In business, transactional relationships make sense. No one will dispute “I give you this, you give me that.” But what about transactional relationships in our personal lives? If someone remarks on the transactional nature of your marriage or your love affair, is that a problem?
At first blush, I might have answered yes, that’s a concern. “Transactional” sounds cold, calculating, contractual. Yet as I consider the issue more carefully, I begin to see the expectations of exchange in all relationships, and my perspective shifts accordingly.
If I cook dinner after a long day of work, I will be pleased if my partner clears the table and loads the dishwasher. If he cooks and clears for a week running, he will be (understandably) irritated unless I’ve got my head in a project under deadline. Then, he’s aware that this is a temporary detour from “you do this, I do that.”
And who will deny that all relationships are built on give-and-take? Aren’t many of our significant issues a result of expectations of that give-and-take going unmet?
Sex Is Part of the Equation
In both short-term and long-term relationships our sexual encounters may also be transactional. Now, now. Don’t scoff. Instead, think about it. Beyond the first bloom of mad mutual attraction, don’t we all shift expectations following a sexual encounter? Don’t we assume that he or she will be “softened up” a little, and more amenable to other things we might have in mind?
(We may not like to admit as much, but deep down, don’t we know that’s the case?)
“I give you this, you give me that…” And I’m not talking about an exchange of goods, though certainly that isn’t uncommon, but I’m talking about a space in which we are more kindly disposed to our husbands and wives, to our boyfriends and girlfriends, and to our usual partners.
Do note that I am not purely speaking in the sexual realm, though many of us immediately think of sex when the term “transactional relationship” arises. Transactional sex, according to the following definition, is usually thought to exist outside marriage, and is exemplified as follows:
In the western world, transactional sex occurs ubiquitously in the form of sex in exchange for rent, phones, clothes, drinks, drugs, grades, or school tuition, to name just a few examples.
That said, “you pick up the kids all week, I give you a more relaxed (sexual) self” occurs on a regular basis, doesn’t it? Is there anything wrong with this? Is it even conscious? When we get help in one area of our busy lives, don’t we appreciate it and become more likely to be generous with our time and affection? Isn’t this only natural?
Help Around the House, and More
Other examples outside the sexual arena — money, help with housework, time spent listening — along with the mention of domestic and parenting tasks above. This is about reciprocity, and yes, to some degree, an expectation of reward. Again, isn’t that only natural?
When one spouse or partner feels like he or she is carrying a disproportionate amount of the duties on the home front, resentment builds. Who wouldn’t feel less likely to pull out the sexy, or even the warm and fuzzy, when brooding or feuding over carrying too much of the load?
A few weeks back, in conversation with friends and discussion of our relationships, this notion of the transactional aspect zoomed into focus. When I am unhappy in my dealings with another person — friend, lover, spouse — it is because of an imbalance that has been long-standing. The transactional nature is out of whack. The transactions may involve sex, contribution to the household, contribution to parenting duties, listening time, or play time other than sex.
In my case, “alone time” or reading time would also be on that list. It is a critical part of the “take” that I need in my give-and-take.
It is easy to talk about marital expectations in general, or for that matter, expectations in any relationship of significance. But once you are living together and dealing with the nitty gritty of daily life, the rosy glow will fade and life may take on a different complexion.
This is normal and usual, don’t you think? And likewise, that clarity of expectations and feeling as if they are “fair” and reasonable will impact our sense of relationship responsibilities being borne equitably.
Thinking about my my marriage, I can see that the exchange of giving and receiving was a mismatch. My expectations of an equitable marriage were quickly dashed. This was complicated by the fact that I was a people pleaser, and as such, was likely to give too much and take too little. Surely self-esteem (or its insufficiency) comes into play, but likewise, conventional roles. Women are often expected to do the greater amount of (emotional and logistical) giving, while men are expected to do the bulk of the “providing.”
However much these roles seem to be shifting (or at least, discussed in the media), elements of the traditional “he provides, she does everything else” persist — even if she also provides. For some, this is an equitable and mutually agreeable pact, though potentially a serious concern for the woman, should she find herself single again and without marketable skills.
However, I’m happy to see that in some families, the traditional equation is evolving.
Don’t get me wrong, when an imbalance occurs, all parties feel its effects. For example, if my marriage lacked transactional value on nearly every dimension that is important to me — “seeing” me and my worth, supporting my dreams, participation in family life, sharing the domestic duties — I could assume this was true for my ex as well, though I imagine his criteria to be different.
Does What You Give or Take Matter if Both Agree?
Still using my marriage as an example, the logical conclusion is not that we didn’t benefit from what we gave or what we took. As a giver, the act of giving brings me pleasure and satisfaction. I was happy to give, but problems arise when giving is excessive, even for one who loves doing it.
Also worth noting in my story is this. While we were equal providers, my spouse nonetheless enjoyed freedoms that I did not. Moreover, he was on the receiving end of the “marriage premium” when it comes to being a professional man with a family, and all the aspects of social acceptance that exist for a man with a wife and children.
As for me, it was only after I was no longer a member of the marriage “club” that I realized I was persona non grata in many circles, following divorce. And as the years passed, I was able to recognize patterns in my previous relationships in which I had often given too much and expected too little, waited too long to voice what I truly needed, and then found myself in a position of hurt or resentment. Had I made better choices to start with (coming from a place of greater self-esteem?), or had I been fully comfortable with the nature of the exchange in which I was engaged, than I would see no problem.
That said, circumstances are rarely static. Without the ability to acknowledge changing health, financial position, desires, dreams… we may find ourselves mired in a situation of growing (and unacceptable) transactional imbalance. Perhaps this is where both friendship and love come in, not to mention respecting our spouses and partners enough to openly discuss how we feel, what we need, what they need and aren’t receiving, and how to solve issues that arise.
Give-and-Take, Good Relationships
When “I give you this, you give me that” requires nagging or guilting or demands, or living with “I give you this” and accepting nothing in return, the relationship begins to fall apart.
What might have helped reset the balance in my marriage?
Better communication, and early in the relationship, might have made a difference. Additional help with house and kids (had there been family) during the most labor intensive years of child-rearing is another possibility. And date night, often mentioned as crucial in long term relationships and marriage, might also have assisted.
While I like to think that I have learned lessons over time, we all struggle with periods when whatever the express or implied transactional nature of the relationship, we may have a hard time delivering — from being a good provider to a good listener to a good sexual partner.
And speaking of “good,” I would like to cite thoughts on good relationships that I wrote several years back.
Like you, I’m subject to the same pop culture influences that convince us we’re entitled to fantastic jobs, incredible spouses, beautiful homes (and naturally, well-behaved children), but I take those inputs for what they are – wishful thinking, a bit of escapism, and often, a distraction.
I also take issue with them. Because they’re damaging. Because they establish false expectations. Because in my universe, good is solid. Good is relatively great. A good man, a good husband, a good father, a good son, a good friend, a good boss – these are damn difficult to find – or achieve – in a culture that seems to be losing its compass.
Certainly, we all go through periods when we are challenged to give what those we love expect of us. We may do our best and it still isn’t good enough. That compass I speak of? To me, its true North must include honor, integrity, responsibility, generosity — but not giving ourselves away.
To my mind, understanding that every relationship is transactional reminds us to focus on what is important to us and to the people in our lives. No doubt, what we each consider of value in an exchange will vary — as a function of who we are at a certain stage in life, with the nature of the relationship, with the individual concerned, with our circumstances. We bring expectations to the table (and the bedroom) in each case, and I believe this is only natural.
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