand to gain something. It means they’ll only contribute their effort if they can take something in return. They have a pattern of such behaviour and it’s based on the principle of positive reinforcement.

According to this theory, people will repeat a desired behaviour as long as they’re rewarded. In this case, the transactional personality won’t give something until they’re rewarded quickly. Usually, they learn this pattern in impersonal interactions and apply it when dealing with people at work, their friends, and even their romantic partner.

Characteristics of Transactional Relationship

If what I explained resonated with you, then you’re probably wondering whether your relationship is transactional. If it is, you may have noticed some of the following telltale signs:

Greater Focus on What You Get, Not What You Give

A key feature of a transactional relationship is focusing on what you’re getting from the other person instead of what you can give. This means your needs take precedence over the other party’s. Similarly, they only look out for their needs, and as a result, there’s little generosity. That means no gestures of love and affection to show that you care. Instead, any ‘gestures’ are seen as a favour or a way to get something in return later.

Both of You Are Results-Oriented

In fast-paced corporate work environments, you’ll often hear the phrase ‘results-oriented.’ It means that only the outcome matters, while the effort doesn’t. While this sounds practical in work environments, it’s not the best way to handle a relationship.

That’s because you’re focused on achieving an end goal that isn’t based on emotions, but something materialistic and tangible. So every task you perform in the relationship is a means to an end, and your satisfaction is contingent upon it.

Practicality Rather Than Emotionality

As I mentioned above, transactional relationships aren’t based on emotions, so partners operate based on what’s most practical. That means you never go the extra mile and only do as much as is required. So, let’s say, in a transactional marriage, one of you will look after the kids while the other will go to work and earn for the family. With these fixed roles, it seems practical that each partner sticks to their defined responsibility.

It’s a common occurrence in arranged marriages, but the consequence is that partners make little emotional investment. That’s because they rarely ever do things together, which can lead to commitment issues.

High Expectations From Each Other

Now, you’re probably thinking that all relationships have expectations, but here’s how transactional relationships differ: the expectations from each party are clearly defined. In fact, the relationship may depend entirely on meeting these expectations. Otherwise, there may be consequences, like displeasure, acting coldly, or refusing to hold up one’s part of the ‘deal.’

The Relationship Feels Like a Chore

There’s a reason why experts describe it as a business deal – because it feels like work. While a practical and results-oriented approach is effective in work environments, you can’t operate with the same mindset. You may find that the relationship lacks fun or playfulness, and each task feels like a burden.

There is Tit For Tat

Transactional partners can make the relationship contingent on a quid pro quo. This means you have to do something to get something. So each of you has to fulfil designated tasks, and in return, you’re reinforced with a ‘reward.’

And if either party fails to fulfil their side of the deal, the other takes note of it. Partners can resort to being petty instead of compassionate and maintain a scorecard of all the times the other made a mistake. The aim is to hold these transgressions against one another to make them feel bad.

It’s Hard To Say No

A subtle sign that you’re in a transactional relationship is that it feels difficult to say no to the other person. Because expectations are hanging over your head, you worry that saying no will cause the other person to withhold something you want.

In such a relationship, each party attributes value to the other based on what they do, so saying no would negatively affect the balance of ‘value,’ and one partner will have more control.

Lack of Openness and Honesty

Naturally, you may not build an emotional connection in a relationship based on what you do as opposed to how you feel. This can prevent you from sharing your feelings and being vulnerable with the other person. After all, you fear that your vulnerabilities will be used against you, so you refrain from being open with the other person.

Different from Relational Relationships

How it’s Different from Relational Relationships

In romantic partnerships (and even non-romantic ones), relational relationships focus on respecting each other and addressing the other person’s needs. It’s different from a transactional relationship because you don’t expect a reward for your contribution. Instead, you’re willing to be patient to get a long-term benefit. Here’s how such relationships differ from transactional ones.

Weaponising Insecurities vs Mutual Respect

Transactional partners tend to use each other’s insecurities against them. This can be quite hurtful and prevent them from developing any emotional connection. Since each person is focused on fulfilling their interests, there is a struggle to gain power and influence over the other. But in relational relationships, both partners feel like equals. Hence, they look out for the other person’s interests and do their best to make them happy.

Rigidity vs Empathy

In a healthy relationship, partners practice empathy and try to understand each other’s personality differences. They do so because both of them are working towards the same outcome.

In contrast, transactional relationships are rigid because each person has fixed interests contingent on the other party fulfilling their role. Thus, there’s no room to make mistakes.

Poor Communication vs Openness

People in transactional relationships are unhappy and unsatisfied because they are in a fear based arrangement, which then creates a lack of communication. Both partners may feel disappointed or annoyed with each other, but don’t say anything out of worry that it could lead to consequences.

In comparison, partners in a relational relationship aren’t afraid to be open with each other. They have a deep emotional connection that allows them to talk about how they feel without worrying that it could be used against them.

Transactional Relationships in Business

Of course, you should remember that transactional relationships aren’t entirely disadvantageous. They can be quite useful in the business world. In customer relationship management

Buying firms prefer a transactional relationship when there are plenty of alternatives in a competitive supply market. Similarly, they prefer such a business deal with the market is stable, and the purchase decision is less complex.

Moreover, there are some benefits for both the buying and selling firm. Firstly, both will give and receive something in return, so it’s not a one-sided business relationship. For instance, the buying firm will receive a product or service, while the selling firm will receive a payment. Secondly, there are clear expectations about what each party has to do, so there’s no room for ambiguity.

The opposite of transactional business deals is collaborative ones. Buying firms maintain such a relationship when there are few alternatives in a dynamic market and when a complex purchase is involved.


The Risks of Treating Relationships like a Business Deal

It’s normal to have a few transactional relationships in our lives. Sure, they’re not entirely based on give-and-take, but many aspects are.

What is an example of a transactional relationship? Some common examples include being paid by your employer to come to work, paying a tutor to give you French lessons, or covering a co-worker’s shift on the weekend so they can cover for you later. But if you look closely at these interactions, they’re only a part of working in a specific setting. You only partake in these relationships occasionally, and because of the rules surrounding them, they’re fair and balanced.

Hence, such transactional relationships don’t weigh you down. But what if your closest relationships start feeling transactional?

We all want to be valued and cherished, but when you feel like you’re being used, it can take a toll on your self-esteem. You may start harbouring resentment toward the other party because of how they treat you.

As a consequence, you may communicate less and act passive-aggressively. And over time, the lack of communication will lead to low intimacy. After a certain point, you might feel like the relationship is a chore because it lacks real depth.


Why Don’t They Work In Romantic Relationships?

Relationships that focus on companionship and belonging offer an opportunity to grow and improve oneself. If a relationship is transactional, there’s little room to make mistakes and grow, which can take all the fun out of being in the company of another person.

So while transactional relationships can be effective in business, they are rigid and inflexible at the same time. This makes them the least optimal way to deal with other people, especially when it’s people you care about.

Building a Transformational Relationship

So how can you build meaningful connections that don’t feel like business transactions? Through transformational relationships. These non-transactional relationships focus on the effort instead of the outcome. So even when the task doesn’t go as well as you hoped, unconditional love is constant. Here’s how you can build a transformative relationship.

Be Open To Self-Disclosure

The type of communication you have with your partner determines the kind of relationship you have. Are you closed off and cold, or are you warm and inviting? Interacting with your partner is unique because it requires one party to share something personal while the other party listens closely and responds. When your love life has such communication, it increases intimacy because you or your partner shares an integral part of yourself.

Whether you’re on the receptive or expressive side, you have to be honest and listen intently. When you’re honest, it builds trust between the two of you, which encourages frequent communication. The same goes for active listening – when your partner can feel like you’re listening and genuinely care about what they have to say, it helps them build the courage to self-disclose as well.

Start Self-Reflecting

Start-Self-ReflectingBefore sharing something personal about yourself, you must be aware of your thoughts and feelings. And the only way to do that is through self-reflection. It involves consciously considering what you’re thinking about and how you’re acting. It gives you a moment to stop and interpret your experience. These interpretations help you learn more about yourself, and such findings are what you should talk to your partner about.

Willingness to Negotiate

Negotiating is different from setting expectations for one another. In a relationship, it involves determining what you want and being able to talk about it. You’ll state these desires and give reasons for them. Here’s how you can negotiate things in a transformational relationship.

Remember that both parties can determine their wants and desires. Each has the right to explain why the thing they want is important (this is different from justifying). No partner’s wants will be a higher priority than the other’s because of differences in income or other status differences.

Keep Expectations in Check

Many of us may enter relationships with pre-determined expectations from the other person. It can lead to us keeping a score of how often our partner fails to fulfil their responsibilities. But when we silently expect things from the other person, it creates a recipe for frustration and disappointment.

Seek Expert Advice

Lastly, it can help to get expert advice from a relationship coach or life coach. They can strengthen communication and encourage partners to open up with each other. With guidance from a professional, you and your partner can develop the necessary tools to make the relationship work. While it doesn’t mean you won’t have disagreements, a relationship coach can teach techniques to resolve and overcome conflict.


People in transactional relationships treat each other as if they’re completing a business deal. While such interactions are useful in business, they can damage our personal relationships. One common characteristic of a transactional relationship is that both parties focus on their interests and have defined roles. To overcome a transactional relationship, you have to build a transformational relationship that focuses on addressing the needs of both individuals.

Jason Shiers
Hello. My name is Jason Shiers

Certified Transformative Coach with 25 years of experience helping people live a better life.

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