Everything You Need To Know About Transactional Relationships

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A transactional romantic relationship sounds like a made-up term, doesn’t it? But it’s real and has gained momentum since the time Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, the former friend and aide of the former first lady of the US, Melania Trump, revealed some shocking details about the couple’s personal lives. In the explosive interview with the BBC, she called their marriage a “deal”. 

According to a study on transactional approaches between marital couples, it was found that in such relationships, high levels of depressive symptoms were identified. This contributed to a dramatic decrease in their marital satisfaction. 

Since this is such an obscure and complicated topic, we reached out to psychologist Shazia Saleem (Masters in Psychology), who specializes in separation and divorce counseling, to understand more about the nature of transactional relationships and the impact on the people involved. She says, “There is no denying that this kind of relationship runs more on a give-and-take policy rather than compromise, love, and vulnerability.”

What Is A Transactional Relationship?

The transactional relationship definition is quite simple. It entails a clear agenda of “people-as-means”, that is assigning duties in the relationship to meet certain goals. The concept is in stark contrast to the age-old definition of unadulterated love that is based on attraction, passion, empathy, compatibility, and appreciation. 

Transactional love, in essence, is based on the theory on your scratch my back and I scratch yours. Just like a business deal between two companies, partners in such a relationship come together under the terms of an arrangement that serves them both. “I’ll provide for you and you make me look good in social settings.” “We get married and combine our assets, saving the legalities and scrutiny.” “Our marriage is a cover for our closeted sexualities.”

You are agreeing to a certain stipulation in exchange for the fulfillment of a different stipulation. There will be clear responsibilities and rewards for both partners in this relationship. You might see these arrangements as practical and convenient. Arranged marriages, which are prevalent in almost all conservative cultures, are perhaps one of the oldest and most socially approved examples of transactional relationships.

A lot of people from those cultures will vouch that these work. However, if the partners fail to find that sweet spot between a genuine desire to build an authentic relationship along the way and operate only within the transactional realms of the arrangement, it can take a toll on the mental health of one or both parties. 

Transactional relationship psychology can also be closely associated with conditional love. There are rules here as well. You show your partner love only when they act according to your wishes. They will give you love only when you do something that serves their purpose. In almost every transactional marriage or relationship, these rules are set from the get-go, just like a quid pro quo. Unlike romantic connections built on the foundation of love and respect, “what’s in it for me” becomes the basis of quid pro quo relationships. Everything that falls under the “what’s in it for me” umbrella is discussed and pre-determined right at the onset.

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4 Characteristics Of Transactional Relationships

Transactional relationships come in all shapes and sizes and exist on a spectrum of pure quid pro quo to give-and-take peppered with love. Whether the cons of such an arrangement outweigh the pros depends on the unique circumstances and the outlook of the people involved. Irrespective of which of the spectrum they fall, some typical characteristics of transactional relationships remain common to all. These include:

1. Increased focus on benefits

Because of the quid pro quo arrangement, there is always an increased focus on who brings what to the table. So, the man may be the breadwinner while his wife may look after household matters or vice versa. The very meaning of this relationship is that both partners stand to gain something out of it.

2. There are expectations from both sides

Unlike non-transactional relationships where expectations can ruin the foundation of love, here the expectations serve as the very foundation of the bond. Both transactional partners expect certain things from each other. Since these expectations are agreed upon, the chances of disagreements and conflicts happening are minimal. 

Related Reading: Arguments In A Relationship – Types, Frequency, And How To Handle Them

3. There is more getting than giving

In a healthy relationship based on love and intimacy, partners don’t keep scores. The focus of transactional love is definitely on getting returns on what one has invested. Transactional relationship psychology is all about receiving. Both partners do their bit to make the relationship work only as long as they continue to get what they were promised.

4. Pre-nuptial agreements are common

A prenuptial agreement specifies the terms and conditions of the marriage and what happens if either partner does not honor it. In cases of acrimonious divorces, a prenup becomes all the more important. In such cases, marriage is sealed not by wedding vows but by a legal document outlining who stands to gain what.

5. A transactional relationship can be healthy

“A transactional relationship can be healthy if both partners uphold their end of the bargain with integrity and honesty. If they are ready to take responsibility for their words and actions and choose to be equally responsible for whatever circumstances or situations they are in, there’s no reason why they can’t thrive. At the end of the day, it is a reciprocal kind of a relationship and comes with a lot of expectations from each other,” says Shazia, talking about how a transactional romantic relationship may just bear fruit.

Related Reading: 25 Most Common Relationship Problems

3 Advantages Of Transactional Relationships

The characteristics of transactional relationships may sound rather bland and go against the idea of romance. But come to think of it, every relationship is like a transaction with pre-set relationship expectations and both partners bringing their strengths and weaknesses to the table. Also, transactional relationships aren’t necessarily bereft of love nor does every aspect have to be put down on paper. If you are wondering whether or not to have a relationship based on the give-and-take policy, here are some advantages to take note of:

1. Only one partner is not the giver

As in a business relationship, in a transactional relationship too, both partners ensure that there is no imbalance in their equation. In non-transactional relationships, love is the binding force. However, if this love isn’t supported by respect, transparency, support, and loyalty, the dynamics can get skewed. As a result, one partner may completely ignore the needs, desires, and wants of the other. In transactional relationships, both partners are aware of what they do for each other.

2. There is greater equality

“The main advantages of transactional relationships are equality, independence in the relationship, and the fact that there’s no blame game. There’s often clarity and openness, as it comes with a pre-determined mindset and expectations of what each partner has to do.

“The give-and-take are 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,” says Shazia. Such relationships will often not be one-sided selfish exploitation. Both partners know their worth and are willing to negotiate and reach a middle ground.

3. You are more secure legally in a transactional romantic relationship

In the unfortunate event of a divorce, transactional marriages have far better outcomes for both partners because you are legally more secure. It might sound unromantic but separations often get nasty because one partner feels slighted and there is no real way to gauge who stands to lose more. Even if you go through a trial separation and think you’re prepared for a divorce, the legal battle can be all-consuming and draining.

Speaking on the benefits of prenups, lawyer Tahini Bhushan previously told Bonobology, “In the unfortunate event of a divorce, the presence of a prenup takes the burden off the court. Couples don’t have to undergo a lot of litigation where the parties are dragging each other down, trying to bleed each other dry. There’s a better chance the whole process becomes a lot easier.”

Related Reading: How To Build An Interdependent Relationship?

3 Disadvantages Of Transactional Relationships

“Everything comes with its share of disadvantages and advantages. As with everything else, transactional relationships are far from perfect,” says Shazia. Aside from the fact that it sounds as if it goes against the very tenet of romantic relationships, here are some other disadvantages that may not make it smooth.

1. Marriage seems like a chore

Many a time, couples stay in unhappy marriages because they have too much to lose when they split. These could be shared financial interests or a fear of losing face in society or inconvenience for children. As a result, they may even stop making an effort to repair the cracks in their relationship resulting in the widening of the gap.

They end up becoming roommates who perhaps tolerate each other rather than equal partners. This is when they agree to have a transactional marriage where they can live without having to fight about the chores and daily duties.

2. Partners may be inflexible

In happy marriages, couples find a way to overcome their differences. They also figure out a way to share tasks and feel good about their partner. In transactional relationships, each partner might feel less obliged to be flexible or accommodating.

“Many times, such relationships turn out to be very unethical, and partners may end up exploiting each other. Partners’ expectations may become unrealistic and they can become extremely selfish. They may focus more on their personal gain rather than what’s good for the relationship, always thinking, “Who’s getting the better end of the deal?”,” says Shazia.

3. It may not be good for the children

Children deserve to grow up in a loving, nurturing environment. And they learn by observing their parents. In non-loving transactional relationships, where you just barely tolerate your spouse, you affirm to your children that it is okay to live a life where relationships are cold and dry.

They may not learn the other important aspects of a relationship like a bit of sacrifice, emotional investment, adjustment, trust, etc. Thus instead of raising children who look at forming healthy, warm, and trustworthy relationships, you may end up raising adults who are tempted to create other transactional relationships.

Related Reading: 11 Signs You Are In A Codependent Marriage

4. Partners may end up competing with each other

“If you look at the examples of transactional relationships, you’ll find that romantic partners can often be in competition with each other about what they’re getting out of it. They tend to forget about the essence of being in a relationship, the essence of being nurturing and loving toward each other. They’re always in a cut-throat competition with each other.

“I’m giving so much for this relationship, what am I getting in return?” becomes the driving force behind the way they conduct themselves in the relationship,” says Shazia. Since a transactional relationship is largely driven by personal gain, there’s always the risk that one person may end up feeling jealous if they think the other is getting a better deal. That doesn’t sound like unconditional love, does it?

How Can You Make Transactional Romantic Relationships Work – 5 Tips

Even if the love has vanished from your marriage and all that is left is a relationship deal, you can make this ‘relationship deal’ work in your best interest. The ultimate aim of any couple is to build a happy life together and there is no need to compromise on that.

“Anything in moderation will work wonders for a relationship. Even in a transactional relationship, if both the partners think of each other, if they share a commitment to improving their relationship, it can definitely work out for their betterment,” says Shazia. With these 5 tips, you can make transactional relationships work:

1. Have fewer expectations

“Transactions relationships can work out if both the partners maintain healthy boundaries and have fewer expectations from each other. They must focus on themselves and think about how they can become a better partner and how they can improve their relationship. Just because they’ve entered into a sort of profit and gain dynamic doesn’t mean they shouldn’t think of other things that can improve their relationship,” says Shazia.

To make a transactional relationship work, it’s best to have clarity about what you want and what you don’t and manage the expectations realistically. Enter the relationship with one goal – to give whatever you can, to the extent you can, and receive what is meant for you. Anything else is a bonus.

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2. Feel protected

By nature, transactional romantic relationships create a safety net for you. Once you remove the elements of insecurity from your relationship, the increased sense of security can help you be more authentic and real. Be it a transactional or non-transactional relationship, it can succeed only when you learn to be more giving and authentic.

Revisit the foundations of your relationship, stop treating it like a mere bread-and-butter issue and rediscover common goals and interests. You can make a transactional romantic relationship work if your bond isn’t solely governed by the terms of the agreement that brought you together as a couple.

Related Reading: Are You A Toxic Couple? Take This Test To Find Out

3. Stop keeping count of who does what

Whatever the ‘arrangement’ of your relationship, you need to recognize each other’s individual needs and desires. Try and fulfill these needs without compromising your own. To achieve this, do not obsess over who is doing what, who is getting what, and if you are getting a fair deal in each transaction. Every relationship is about give-and-take but once you are a couple, treat each other like a unit.

Learn to give in a little without letting your partner take advantage of your benevolence. Don’t let transactional relationship psychology get in the way of finding true love and connection with your partner. Of course, you have every right to protect your interests. But learn to look at the bigger picture when it comes to protecting yourself, and don’t let the petty issues get between you two.

4. Share responsibilities and liabilities

If transactional relationships are about sharing in an equal manner, then this principle needs to be applied to both responsibilities and joys. Learn to share problems too and look for solutions together. This is the only way to find true happiness in transactional love. Shared responsibilities are a hallmark of transactional relationships but don’t hold your partner to ransom if they fail once or twice.

5. Be careful of financial matters

In both, transactional and non-transactional relationships, money can cause problems. Handle money matters carefully and prioritize financial planning right from the beginning. In transactional relationships, mutual finances are usually discussed beforehand yet they have the potential to cause rifts.

Learn to let go of small challenges to avoid financial stress. Try and turn your relationship into a true partnership instead of reducing it to a mental tally of what your partner is doing for you each time and assessing if you are getting a fair deal.

Moving From Transactional To Healthy Relationship

Living with someone who has a transactional personality can be difficult. The entire relationship can turn toxic because of the score-keeping and tit-for-tat attitude. The expectations can soon weigh you down. If you want to have a normal relationship with your partner or if you have developed genuine feelings for them, it’s time to talk to them about revisiting the terms of your agreement. Here are some things you can do to better your situation after agreeing to end the transactional part of the relationship:

  • Put an end to expectations in relationships
  • Don’t look at this relationship as a competition where one person has to be the winner and the other has to lose
  • Treat this relationship with care, respect, and love
  • Do chores together, spend quality time together, and go on date nights
  • Be vulnerable and let your walls down
  • Be more understanding and empathizing

Key Pointers

  • Transactional marriages and relationships are like a business deal. They work on expectations and equality
  • There are expectations and prenuptial agreements in every transactional marriage
  • The pros and cons of a transactional relationship depend on the circumstances and outlook of the people involved 
  • When handled the right way, a transactional relationship may last for the long haul

A relationship is essentially about a spiritual and emotional connection. Don’t let expectations, lack of intimacy, or communication issues get in the way of it. If a transactional relationship is what brings you happiness, then go for it. But if you are stuck with a partner who has a transactional personality but you are the kind of person who craves intimacy, passion, and vulnerability, it’s best to talk to them. Tell them you want a relationship that isn’t so mechanical.

This article was has been updated in November 2022


1. What does it mean if someone is transactional?

It means the person is quite calculative and practical. A transactional person is someone who will act in a situation only if there is some gain for him or her. They apply this principle to all relationships, including their romantic partner.

2. Are all relationships transactional?

All relationships are transactional in some way or the other. There is an expectation and there is a reciprocity of that expectation. Be it in husband-wife, siblings, friends, or parent-child relationships, there are always expectations at play.

3. What is a transactional marriage?

A transactional marriage is more in the realm of an arranged marriage where compatibility, chemistry, love, etc take a backseat while couples or families see how well-matched they are in terms of economic and societal status and what each partner brings into the marriage.

4. How do I stop being transactional?

Reducing expectations, learning to give as much as you are willing to receive, not keeping count of who is doing what are some ways you can stop from being too transactional.

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