What Is a Transactional Relationship?

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“The trouble with relationships these days is that they’re so transactional,” my friend says.

It’s a complaint I’ve been hearing a lot lately. And while I have a vague sense of what it means when you say a relationship is transactional, I’m fuzzy on the finer details. I explain this to my friend and add, “What does that mean exactly, when you say a relationship is transactional?”

“You know,” she says. “Transactional. Like a transactional relationship.”

And I realize that she probably has just a vague a sense of it as I have. And an inability to explain.

She pauses to think, before adding, “You should do some research on it, write an article for the blog.”

I nod. “That’s not the worst idea. I think I’ll do that.”

What Is a Transactional Relationship?

So what is a transactional relationship, really? To put it simply, it’s a relationship where you look out for yourself first and do things primarily to have them reciprocated. In a transactional relationship, each member’s highest priority is getting what they want.

In some ways, this is perfectly understandable. Self-preservation and self-care are important goals, and many people find that the healthiest approach to life involves putting themselves first.

And to be fair, many dating relationships start out as transactional, especially ones in which you’re seeing a perfect stranger you’ve only just met. It typically takes a little time for most individuals to build the kind of attachment to another person in which they genuinely care about that other person’s feelings and concerns.

(Incidentally, this is another reason why I’m nearly always friends first with romantic partners and generally prefer to move slowly in relationships these days; it allows me to bypass the transactional phase, as I’ve started dating them well after I begin to care about them as people. )

After an initial transactional period, many relationships do go on to have more of a collaborative mechanism whereby all involved parties mutually care about the others’ needs and wants and take all of that into account when deciding how to proceed.

However, some relationships never do. They remain transactional.

Differences Between a Transactional and Collaborative Relationship

So how can you tell the difference? Well, here are some key factors that differentiate a transactional mindset from a collaborative one.

Transactional Mindset: 

  • Competitive with partner
  • Zero sum/win-lose thinking (belief that if one person gains something, another person loses)
  • Holds grudges over past arguments
  • Keeps score
  • Asks “What will I get from you?”
  • Quid pro quo, this for that
  • Short view accounting
  • Defensiveness and blameshifting
  • Predisposed to punish

Collaborative Mindset: 

  • Views partner as teammate
  • Positive sum/win-win thinking (belief that it’s possible to have multiple winners)
  • Able to move past conflicts once worked through
  • Addresses the current moment of the relationship, without dragging up old history
  • Asks “What can I give to you?”
  • Kindnesses are bestowed without the expectation that they immediately need to be reciprocated or repaid
  • Actions taken with long view of mutual benefit in mind, regardless of what the short-term picture looks like
  • Everyone takes responsibility for their own actions rather than shifting blame
  • Predisposed to forgive

Like any dynamic that involves other people, you cannot singlehandedly determine whether the relationships you are in are transactional or collaborative. Even if you’re a person who generally has a collaborative outlook, if you get into a relationship with someone who only relates in a transactional manner with others, you aren’t necessarily going to be able to change the way they are or how they view relationships.

You may be able to influence them somewhat, but even with time and considerable effort, you may very well find that nothing changes.

Which can be quite tricky and heartbreaking.

Some People Prefer Transactional Relationships

It’s worth noting there are some who swear by transactional relationships, find it to be their preferred style of dating, don’t see anything at all wrong with them, and wouldn’t want to conduct relationships any other way.

Still others think transactional relationships have their place. For example, some polyamorists specifically practice some relationships that are more transactional at the same time as they practice others that are more collaborative and find that this balance works for them. Others don’t and prefer one or the other.

Additionally, some kinksters will prefer D/s relationships that are transactional by design, whereas others will prefer a more collaborative long-term D/s dynamic (at least outside of play time).

There Are Many Relationships That Fall Somewhere In Between Transactional and Collaborative

It’s also important to remember that while this model cleanly divides the issue into two binary camps, real life rarely (if ever) works that way.

In reality, there are many relationships that fall somewhere in between transactional and collaborative, having some aspects of both. Most things are on a spectrum instead of a binary because real life is messy (for good, bad, and otherwise).

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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