Deconstructing Transactional Relationships

I was in session with a client recently having a pretty intense philosophical conversation about the concept of unconditional love. Does it exist? The client says no. I say, “That belief is not helping you.” So I began to challenge it.

I was in session with a client recently having a pretty intense philosophical conversation about the concept of unconditional love. Does it exist?  The client says no. I say “that belief is not helping you.” So I began to challenge it.  What about love for your kids?  Your pets?  Parents?  Partner?  We agreed that ideally, a parent should strive to have unconditional love for their child.  Then I was stumped. I could not describe another type of relationship that is not transactional.  That’s too bleak of an outcome to consider, so I started to question why transactions within our intimate relationships get a bad rap. Are transactional relationships inherently undesirable?

The word “transaction” implies some kind of direct tit-for-tat exchange.

I will do something for you if you do something for me.  Our lives are filled with transactional relationships.  You work for a company.  That company pays you.  That’s a transaction. You work. They pay.  You don’t work, they don’t pay.  It’s a one-dimensional transaction that’s universally understood. How you feel towards your employer is irrelevant.  The transaction gets completed so long as work = pay. Also, if someone else can do your job, the employer doesn’t care.  And you don’t care who the employer is provided you get paid. Both parties are most interested in keeping the work=pay transaction going.

Another example of a one-dimensional transaction: Google gives you relevant search results.  You give Google your most personal details.  Google doesn’t have to take your emotional well-being into account. You don’t have to understand the algorithms that make Google work. Both parties are satisfied if you use Google and they track your digital footprint. The fact that you resent Google’s big data policies doesn’t matter in this transaction.

But what about the interpersonal transactions in our lives that are multi-dimensional and murky?

We engage with others on a variety of levels; intellectual, spiritual, emotional, sexual, professional, social, and more.  Each transactional level has its own conditions. This is where it gets complicated.

Example #1: You continue to watch movies that you hate with your partner because while you’re not getting an equitable entertainment transaction, you value the sexual and social interactions with your partner.  You would not watch B-rated movies with someone who did not provide the sexual and social interactions you want.  In this example, the sexual and social interactions outweigh the entertainment interactions.  

Example #2: Your grandparent always says the most racist, vile things as a part of normal conversation, yet you continue to go see them every chance you get.  Why? You value the familial transaction more than the social transaction (or lack thereof).

So, this leaves us with the question: Are transactional relationships inherently bad?  The answer is no, they are, in fact, an everyday part of life. Transactions are part of having healthy boundaries.

Loving transactional relationships are a beautiful part of healthy everyday life.

Exploitative transactional relationships are not healthy or beautiful.  The beauty of loving transactional relationships is in the delicate balance of striving to meet all levels of your partner’s needs and at the same time, having your partner attempting to do the same for you. Negotiating the terms of your relationship is not to be loathed or feared. It is through these negotiations that a tone of transparency will be set, allowing trust to flourish.

Exploitative vs. Loving Partners

There are going to be times when you and your partner cannot meet the other’s respective needs whether intentionally or unintentionally. When this happens, an exploitative partner will withhold meaningful transactions until they get what they want. A loving partner will bring attention to the deficit but continue to attempt to satisfy their partner on all levels unconditionally.

In this case, both the client and I are wrong. It’s the concept of unconditional love that needs some revision.

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