Transactional relationships are quite a polarizing subject, with this dynamic often associated with toxicity rather than true love.
While there might be elements of transactional love in any relationship (if you do this, I’ll do that!), it’s important to recognize these characteristics and make sure everyone is comfortable with them.
With our expert guide, learn how to identify elements of transactional love in your relationship, and how to deal with them if things go too far.
Transactional relationships are based on needs, whereby both partners expect something in return for what they’re putting in. Just like a business deal, you expect to get something back for your investment of time and energy.
“Quite simply, a transactional relationship is one based on services rendered where both parties get what they agreed to and therefore, what they expect,” says Dr. Cheryl Fraser, a sex therapist and clinical psychologist.
These kinds of relationships can lead to resentment if there is no reciprocity present, where the foundational element of quid pro quo is not being achieved. By keeping score in this way, transactional love can come under fire as it’s likened to a business relationship — not one built on mutual respect and love.
However, this type of relationship doesn’t have to be unhealthy — with elements of this dynamic seen in almost all romantic relationships.
“Let’s face it, all romantic relationships have transactional elements,” says Dr. Fraser.
“Well, unless you are both fully enlightened beings with truly unconditional love and more staff than the royal family to “do all the things”, then I suppose it can be all hearts, roses, and great sex! But for us mere mortals… Running your relationship and your life takes two.”
For example, in any healthy relationship, you should feel there is an element of give and take. While your partner takes out the trash, you always do the weekly shop. Even though these could be viewed as business transactions, these clear expectations can help to create a loving environment in which both partners thrive.
“What matters is that relationship transactions are based mostly on kindness, generosity, and teamwork — and that both people are fairly satisfied,” says Dr. Fraser.
“If I am giving you something just to get my needs met, and I have little regard for what you want and need - this relationship might be in trouble.”
Even though most romantic relationships share characteristics with transactional dynamics, most people prefer to cite more specific examples.
One of the most common examples of a transactional relationship is an arranged marriage, where love and compatibility are superseded by financial gain, status, or security.
Or, even if not arranged by outsiders, a transactional marriage could be where a couple decides to get married purely for how this union will benefit them. For example, some people marry for legal status, money, or even social status rather than for true love. These arrangements usually come with a prenup to protect the individual's money and assets — which can feel impersonal to some but are essential to others.
Transactional and relational relationships are both based on reciprocity, but while transactional people are considered to have a self-serving agenda — relational relationships are not.
While the transactional relationship definition is about short-term gains, relational relationships take a more long-term view and are considered naturally rewarding with a natural give-and-take dynamic.
The opposite of transactional relationships is non-transactional relationships, also known as transformational relationships — which are built on trust, understanding, and priority alignment.
While they usually have a negative stigma, not all transactional relationships have toxic intent. However, if you’re unsure about your own transactional dynamic, it’s important to consider the impact it may be having on your overall mental health and well-being.
According to Dr. Fraser, to define whether your transactional relationship is toxic you should ask yourself the following questions.
Do you have a clear understanding of your roles and expectations? Does your partner?
Do you check in regularly to see if those agreements are still working for you both?
If you are upset because you feel your partner is not living up to the bargain, your expectations are not being met, or you resent the division of labor you initially agreed to - are you able to talk about it openly and reach a new understanding?
“If you can answer yes, sort of, some of the time, or even kind of but we can improve,” says Dr. Fraser.
“Then the transactional aspects of your relationship are not toxic, just human.”
However, if you feel resentment towards your partner, have frequent destructive arguments, find yourself constantly complaining to your friends about your relationship, or your partner doesn’t adhere to the boundaries you agreed upon — you could be in trouble.
“You need to take this very seriously and get some better skills fast,” says Dr. Fraser.
Dealing with a transactional relationship can be tricky, especially if you’ve made an agreement in the past that you feel isn’t being upheld, or if you weren’t aware of the transactional elements in place at all!
If you’re feeling uncomfortable with your dynamic, it’s important to address these issues with your partner — refusing to allow any resentment to build between you!
Once you’ve taken the time to understand how the transactional elements of your relationship are making you feel, it’s time to address these with your partner.
“First, sit down and have a conversation about it,” says Dr. Fraser.
“Many couples have never created a clear set of expectations — call it a mission statement — for how the two of you will share, divide, and execute the tasks of life and love.”
It’s completely normal to have certain expectations in your relationship, but if you never discuss them with your partner — how can they know?
Express your relationship needs, and feel free to put healthy boundaries in place to preserve your mental health and happiness!
“Begin to create an explicit understanding of what the roles and expectations are for each of you,” says Dr. Fraser.
“Identify the top priorities and leave a lot of space for your different needs and preferences.”
This process can really help to shape your relationship, with both of your needs prioritized and respected.
Resentment can take root in a relationship, and before you start your new chapter, it’s important to deal with these destructive feelings! It’s never an easy topic to tackle, but if you brush it under the rug, it’ll only come back to haunt you.
“If you have built up resentment and anger — own it,” says Dr. Fraser.
“Work together to identify the deep needs underneath. Do you feel taken advantage of financially because you make most of the income? Is the root need to be appreciated, or to have more support with household tasks when your business is particularly busy, or to have your partner create a more clear monthly spending budget?”
No matter how busy life gets, it’s important to check in on your relationship — just to make sure things are running as smoothly as they should be!
These check-ins don’t need to be super formal chats, or structured like performance reviews, but a relaxed conversation where you can both feel heard and understood.
“Finally, have mini-meetings about who is doing what,” says Dr. Fraser.
“My sweetie and I have a morning ritual, we sit by the fire in our favorite chairs, a cat on each lap, our favorite tea (me) and coffee (him) in hand. Then we check in about the day. Who is doing what, who needs help with something, what can we postpone or let go of if it isn’t a priority? Then we kiss — a mutually satisfying transaction, and get on with the rest of our relationship and our day.”