Your relationship –
is it transactional or loving?

Image: Emma Frances Logan | UnsplashWhat is the difference between a transactional and a loving relationship?
What skills might be useful to create more empathy and love?
by Thomas Whitelake
After fifteen years of marriage she finds herself perched on the side of their bed, her husband slightly behind her, in yet another Zoom therapy session. The therapist had just described how empathy helps form loving relationships. After a pause she proclaims: “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a relationship like that!”I am that therapist, and that counselling session left me profoundly questioning my own assumptions about relationships, and whether many, if not most relationships, are rather more transactional than loving.

A universally shared feature of being human is our deep desire to feel understood, safe, respected, connected and loved. However, what appears to be happening in relationships looks more like a bell curve, ranging from dangerous and dysfunctional, through transactional, towards loving and deeply loving. If that is the case, there are some questions about our own relationships that might be useful to ask. What is a loving relationship? What is the difference between a transactional and a loving relationship? Which assumptions do I have that might be obscuring me from a loving relationship? And what skills might be useful to create or improve a relationship towards a more loving one?

What is a loving relationship?Although it may seem silly, the question of what constitutes a loving relationship is an important one to consider. I have spoken with obsessive stalkers who told me they do what they do because they’re in love. I’ve spoken with people in abusive and violent relationships who told me that they're in love too. Very often people describe a flush of hormones as something they call love. I don’t consider those things love. I think that a loving relationship is one in which a person’s unique identity and potential is fostered and nurtured in ways that enrich them and the people around them.

In The Art of Loving (1956), Eric Fromm postulates that a loving relationship requires respect, care, trust and commitment. Interestingly, the commitment about which he writes is not necessarily towards monogamy but shared experience and growth. Trust too, is interesting in that it is tested and deepened over time through shared experience, not given in a lump sum. 

Fromm says that from these necessary elements, we can then open our hearts to foster the wellbeing of another. And if they, too, do so with us, we can create a love greater than the sum of its parts. A relationship that is generative, empowering, healing and deeply loving.

What is the difference between a transactional and a loving relationship?I had not considered the notion of a ‘transactional relationship’ until I heard my client’s words that day. What I have since been pondering is how many people are living in relationships that are more about the the value of the transactions, than about an open-hearted exchange of life and self? I’m not suggesting that transactional relationships are bad. Many can be quite, or even highly, functional! However I think many relationships might be more business-like than personal.

I often see couples ‘trading off’ in counselling. Each trying to achieve advantage with value, power, their rightness, their partner’s wrongness, the kids, and a plethora of other things. It doesn’t work. While all healthy relationships require fair exchange, and boundaries, if a relationship becomes subsumed in the exchange, or if the goal of the negotiations becomes overly self motivated or guarded, it becomes competitive, loses its mirth, spontaneity, joy, and lovingness.

The key difference I have seen in loving relationships is care for the wellbeing of the other. Sometimes before the self. If just one person does that, the relationship becomes lop-sided and imbalanced. However, if each focus on the welfare of the other, they can thrive. The loving relationship balances boundaries with openness, empathy and care to foster reciprocal wellness.
Which assumptions do I have that might be obscuring me from a loving relationship?The biggest assumption that I’ve heard as a therapist — and it is an enormously damaging one — is that relationships just happen. Most of us enter relationships with a series of assumptions and beliefs derived from cultural artefacts and myths, including fairy tales and romantic tropes. For example, an unconscious mythos can develop about ‘the one’. Such myths serve to fuel a false assumption that the perfect relationship is somewhere waiting for us. That when we find the ‘the one’ all will be taken care of. It’s a false assumption because there’s no such thing as a perfect person. Relationships are more a question of compatibility between different people.
To use a metaphor, each one of us is like a uniquely-shaped puzzle piece looking to join with another uniquely-shaped puzzle piece. Sometimes, the fit works well and other times really poorly. If we assume that things will just work when we find the right other, when we encounter differences, we’re not prepared for them. Accepting that differences will happen is important because, like other challenges, differences can be opportunities for growth or disintegration, depending on the skills we use to work through them.
What skills might be useful to create or improve a relationship towards a more loving one?This is where empathy comes in. In her work Narcissism and Intimacy – Love and Marriage in an Age of Confusion (1989), Marion Solomon states that the key determinant of a relationship’s success is the couple’s ability to listen to each other and positively feed back understanding. In some sessions, I have been moved to tears observing couples that have navigated through severe conflict to find loving empathy. They ask, with reflection and insight, of the other’s thoughts and feelings and then listen, even when the truth is difficult to hear. They accept the other’s uniqueness and they take personal responsibility for own their feelings and behaviour.

Empathy enables another person to feel cared for and understood. Care and empathy are much-prized feelings in a relationship that aid trust and openness. However, we tend to forget that we are all subjectively different people, and that we cannot understand another unless we choose to ask openly of their experience. Many people confuse care with empathy, and many think they can know what someone else is thinking or feeling. That is a delusion! A key feature to developing healthy empathy is to check its accuracy with the other. Only they can determine when empathy has been accurately developed. Without accurate empathy conflict is bound to develop.

Image: Toa Heftiba | UnsplashThat’s not to say that empathy is the be all and end all...Even with empathy, conflict cannot always be resolved – but it underpins successful conflict management. We tend to become defensive in conflict. As soon as the disagreement or felt threat of loss occurs, we lock-down and begin to tell our position. However it is asking and listening that is far more useful. People take in information scantily when they’re defensive. Asking the right questions and listening helps reduce defensiveness – which aids movement towards a potential solution.

If that’s not working, give it a rest. Pushing a conflict to the point of exhaustion is not useful. Slow it down, trust the relationship, and work on it another time. Pushing a conflict or leaving it unaddressed can diminish trust and openness. Correspondingly, the relationship becomes more transactional, and less loving. Hence, key to managing conflict towards closeness is finding the right timing, tempo, and balance in the resolution process. 

A transactional or a loving relationship?Each one of us is a unique and infinitely complex being, looking to find love with another. However, an array of social and cultural assumptions – and sometimes not using the right skills – can obscure us from developing a truly loving relationship. If it lacks empathy, care, trust, or respect, it might function but it’s likely to become transactional. Transactional relationships can work quite effectively, but may be less than desired. With empathy and care in communication, we can choose to engage in processes that deepen our understandings of each other, and aid us in becoming closer. The key turning point towards a deeply loving relationship emerges when each of us focuses on the wellbeing of the other. If we do that, then together we can create something larger than the sum of its parts — something truly loving.

Thomas Whitelake provides counselling and psychotherapy for individuals, couples, and groups through his private practice human2human. He brings to therapy over thirty years in human service, including extensive experience with acute medical issues, trauma, complex mental health care, relationship, stress, and existential issues. His interests include history, cultural anthropology, philosophy, bushwalking, permaculture, ecology, and woodwork.

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