The problem with a transactional view of relationships


Back in 2018 I wrote a blog post titled ‘Is this a helpful way to think about relationships‘.

I was responding to an article I had read by by Orehek, Forest and Barbaro on whether viewing ‘people-as-means’ was a useful way to think about relationship/friendship formation and maintenance.

A ‘people-as-means’ approach to relationships emphasizes that it is the exchange of assistance in meeting goals and needs that brings two people together and keeps them together. If you help me achieve my goals and meet my needs, and I do the same for you, then we have the basis of a stronger relationship.

In that blog post I explored some of the implications of taking this approach to relationships, building on the content of the original Orehek article.

I presented the approach as a primarily positive one. The approach appeals to me, because I am quite transactional in the way I view relationships. For good or not, I seem to keep a mental tally of exchanges in a friendship/relationship and if the tally seems pretty even I am happy. If not, I experience dissatisfaction.

I also like that this perspective provides some guidance on how to establish and maintain stronger relationships:

  • take the time to understand a person’s goals and needs when getting to know them
  • be upfront about what you are working towards in your life
  • look for shared goals and needs and think about how they might be met

Whilst I still hold that this perspective it is useful, it is not foolproof by any means and as with any topic in psychology, the answer to complex questions (e.g. how to form strong relationships) is never black and white. I’ve had experiences in the time since writing that blog post that have shown me that a transactional view of relationships is not always a great thing. I want to explore that in this blog post.


What kinds of relationships am I talking about here?

When I use the term ‘relationship’ I am referring to anything from a casual work acquaintance to a collaborator/colleague to a casual friend, best friend, right through to a long-term intimate relationship.


What do I mean by a transactional view of a relationship?

A transaction is essentially an exchange of value. I give the guy at the store $4 and he gives me a Red Bull.

Transactions in a relationship can be quite practical in nature (‘you pick up the kids, I’ll go do the shopping’), intellectual (‘you help me solve my problems, i’ll help you solve yours), emotional (‘you provide me love and affection, I’ll provide the same back’) and physical (‘I kiss you, you kiss me’).

Simpler relationships (e.g. my tennis coach) are likely to involve mostly tangible transactions (‘I give you money, you teach me tennis’). As a relationship gets more intimate, transactions related to feelings and underlying psychological needs are likely to feature heavily (‘you give me a listening ear, I’ll do the same for you).

So when I take a transactional view of a relationship, it means I assess the quality of a relationship on the basis of what each person in the relationship is providing the other, and is the exchange considered fair and equal by both. Ideally, both parties in a relationship are happy with the nature of the exchange. Troubles arise, when one or both members of the relationship believe/feel the exchange is unbalanced.


Problems with a transactional view of relationships

I find for simpler and less complicated relationships, a transactional view is fairly robust. For example, I will gravitate towards colleagues where there is an even exchange of assistance in getting work tasks done.

But as you start to move into the world of close friendships and intimate relationships, it gets more difficult. I think this relates to the fact that the exchanges in friendships and intimate relationships relate less to easily definable tasks and activities and more to meeting each others’ underlying psychological needs.

What kinds of needs?

  • the need to feel noticed and understood
  • the need to feel loved
  • the need to feel capable and competent
  • the need to feel like you belong
  • the need to feel like you are a good worthwhile person

Exchanges between individuals to meet these needs are more complex and subtle. Whether you made me feel loved is very different from whether you helped me finish a clearly defined task.

Once the transactions relate to things like meeting psychological needs, a transactional approach (which implies a relatively even exchange) gets hard to quantify:

  1. How does one quantify and compare efforts to meet another person’s needs?
  2. What if your needs, or the needs of the other person are pathological? Most of us want to feel noticed and understood but maybe I have excessive needs in that respect, because of some previous life event or experience. No matter how hard the other person works, I may never feel that need is met, but in the absence of good self-awareness, I may blame the other person for not meeting my needs.
  3. The meeting of one’s needs is highly subjective. What if one party in the relationship feels they are meeting the needs of the other person, but not getting their own needs met? Are they correct? Could their perceptions be distorted? Humans make a lot of their assessments about the intentions of others based on emotion, not logic.
  4. How can I fully understand what another person’s psychological needs are? A lot of us don’t really have a language for describing our own needs, let alone being attuned to the needs of another person.

The end result is, as relationships deepen beyond simple, reciprocal assistance in achieving goals, they move into the territory of psychological need satisfaction, which makes ‘keeping score’ much harder.


The practical implications of this

Simple transactions require little time, effort and negotiation. If I go to the shops to purchase a loaf of bread, the cost is clear and the payment process simple. Little (if any) discussion is needed.

But once two people are involved in a relationship where it is more about reciprocal meeting of physical and psychological needs, then far more discussion and ‘negotiation’ is required.

Using the word ‘negotiation’ makes it sound like I view relationships as business deals, but the kind of ‘negotiation’ I am talking about here is each person in the relationship having the willingness to:

  • tell the other person what they need from the relationship and why
  • listen carefully to what the needs of the other person are and try to find ways to meet those needs
  • discuss openly any discrepancies in need satisfaction

Without open discussion of needs in the relationship, the risk is one or more of the issues described previously (how to compare needs, how to quantify needs, pathological needs, subjective assessment of needs, awareness of needs) takes hold.

The recommendation for those in close relationships to talk openly about their needs is not revolutionary, but given the observation that this often doesn’t happen, it needs reiterating.


Can connection with others be found, other than through mutual need satisfaction?

In meditation training, I’ve encountered ‘loving-kindness’ practice. In a loving-kindness meditation you might be encouraged to mentally project, onto someone you know, wishes for them to be happy, pain-free, free from suffering etc. With practice, the goal is that you can project these wishes onto anyone, including people you don’t like or have done you wrong. This practice is an attempt to find a place of kindness towards anyone, regardless of their capacity or intention to return those wishes to you.

In Mark Manson’s book, ‘Everything Is Fucked‘  he talks about the capacity to be compassionate towards others on the basis of understanding that we (humans) are conscious creatures, with all the strengths and weaknesses that come with this. If we honour the uniqueness of consciousness and the unique manifestation of it in each person, we have a point of connection that sits above the interactions we have with that person.

Whilst I find these concepts useful in developing compassion for humanity more broadly, I think most of us would find it difficult to sustain a relationship in which we perceived a significant discrepancy between our attempts to meet the needs of the other person and their attempts to meet our needs. If you were working hard but perceived the other to not be, you might be frustrated, annoyed or hurt. If you sensed they were putting much more effort in, you’d perhaps feel guilty or pressured or smothered.

This brings us back to those in relationships needing to have explicit conversations about needs and the efforts each person is making in meeting the other’s needs.


Are you in a relationship that feels uneven?

If yes, you need to ask yourself some critical questions and maybe spend time seeking out the answers through introspection, therapy or (ideally) conversation with the person involved.

  1. Is what you are wanting from the other person reasonable? Could your needs be excessive or unusual? How do you even tell if this is the case?
  2. What might be contributing to the other person putting less or more into the relationship than you? Can you stand in their shoes for a while and maybe get a different perspective on what is happening for them and how that might be influencing the exchange?
  3. Is there a world in which you can accept the discrepancy in the relationship because being in the orbit of that person makes sense at other levels?
  4. If you’ve tried hard to fix the discrepancy but to no avail, what is it stopping you ending the relationship? What are you scared will happen if the relationship ends?


Relationship problems are one of the most common problems students bring to counselling services here at Flinders. What are the relationship issues that affect you most? Let us know about the kinds of relationship topics you’d like us to discuss on the blog. Email me your suggestions –

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Life Skills Psychological Tools

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