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Transactional Relationships: Toxic or a Necessary Evil?
transactional relationship
Career Growth

Transactional Relationships: Toxic or a Necessary Evil?

It's really all about intention.

There are all types of relationships and, typically, we accept that most of these bonds are unique and sustainable in their own way. (And, especially when it comes to other people’s relationships, who are we to judge, right?)

However, not all relationships are totally healthy. While the bonds we have with others can change and evolve over time, certain patterns of behavior shouldn’t continue over the long term—especially if we want those relationships to thrive. (Or at least survive.)

One of these tricky relationship types is the transactional relationship. While it may be necessary to enter into these kinds of relationships with other people for certain periods of time, overall they aren’t great for your wellbeing, or the health of your relationships.

Here’s what you should know about transactional relationships—particularly if you’re currently in one. 

What Is a Transactional Relationship?

coffee meeting

First, let’s define what a transactional relationship actually is: Transactional relationships are built on the idea of reciprocation. Both people in the relationship are focused on what they are getting out of it and they expect the other person to hold up their end of the bargain. 

Basically, these relationships revolve around the idea of if you get this, then I get that. The expectation of someone in a transactional bond is that the relationship needs to be worth the effort they are putting in. Each person’s focus is on how they will benefit. There needs to be a return on their investments, to borrow a phrase from the business world. 

These relationships can, naturally, turn toxic. When one or both people in a relationship start keeping score and then focus on ways a relationship is unbalanced or inconsistent this prevents them from being collaborative and eventually pits them against each other. 

Even when just one person is overly concerned about things being “fair” and continually focuses on what they will get out of the relationship or from the other person, this can really damage a relationship over time. 

Types of Transactional Relationships

Transactional relationships are everywhere. They can be part of any bond—romantic, platonic, professional and so on. To better understand how these relationships manifest in the real world, here’s brief overview of the way transactional bonds can crop up in various situations: 

Romantic relationships

Transactional relationships can take different forms when it comes to romantic bonds. There are marriages of convenience scenarios or even agreements where one person agrees to take care of the kids while the other works, which can be healthy as long as tit-for-tat and score-keeping is kept out of the equation.

More commonly, however, transactional elements can appear in romantic relationships when partners continually bring up how much they do for the other person and how little they feel they get in return. The focus is on making things “equal” or “fair,” with the assumption that both people need to put in the same amount of effort and get exactly what they put in in return. Naturally, this expectation is unrealistic and impossible. 

Workplace relationships

breakfast with colleagues

In the workplace, transactional relationships happen when you or your colleagues focus solely on what you can get out of (or from) other people. How do you know if you’re being transactional at work? When you reach out to others about working together, you typically have an ulterior motive of what you’ll get in return for your own benefit. A boss-employee relationship can also be transactional when someone in a position of power tries to use quid pro quo to get what they want. 


Friendships can also be transactional. Surely you’ve heard of scenarios where people try to befriend others in an effort to gain status, popularity or other perks. Score keeping can also happen in friendships when you log a mental tally of how many times you’ve picked up the tab for coffee or done favors for your friends. 

Of course, there are friendship scenarios when you might be taken advantage of if you’re always putting in more money, emotional labor and time and you might need to address those situations. But when you generally focus on what you’ve done for your friends versus what they have done for you, this makes the relationship transactional.  

Familial relationships

In family relationships, transactional elements can come into play, too. Typically you’d see this between parents and children when parents bring up the idea of how much they've done for their kids and voice an expectation of what they believe they should receive in return. (Love, affection, respect, more phone calls or visits and so on.)

Are Transactional Relationships Healthy?

By and large, transactional relationships are not the best kind of bonds to have. Having a mental tally about what someone else has done (or not done) for you typically leads to resentment and anger. Keeping score in any relationship puts people on opposite sides and discourages working together. 

In the workplace, transactional relationships can damage rapport. When colleagues only collaborate so that they can get something in return, they become self-serving and less able to work as a team. In transactional friendships, people aren’t able to truly bond and trust each other because they are more concerned with what the relationship can do for them. And in romantic relationships, couples may spend more time arguing about how things aren’t “fair” and miss the opportunity to truly unite on meeting each other's needs. 

When transactional relationships are necessary

business meeting

Sometimes, relationships need to be transactional. In the business world, for instance, people in sales and those whose jobs revolve around making deals typically work with others in a transactional way. This isn’t problematic. When you’re purchasing something from a store, for instance, you don’t need to have a deep bond with the person selling you the item in question. There’s no emotion involved, just strictly business.

While typically we don’t want our relationships with people we know and love to be transactional, there may be times when transactional dealings with loved ones are a necessary evil. For instance, when new parents are in the throes of caring for an infant, their relationship may turn more transactional in order to survive. For instance, one person cares for the baby for two hours while the other person takes a nap. Or one person takes on kitchen chores while the other handles laundry. Dividing up household and caregiving labor this way can help couples make it through this challenging time.

The Bottom Line on Transactional Relationships

What it all comes down to in transactional relationships is intention. In the new parents scenario, for example, both people need to be clear that the intention for having a temporarily transactional relationship is to help each other out and be able to attend to their needs, and their baby’s needs. In the workplace, colleagues might intentionally team up to help each other out with favors so that they can both benefit and reach their career goals.

When these transactional-seeming relationships are collaborative instead of competitive, and mutually beneficial instead of self-serving, they cease to be purely result-oriented and toxic. As partners, colleagues and loved ones work together in a healthier way they can achieve common goals and strengthen their bond, rather than strain their relationship.

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