In a Transactional Relationship? Here’s How to Make It Work

Relationship Rules
15 May 2023
15 min read
Transactional Relationships - Know Before You Go

The simplest transactional relationship definition is quid pro quo, or a business deal that can be made anywhere. Like in a shop, you make a deal when you get the sandwich and the shop gets your money. In transactional relationships, each party has to reach an agreement, or make a contract, about something that will be of benefit to the other.

Transactional relationships are common in a business climate. If you hire a contractor to put a new roof on your home, the details of the contract form a legal transactional relationship. You get the new roof; the contractor gets his money.

But not all transactional relationships are business relationships. For centuries, there have been transactional relationship “deals” with respect to personal relationships. An arranged marriage was common for families who had assets or a “bloodline” to protect. In many cultures, this is still the case. Let’s unpack what transactional relationships mean today and how you can deal with them.

Related reading: Right Person Wrong Time – It is Really All About Timing

Examples of societies that expect transactions in all of their relationships

Examples of Transactional Relationships

Royal family of the UK is probably the most well-known modern example of an “arranged” transactional relationship in marriage. When Prince Charles (now King Charles) was much younger, there was family pressure for him to marry a woman from the “right” family. After all, he was heir to the throne once his mother died.  Thus,  Charles got an “acceptable” wife and mother of his children in Princess Diana. She got a fairytale life and two sons she loved very much.

But Charles was in love with Camilla Parker Bowles, a “commoner.” Charles and Camilla have always had what we would call a transformational relationship – a romantic partnership based on love, intimate interactions, and a willingness to negotiate and compromise on issues. Thus, they agreed to continue their romantic relationship type, keeping it as private as possible, and to be together when they could.

Ultimately, as clinical psychologist Catherine Aponte points out, a transactional relationship in a marriage often leads to unhappiness. And Charles and Diana, who were devoid of a normal relationship that included true love, divorced.

Transactional relationship examples between couples do not just occur among royals. In the relationship between Donald Trump and his wife, she has benefitted from his wealth and status, and he, in turn, has benefitted from having a beautiful wife who remains quietly supportive and at his side whenever necessary. Do they have a transformational relationship too? Most doubt it.

3 Common Characteristics of Transactional Relationships

Transactional relationship characteristics may vary in detail, but there are three general commonalities within them all: focus on the mutual benefits, presence of expectations, and written rules.

1. Partners Focus on the Mutual Benefits

In the main focus of transactional relationships are questions like “What does each partner bring to the relationship?” and “How does each partner benefit from what the other brings?”. For example, it’s an agreement that a husband will bring a career and income, and a wife will be a stay-at-home spouse and mother, raise the children, do all household chores, and ensure that there is always food in the pantry and dinner on the table.

Another example of transactional relationships is when an older man agrees to give his younger partner a grand lifestyle, and she in turn will be a beautiful adornment at his side for all events and functions. Is she a romantic partner? Probably not. Also, two partners (one male, one female) may agree to be married in name only, to hide their real sexual identities.

The key here is that each person in the relationship stands to gain something that is valuable to them. And in at least one of these, they are not romantic partners at all. Expectations are clear from the get-go

Transactional relationships tend to begin with the details of expectations already mapped out. In fact, these expectations are the foundation of the relationship. The effect of all of this is that conflicts are minimized, so long as both partners live up to the agreed-upon expectations. If expectations should change, an unhealthy relationship is born.

Partners in transactional relationships tend to have expectations

2. Each Partner Has Expectations

In a transactional relationship, each partner expects to get what has been promised. Let’s say a guy has moved into his girlfriend’s place because they both are looking toward a long-term monogamous romantic relationship. He has given up his place and promises to contribute a certain amount to the household expenses.

So here we have a transformational relationship built on love and trust, but a transactional one too. If all goes well, neither will feel disappointed and a healthy and true partnership has been formed.

Here’s another example of such a relationship: A couple has fallen in love but both have careers and outside activities that they pursue independently. They have set what they believe are healthy boundaries so they can maintain their independence in certain facets of their lives, and they expect that the other partner will respect those boundaries.

3. There May Be Written Rules (a Prenuptial Agreement)

A transactional person is steeped in practicality. And they will see transactional love as something that must be defined, at least in part, by an agreement that has legal status. Usually, a prenup spells out the financial matters of a relationship, so that property and assets are legally secure. If one party fails to abide by the terms of this agreement, the other party has a right to take whatever actions are provided for in the document.

Prenuptial agreements are becoming more and more common today, especially given the divorce rate.

While these are the typical characteristics of relationships transactional, still they are based on unique circumstances. But in essence, a partnership or a marriage is seen in the light of a transaction between the two parties involved. Can there also be affection, friendship, companionship, and love? Of course.

Advantages of transactional relationships

3 Advantages Transactional Relationships

In traditional societies, arranged marriages are deeply rooted for specific reasons – protection of familial assets, social status, and living up to the shared values of cultural and religious beliefs. The majority of Americans are not part of these demographics, and yet many see transactional bases for relationships as beneficial, given their exchange predictability, equal status of partners, and higher security.

1. Both Partners are Givers and Takers

Let’s say Sally and Joe are about to get married. Both have career trajectories that are important to their own needs and goals. It’s not that they don’t love each other. It’s that there must be some “rules of equality” set in place so that both are getting a “fair deal.” Because, frankly, if one of them develops feelings that their career needs are being ignored or dismissed by the other, their agreement won’t work any longer.

Now, while this situation will not require a prenup, there will be an agreement setting out the clear responsibilities of each partner to make things work for both of them. When the “rules” are clear, they prevent one partner from taking advantage of the other. Such agreements are not business deals, but they are transactions of sorts and are meant to be honored by both.

Transactional Relationships Foster Equality

Think of what the majority of partnerships and marriages look like today. Over 61% of married couples live in a two-income environment, and so they have mutual finances to share.

Ozzie and Harriet just don’t exist anymore among millennials and Gen Z’ers. These days, both partners in a relationship value their independence and have their own priorities they want to keep, at least in part. Here, transactional relationship arrangements scream for negotiations and compromise before the partnership is ever entered into. Thus, both partners ensure that their needs are met and they have obligations to honour.

“The give-and-take is clearly established, and each partner knows what they have to do to be able to reap the benefits. As long as both partners have talked about what they expect and how they expect to get it, there usually isn’t any confusion.”

Shazia Saleem, psychologist

Now, circumstances do change in long-term partnerships/marriages. And if they do, the original transaction may have to be renegotiated.

3. A Prenup Provides Greater Security and Less Mess

A prenup is nothing more than a transaction that outlines what each partner is supposed to bring to the table and what each partner is entitled to in the event of separation, divorce, or death. As already mentioned, this is a legal document that holds up in court.

Without a prenup, legal separations and divorces can get both messy and expensive. But with it, both parties know exactly what they are entitled to, and it’s simply a matter of filing that document with the court. Then, it’s over – no mess, no fuss, and minimal expense.

4 Downsides of a Transactional Relationship

When taken wrong, transactional relationship turns into another sort of business relationship, without romance and with strict standards and high expectations for marriage. Let’s see what potential disadvantages transactional relationships hide.

1. Marriage Becomes Solely a Business Deal

There are plenty of marriages that don’t have strong emotional and romantic connections. How does this work for the people involved?

In such types of transactional agreements, the terms of the deal become the most important reason they remain together. Partners involved just don’t expect strong love or a loving environment and are content as long as their relationship meets their needs. They lead separate lives and maintain their obligations at home.

Here are 3 common reasons to stay in a transactional relationship with no love:

  • Mutual financial investments and interests
  • Children involved
  • A divorce may be frowned upon by family, friends, or those in their religious/cultural circles.

In short, the advantages of staying outweigh the disadvantages of separation or divorce here. And as long as their responsibilities are met and one another’s efforts are in line with what is expected, there are no arguments at home.

But what happens when one of the partners decides they want more than just a transactional relationship and the other doesn’t? These contrary views then spell trouble.

2. The Inflexibility of One or Both

Life has a way of getting in the way of the best-laid plans, and not all transactional relationship agreements are ready for this.

So many things can happen to one or both parties in the course of years or even months:

  • Losing the job
  • Diseases and injuries
  • Cheating
  • Mental health problems

All of these things need a re-evaluation of the original transactions that a couple established, and it requires love and patience from both sides that an agreement can guarantee.

But what if a partner is not willing to budge? In this case, inflexibility means that partners cannot overcome differences and unforeseen circumstances that will arise. Without willingness to modify the transaction when things change, their relationship is doomed to failure.

3. Partners May Get Competitive

Transactional relationship psychology focuses more on getting than giving on the part of each partner. And as they continue in their transactional state, they can be tempted to start keeping scores about what they are getting compared to what they are giving. If they don’t believe the score is at least even, the relationship may deteriorate.

Once you’ve established a transactional relationship “deal” and both of you have agreed to the components, it’s tempting to start focusing on which of you is better at keeping the details of the agreement. As time moves on, you may find yourself keeping score and informing your partner of where they may be slacking off. And they may be doing the same thing.

Is this really how a healthy relationship should proceed? Absolutely not.

4. Children May Learn a Wrong Transactional Model

Children develop their views on the world by what they see in their parents’ relationship, not by what they are told. And when they see a transactional relationship as devoid of the romantic aspects as a normal situation, children start to seek the same types of relationships as they mature. This may seriously limit their ability to form loving, romantic relationships that don’t fit the model of their transactional family.

What Are Relational Relationships?

In the business world, relational relationships refer to “connection,” meaning that companies begin to focus on establishing more personal connections with their customers, as opposed to only transactional deals with them. And when it comes to personal relationships, a relational relationship is a golden mean between purely transactional and fully non-transactional partnerships. In simple terms, a personal relational relationship is one in which both partners see communication as the key to success in their relationship.

A relational relationship is all about interaction. When you learn to communicate rather than just transact, you can modify transactional relationships so that they are more than just reflective of traditional business transactions.

How Does a Relational Relationship Work?

“Happy marriages are not about 50/50 transactions.”

John Gottman, marriage expert

In a relational relationship, you have the transactional relationship of an agreement on what each of you will bring to the table. And now, it’s time to interact not just transact. And let’s face it: when couples try to make it 50/50 over a period of years, it only breeds resentment, frustration, and anger. Couples stop being on the same team and become competitors instead.

Instead, a successful relationship over the long haul means collaborative negotiation as challenges and issues arise and an agreement is reached on each of them. Such relationships have a better and longer survival rate and are based on mutual respect rather than one or the other party feeling like they have been taken advantage of or had their part of a contract ignored.

How to make your transactional relationship work

Can Transactional Relationships Work and Be Healthy?

All romantic relationships are transactional to some degree, and we can see examples of transactional relationships all over the place. Some of these examples have some degree of quid pro quo and are highly successful. Let’s unpack what is needed to maintain your transactional relationship successful.

Have Fewer Expectations

What are the most critical factors in what each needs from the other? These should be set. And the others should be left to work out via negotiation and compromise as they arise over the course of time.

You have non-negotiables; so does your partner. Your transactional relationship agreement should include just those. Doing this will give each of you the protection and security of knowing that what is most important is protected.

Stop Keeping Score

This isn’t a basketball game, but a personal relationship. And you are both humans, full of strengths, weaknesses, and flaws. Thus, it’s essential to provide extra support and care when needed.

We are living in a world that is not perfect. To make a transactional relationship work, there will be variations in who does what, who gets what, and that “getting” becomes uneven. When one of you gets very sick, your transactional relationship should turn into a non-transactional relationship, at least temporarily.

And when you constantly care about each others’ feelings, your relationship based on transactional deal will work well in any circumstances.

Share Problems and Challenges in a Non-Transactional Way

Life happens. Unforeseen situations will arise, and you may face unexpected emotional expectations. During these times, have calm and reasoned discussions about solutions and do so in a loving and empathetic way.

Show your love and affection in physical and emotional ways – and you can expect love, happiness and good emotions in return in a long run, as it works in non-transactional relationships.

When you both dedicate effort and take responsibility to nurture positive feelings about each other, you can even call this transactional love. And such transactional happiness obviously requires good communication and solid friendship as its basis.

Watch the Finances

If there is a place for a transactional romantic relationship agreement, it is here. Before you hook up for the long haul, there needs to be agreement on the basic financial planning and responsibilities each of you will have.

Problems in this area are one of the leading causes of divorce. Live up to your financial commitments. Even non-transactional relationships need this. It’s one of the most important aspects of any permanent partnership/marriage.

Ready to Move On from a Totally Transactional Marriage/Relationship?

In relationships, transactional expectations can become cold and mechanical. If yours is becoming so, and you don’t like it, sit down with your partner and propose the following:

  • Trash the long list of expectations and replace it with an informal discussion and agreement on just the big ones.
  • Stop thinking in terms of who is contributing more and who is failing to contribute enough. Focus on mutual goals and how to get there together.
  • Schedule quality time together to renew the romance, the care, and the love.
  • Be more spontaneous and pursue new experiences together.

Have the Relationship You Want!

In their pure forms, transactional marriages constitute an agreement between two partners regarding what they will give and get. Generally, the romantic aspect of a transactional marriage takes a back seat. In their turn, transformational relationships are based almost solely on romantic love and attachment. There is not a lot of concern for setting expectations and mutuality of benefits. And there are relational relationships where partners are in a romantic relationship but also understand that there must be some agreement on the conditions of their relationship.

So, what do you want? You must this decide for yourself:

  • Transactional relationships certainly have their place for some people.
  • Transformational relationships value romance above all else, and may be typical of the early stages of a relationship.
  • Relational relationships provide a middle ground between the two.

In the end, the choice is yours. Think it through and choose. But be free to change that choice as you wish.

Relationships Author
Geoffrey Williams
After taking a required Intro to Psychology course as an undergrad, I have never looked back. Since my doctoral program, I have specialized in adult relationship therapy. Through my studies and clinicals, I wrote several articles for professional journals and currently in the midst of writing a book.
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