How They Work and When to Be Concerned

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A transactional relationship is one where each person does things for the other, expecting to get something in return. It’s give and take with a bit of quid pro quo. Each person is willing to help the other out—as long as the favor is returned immediately or sometime down the line.

“Transactional relationships are an inevitable and often necessary component of society,” explains Nicholas Forlenza, PhD, a licensed psychologist and owner of Psychological Wellness Partners.

“There is practicality and clear boundaries to this kind of relationship, which are needed in business and other professional contexts,” he says. “It is also not unusual for more casual social connections to have a transactional nature.”

At a Glance

Transactional relationships often get a bad rap, but they are an important type of relationship that can bring benefits and support to different areas of your life. They can become a problem, however, if you start looking at your close personal relationships with friends and family purely in terms of what others can do for you (and what you’ll have to do in return).

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Defining a Transactional Relationship

A transactional relationship can be defined as one where each person does things for the other because they anticipate getting something in return. This type of give-and-take arrangement is intended to benefit each person involved.

Such relationships are based on mutual reciprocity. People are naturally inclined to reciprocate in social relationships, but a transactional arrangement adds a layer of formality and expectation. Unlike other types of relationships where people do nice things for each other out of care, concern, or empathy, the primary motivation of a transactional relationship is to receive a reward.

There is a directness to a transactional relationship and clear utility to engaging in such interactions, often with mutual benefit. However, by the very definition of this kind of relationship, there is little room for meaningful connection.


NICHOLAS FORLENZA, PHD

Examples of Transactional Relationships

Transactional relationships are quite common in many areas of life, including work, politics, and even in your personal life.

In Business or At Work

In the workplace, you engage in work for your employer in exchange for money. The relationship between a customer and a service provider is also transactional. For example, if you pay a contractor to work on your home, you are engaging in a transactional relationship with that professional. They provide the work, and you pay them for it.

These are pretty straightforward examples of a transactional relationship.

In Politics

In politics, candidates exchange support from voters for their support for specific policies and promises they made during their campaign. Similarly, politicians in office may support their colleague’s policy plans in exchange for their support at a later time.

This also affects political relationships on a much larger scale. Internationally, countries often engage in agreements with one another that are based on give-and-take promises that are intended to benefit both nations.

In Your Love Life

Romantic relationships can also experience transactional elements, although this is based more on reciprocity and care rather than a pure ‘this-for-that’ exchange. On some level, most people expect that there will be some mutual back-and-forth with their partner. This is natural and healthy; otherwise, it might become a one-sided relationship. 

A romantic relationship that is highly transactional, however, involves only doing things for the other person if there is some type of exchange. This can undermine trust and intimacy, causing it to feel more like a business deal than a genuine, loving relationship.

In Your Friendships 

Friendships can often have some transactional elements, especially for more casual connections. While it might not be an exact one-to-one exchange, many people expect that there will be a trade-off of time, support, and other favors that come with friendship.

That doesn’t mean that friendships are purely transactional, however. Each person can contribute in different ways to a relationship.

In most cases, people don’t help their friends just because they expect a return on the favor. You help because you care, and you know they will be there for you when you need it.

For most distant friendships and acquaintanceships, the relationship might be much more transactional in nature. In professional contexts, for example, you might help each other specifically because you expect some type of favor in terms of career opportunities or networking recommendations.

Pros and Cons of Transactional Relationships

Transactional relationships are an expected and necessary part of many areas of life. They are often portrayed negatively, but they are an important type of relationship that can have both pros and cons.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of this type of relationship can help you make the most of these connections—and watch out for any potential pitfalls.

Potential Advantages

On the plus side:

  • There’s a mutual give and take: Each person gives something to the relationship, and each person gets something. Depending on the context, this is often a win-win for both people involved.
  • Expectations tend to be clear: Instead of wondering if the other person will ever come through, these types of relationships tend to have clear expectations regarding who gets what and when.
  • Such relationships can be efficient and productive: Because everyone is clear on their role and what’s expected of them, they can often work with greater efficiency. Instead of focusing on other distractions, they can concentrate on fulfilling their duties.
  • They help support goal attainment: By their nature, transactional relationships are centered on achieving certain goals. Because the relationship helps each person get what they need, they are both more likely to achieve their goals.

Potential Disadvantages

On the downside, however:

  • They can lead to shallow interactions: Because the relationship is rooted in giving something to get something, it can feel like the relationship lacks depth and substance. It may feel like there isn’t a genuine emotional connection that gives the relationship any deeper meaning.
  • People might feel undervalued: If one person in the relationship feels like they aren’t appreciated or valued, they might be left feeling like they are being used. This can make it very hard for someone who feels slighted to trust the other person.
  • Such relationships are often short-sighted: Transactional relationships sometimes tend to focus on immediate, short-term gains, which can have a negative impact on loyalty and commitment. Once each person has gotten what they want, they may be more motivated to move on to something else that might benefit them more.

It’s when people start to view close relationships through a transactional lens, Forlenza explains, that problems, including emotional distancing, start to develop. 

“A successful close relationship requires a sense of security that is likely to diminish in the context of a quid pro quo dynamic; individuals are likely to not feel valued as individuals and may eventually feel used or unfairly treated,” Forlenza says.

Healthy relationships, whether or not they are romantic, involve giving things willingly without expecting something in return. When there are expectations, Forlenza explains, it can lead to resentment and other negative emotional experiences if those expectations are not met.

Healthy intimate relationships require a sense of safety that comes from knowing that the relationship will endure a failed expectation.


NICHOLAS FORLENZA, PHD

Psychological Perspectives on Transactional Relationships

There are a number of aspects of human psychology that can help explain why people engage in transactional relationships. According to social exchange theory, people choose whether or not to engage in relationships by weighing the pros and cons of making the exchange. 

Essentially, people assess how they will benefit before deciding if it is worth it to them to engage in a transactional relationship.

Of course, other factors also play a role in determining whether people form and maintain these types of relationships. For most people, economic realities dictate such relationships. In the workplace, for example, we exchange our labor for the money we need to live. We then exchange our money for rent/mortgage, heat, food, power, and other goods and services that support our basic needs.

Past experiences can play a part in shaping expectations for different types of relationships. Social norms and roles can also influence how people engage in relationships and perceive different types of transactions.

Advice on Managing Transactional Relationships

Transactional relationships are a big part of life, so it’s important to learn how to manage them effectively. Some steps you can take to help ensure that transactional relationships are successful include: 

Communicate Expectations

Make sure to clearly express what you expect to give and receive from the relationship. This can help ensure that the exchange goes smoothly–plus, it minimizes the risks of misunderstandings and disappointments.

Learn to Negotiate

If you don’t want to be left feeling like you’re the one getting the short end of the stick, it’s important to know how to negotiate effectively. It’s vital to know what you want out of the relationship and anticipate what the other person might also need.

By going into a negotiation well-prepared, you’ll be ready to outline your requirements and know where you might be willing to make compromises.

Show Empathy

While you want to make sure your needs are being met, a successful transactional relationship also requires you to take the time to understand the other person. If you’re only focused on your own needs, they are more likely to feel like their contributions are not fully appreciated. Be empathetic and try to understand their perspective and what they need.

Stay Flexible

Transactional relationships often work best when each person is willing to stay flexible and adapt to changing situations. If unexpected challenges pop up, you can adapt and find ways to cope with what’s happening. This flexibility is important for creating a trusting, long-lasting connection that stands the test of time.

Be Fair

Agreements should be transparent, open, and satisfactory to each person. Being fair in transactional relationships also involves periodically reviewing the terms of the relationship to ensure that the conditions are being met and each person is satisfied with the arrangement. If a relationship is balanced and equitable, it’s more likely to endure.

Follow Through

Make sure that you always follow through on the promises that you make in a transactional relationship. Failing to hold up your end of the deal can create problems and make it more likely that you don’t get the things that you need out of the relationship.

You can make it easier for each person to stick to their commitments by setting achievable goals, creating realistic timelines, tracking progress, and proactively addressing potential problems.

In the workplace, for example, it’s important for you to meet your deadlines and your employer to pay you on time. If you miss deadlines, your employer may feel they can’t trust you to manage important projects. If your employer fails to pay you on time, you might feel like you can’t invest your time in projects that won’t pay off.

What to Do If a Relationship Has Become Transactional

If it seems like a close relationship has been transactional, Forlenza recommends spending some time evaluating what might have led to this shift. Has what you’ve given up in order to create this dynamic been worth what you’ve gained? If this dynamic isn’t comfortable for you, it’s important to address the issue.

Nicholas Forlenza, PhD

When a close relationship becomes problematically transactional, it is important to listen to your own emotional reaction and know that your feelings are valid. What you are experiencing is important, and this should be the basis of communicating your concerns with the other party in the relationship.

— Nicholas Forlenza, PhD

That means talking to the other person about the problem and how it makes you feel. In some cases, you might find that the other person has been feeling much the same way.

“However, even if this is not the case, it is important that a dialogue be opened about how the transactional nature of the relationship is making you feel and how it is adversely impacting the bond between you,” Forleza suggests.

Remember, how you feel matters. Talking it out can help you get to the bottom of the problem so you can build a relationship built on authenticity, trust, and intimacy.

Keep In Mind

Transactional relationships are important in many areas of life. While they can be negative in certain areas (like treating your romantic relationships or friendships as purely quid pro quo connections), they are vital in many professional and business settings.

Such relationships are founded on clear communication, mutual reciprocity, and trust. Be aware of what you both expect to get out of the relationship, and take steps to ensure that the exchange is fair. By building transactional relationships based on honesty and trust, you can ensure that everyone involved is getting the support, resources, and opportunities they need to achieve their goals.

And if you have a close relationship that has become transactional (and you don’t want it to be), talking about the problem with the other person can be an important first step. You might also consider discussing the issue with a couples therapist.

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