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Transactions in Relationships

I recently offered some advice on relationships to someone, with the preface that I knew it was unasked-for and based on my own experience. I don’t know how good the advice actually is, but it has the ring of value – and given my own interactions, it’s clear how it governs how I relate to people in many spheres, and represents one reason why people relate to me really oddly.

My advice is this: live as if the people around you are transactional, and live as if you yourself are not… but the caveat is that you get to be transactional when the imbalance is too great.


Transactional living is basically like keeping score. I do something nice for you, that’s a transaction in which you get something (the “something nice”) and I am owed … something. Maybe it’s a kind word. Maybe it’s a hug. Maybe it’s a returned favor in the future… it really doesn’t matter. The concept here is simple: value for value. I give to you, you give to me in return.

Books have been written – good ones, and a lot of them – about these topics, both about transactionality itself (Willard Harley has a number of books about this, as an example) and the nature of the transactions themselves (one might be Gary Chapman’s “Five Love Languages.”)

Harley’s idea is that of a “love bank,” where you have an implicit and vague reservoir that has a measure of your internal gratitude for others. He wrote mostly about romantic relationships, but it applies to anyone – that person you meet on the street has their own reservoir in your head.

At first, your feelings about this random person might be neutral, but maybe you like how the person dresses, or how they hold a child’s hand, or something – and that builds up a positive interaction for you. So you smile and wave at them when they look at you, to reward them in some small, cost-free way, for being valuable to you… somehow.

In personal relationships, it gets a lot more serious: when your significant other makes a dinner you enjoy, or you do the dishes unasked-for, or what-have you. Relationships, romantic and otherwise, are composed of long series’ of interactions, things you do for them and things they do for you. Do nice things, the things they recognize as valuable (thus the “Five Love Languages,” mentioned earlier) and they build up a positive feeling for you, and when they do things you recognize as valuable, you build up a positive feeling for them, and the wheel rolls on.

Do things that hurt them, and you empty the reservoir a bit. Do enough things that hurt them, and their reservoir empties; not only do they stop doing nice things for you, but maybe they resent you and eventually abandon the relationship.

The “things that hurt them” don’t even have to be intentional. The “love languages” play in really well here; the things you think are wonderful and kind might not serve the person you’re interacting with. If they need someone to play tennis with, and yet you’re handing them trinkets for their house, you’re “serving them” but not in a way they need, and in fact they might be looking at the trinkets with the thought that you keep trying to crowd their living space with useless doodads.

This is how most people live their entire lives, as a series of implicit and mostly-accidental transactions with everyone around them, hour after hour.

Often, they don’t realize it… and even when they do, they don’t always understand what they want from others, and they don’t think of how living transactionally places a burden on them to return value for those transactions.

The Advice

Living transactionally is natural; you want to value others so you yourself are valued. That’s very much a part of human nature; you reward good behavior, you punish bad behavior; those feedback loops are part of our psyche as humans.

Yet if you focus on those feedback loops, it can become caustic and harmful. You start to assign meaning to every interaction, and you start keeping score; you start feeling like you’re owed. Taken far enough, this becomes narcissism and entitled behavior, and can become so even if you’re not aware of the transactional interactions.

My advice is to intentionally take the hit. Purposefully say, “Okay, people are transactional: I will try to fill their needs as if I myself am not transactional, because the resentment from their failures costs me more than the failures themselves.”

This is not all the advice, however.

There have to be limits. This is sanity. Live as if those around you are transactional, but as if you are not, until the imbalance is intentional or too great to ignore.

You get to protect yourself at some point.

It’s nice to do the dishes for your friend… but if the friend starts expecting you to do the dishes with nothing in return, you’re not their friend, you’re their unpaid maid. That’s unfair to you. You get to say no. You get to say “do your own dishes,” and if they get upset about it, well, that’s… honestly on them.

You have the right to refuse, because that gives you an out; you get to escape the conditions that build up resentment. And you should, as soon as you recognize them.

Wisdom would suggest bringing it up, of course; you’d mention gently that there’s an imbalance in the relationship, and the other party gets to address the imbalance; if they don’t, well, that’s clear enough; they’re using you and don’t value you, and there’s no reason to abuse yourself.

So that’s my “relationship advice,” and it’s offered from a place of experience; I can look at friends and people I’ve lost over the years and map out how I failed at this advice, and I can point to my own scars as a result.

Love others, and love yourself, and behave accordingly, with as few demands and expectations as you can, but don’t allow that to harm you or anyone else.

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