Is love transactional? Everything you need to know

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People have different stances on what it means to love another person.

Some people can see love as something that is transactional, while others see love as something that should be without any conditions.

Here is everything you need to know about love being transactional.

What does it mean if love is transactional?

Let’s start with what is meant by ‘transactional’. If something is transactional, then it’s based on someone getting something in return for another thing. 

We often think of transactions in monetary terms, but a transaction can take place in relation to energy and expectations.

Think: If I do this, then you do this in return. 

In the realm of love, a transaction might take place in relation to time and energy.

For example, one person might think: I’ve given this much of my time and energy to assisting you with a particular task, so now you need to help me when the time arises.

It’s like a deal between two people – and one that’s often unspoken but prevalent in many relations.  

If love is transactional, it can be seen as being conditional.

In other words, there are conditions surrounding your love; you don’t simply love someone unconditionally. You don’t just love the person for who they are.

Essentially, in a relationship formed on unconditional love, you don’t love them more because they cook for you; if they stopped cooking altogether, you wouldn’t love them any less. 

Meanwhile, conditional love is rooted in one person expecting something from the other person. There are conditions for your relationship!

The experts at Marriage.com explain: 

“A transactional relationship is when couples treat marriage as a business deal. Kind of like someone brings home the bacon, and the other partner cooks it, sets the table, wash the dishes, while the breadwinner watches football.”

I’m sure you can think of many relationships you’ve seen or heard of like this.

I can definitely think of many relationships I’ve been exposed to in my life where this give-and-take is particularly evident. 

My boyfriend’s parents, for example, have always had this dynamic. 

His dad would go out to work all day and sweat it on site as a builder, while his mum would prepare his food for the day and have dinner ready at home for his arrival. What’s more, she would look after the children in return for the money he was earning. 

Now they’re retired and the kids have grown up, he still expects her to cook all of the meals and look after him, while he does the handiwork around the house.

I’ve been there at times when she rolls her eyes at his demands for dinner – so it’s not something she simply likes to do, but instead there’s an expectation that she should just do it in return for his work that day. 

The problem with transactional love 

A transactional romantic relationship can be seen as problematic for enforcing gender roles.

As you can see, my boyfriend’s parents are a good example of that. 

For example, in return for a man going out to work and providing for the family, a woman might be seen as having a responsibility for looking after the home and making it nice for her husband on his return.

Simply put: transactional love is loaded with expectations. 

Marriage.com adds: 

“A transactional romantic relationship is when someone keeps tabs of what they give and receive from their spouse. It is a behavior, meaning it’s deeply rooted in a person’s subconscious and personality.”

Keeping tabs can be dangerous and result in many arguments for couples, where one person makes a point of saying the other person hasn’t pulled their weight or fulfilled their part of the arrangement. 

In my experience, I’ve even had this in my relationships. 

When I lived with my ex-boyfriend, we had fights over things like cooking and cleaning. 

I would often feel like I cleaned more and make this point. To this, he would counter with things he was doing, and so on.

Essentially, we were trying to prove to each other that we were doing our bit so the relationship was balanced.

We placed too much emphasis on this idea of give-and-take, which is inherently transactional, rather than doing things for each other because we were happy to do so. 

But wait, are all relationships transactional on some level?

One Medium writer argues that all relationships are transactional.

But why?

Writing in 2020, he says:

“The essence of morality is the transaction, and one or more parties voluntarily enter into an agreement with concise terms of engagements, declaring the rights and duties of each party. The objective of the simple contract is to gain net value.”

In other words, he suggests that two people come to an agreement about their roles in the relationship, which makes it transactional on some level. 

He suggests the primary outcome of transactions between people is value. 

What’s more, he sees the nature of a relationship being transactional as necessary for it to be successful.

“The success and health of any relationship is a function of the exchange of value between parties,” he explains.

In essence, he doesn’t see anything wrong with relationships being transactional.

I get what he’s saying: if a relationship were one-sided, where someone pays for everything and does everything for the other person, then it would be objectively unhealthy.

But there is one thing he points out: connection is more important than the transaction.

As long as connection is of higher importance, and there is a genuine love between two people, then the transactional nature of the relationship shouldn’t be looked at as a negative. 

He explains:

“There’s a critical hierarchy I try to point out about the connection being more important than the transaction, but that doesn’t negate that the relationship is transactional.”

Simply put: as long as the transaction isn’t at the center of why two people are together then it shouldn’t be seen as being inherently bad.

He says he believes that many people are caught up with the “fallacy of unconditional love”, which is to suggest that two people are together without any stipulations around the relationship.

‘Unconditional love’, as he calls it, is also what people refer to as relational love.  

The difference between transactional and relational love

Marriage.com suggests that transactional relationships do not need to be the standard and that relationships can also be ‘relational’. 

The experts suggest that transactional relationships are less fair, and can be compared to slavery rather than a partnership.

I mean, in my opinion, I see that with my boyfriend’s parents. 

I feel like his mum is a slave to his dad who has certain expectations of her – both because she’s a woman, but also because it’s been the standard throughout their 50-year-long marriage.

You see, transactional relationships are more about a give-and-take and what a person gets out of a relationship – from sex to their food and laundry being looked after– while relational partnerships are not about what people give to each other

The idea is that in a relational partnership, it is never the case that people hold things against each other.

It’s suggested that a person would never say “I did this for you, so you need to do this for me” to their partner. 

Marriage.com explains: 

“A true partnership is one unit. Spouses are not against each other; they are considered as one entity by God and State. True couples don’t care what they give to their partners; in fact, true couples enjoy giving to their partners.”

Alethia Counseling suggests that transactional relationships have a narrative that is more results-oriented, self-focused and about problem-solving, while a relational relationship is more about acceptance, and thinking thoughts like ‘we both win or we both lose together’.

They suggest that a transactional relationship is all about making evaluations throughout the relationship and having a set of expectations. It can even feel like it’s punishing and filled with judgment and blame. 

Elsewhere, a relational partnership is formed from a place of understanding and it’s rich with validation.

Rather than thinking thoughts like ‘what do I get?’ in a transactional dynamic, someone in a relational partnership might think ‘what can I give?’. 

And the key part is that someone in a relational relationship is said to happily give to their partner, without thinking they’ve done something in order to get something else in return.

It’s like being totally selfless. 

That’s what I’m like in my relationship today. I’ll happily do the dishes, tidy up and make things nice for my partner’s return – and not because I expect anything of him, but simply because I want him to feel good when he arrives back. 

I won’t then hold it against him if he doesn’t do the same for me on another occasion. 

In essence, in a relational partnership, there is a shift away from things being centered around what a person is getting from the relationship and what the deal is.

Can a relationship coach help you too?

If you want specific advice on your situation, it can be very helpful to speak to a relationship coach.

I know this from personal experience…

A few months ago, I reached out to Relationship Hero when I was going through a tough patch in my relationship. After being lost in my thoughts for so long, they gave me a unique insight into the dynamics of my relationship and how to get it back on track.

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Pearl Nash

Pearl Nash has years of experience writing relationship articles for single females looking for love. After being single for years with no hope of meeting Mr. Right, she finally managed to get married to the love of her life. Now that she’s settled down and happier than she’s ever been in her life, she's passionate about sharing all the wisdom she's learned over the journey. Pearl is also an accredited astrologer and publishes Hack Spirit's daily horoscope.

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