Are Transactional Relationships Toxic?

Is a transactional relationship healthy?
on November 30, 2023
Read time: 10 mins
by Dr. Cheryl Fraser

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. 

Key Takeaways
  • Transactional relationships are based on needs and wants, where two individuals are getting something from their union — whether monetary, power, social status, or convenience.
  • These transactional relationships are the opposite of relational or transformative dynamics, which are based on a more natural reciprocity.
  • Characteristics of a transactional relationship can include high expectations, prenups, and even narcissistic tendencies. However, the presence of some transactional qualities in your relationship doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is toxic.
  • If you’re uncomfortable with any elements of transactional love in your relationship, it’s important to deal with these characteristics in an open, honest, and authentic way with your partner.

What is a transactional relationship? 

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.” 

What are examples of transactional relationships?

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.

What is a transactional vs relational relationship?

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. 

Characteristics of a transactional relationship

1
Benefit-focused: What can I get from this relationship? That is usually the first question asked when entering a transactional dynamic — where one or both partners are focused on how the relationship will benefit them. They will pay attention to their material or social gains, rather than their compatibility or the longevity of the adult relationship.
2
High expectations: Usually, transactional relationships come with high expectations. These high expectations naturally facilitate resentment, especially if these needs aren’t met over the course of the relationship.
3
Receiving, not giving: Instead of focusing on pleasing your romantic partner, transactional relationships facilitate your own needs first. This means that you’re more interested in what you’re receiving than what you’re giving!
4
Pre-nuptial agreement: A lot of transactional marriages involve a prenup, so one or both parties can protect their assets — protecting themselves from someone marrying them solely for monetary gain!
5
Not on the same team: If you view a transactional relationship like a business deal, it could set you up on opposing sides, rather than on the same team.
6
Resentment: Since transactional relationships can imply very strict expectations, it can lead to a build-up of resentment if these needs are not met. Resentment can really build if these expectations are not discussed, where one partner feels let down or unsatisfied with the transaction taking place.
7
Narcissistic partner: Transactional relationships are often associated with narcissists, where one partner has a self-serving agenda and is only focused on their own satisfaction. This kind of narcissistic dynamic can leave one partner consistently feeling like they’re not good enough — with often immense damage to their well-being and mental health.
8
Fallout over the relationship: While you might be comfortable with a transactional love, your friends or family might not be as understanding. This difference in opinion can lead to immense fallout and frustrations — even breaking apart long-term relationships.
9
Focus on contentment over happiness: Instead of aiming for an incredible love story, people in transactional relationships might settle for contentment — with a focus on short-term gains rather than long-term happiness.
10
No emotional involvement: This one is more subjective, as some transactional relationships defy this rule. However, if you aren’t interested in the person, just what they can give you — your emotional stake is considerably lessened.

Are transactional relationships toxic? 

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.

How to deal with a transactional relationship 

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!

1. Start communicating 

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.” 

2. Identify your relationship needs & priorities 

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. 

3. Tackle resentment 

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?”

4. Regular check-ins 

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.” 

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