Thoughts On Seeing Social Relationships As Transactional

Some people who struggle socially say it seems to them that all friendships are transactional. Sometimes they're making it as a neutral observation. In other cases they're unhappy that things seem to work this way.

Well, are all social relationships transactional?

Feel free to skip this part if you're not concerned with my take on this question. The rest of the article has some thoughts on why people can think this way, regardless of whether friendships actually are transactions or not.

To me, I think the answer depends on how you define "transactional". If you take it to mean a clear, explicit, conscious exchange of benefits, then not all friend or family relationships are like this. Yes, sometimes people enter into naked arrangements, like, "I'll drive you and your friends around if you let me hang out with you" or "I'll introduce you to my business contacts if you share yours", but that's not always the case. Most people aren't knowingly thinking of what they stand to gain when they hang out with a buddy. They've got fuzzier concepts in their mind, like connection, compatibility, fun, and loyalty.

You could also define relationships as being transactional on an unconscious level: On the surface people may feel like they've chosen their friends for warm, cozy reasons like intimacy and shared values, but below their awareness they're running the numbers about whether they'll get enough rewards to offset the effort they expend. Those rewards could be material, like access to a backyard pool, but also more abstract, like emotional support or being around someone who makes them laugh.

Even if you don't completely agree, I think it's reasonable to see social relationships as being transactional in this way. We choose to be friends with someone when we get enough out of it, and pass on anyone that doesn't provide the benefits we're looking for. That seems obvious enough, and doesn't mean humans are all selfish at their core. Of course we're going to be drawn to people that give us things we value.

Here someone could say, "But what about family bonds? Or what about when people stick by a friend who's going through a hard time and being really self-destructive? There are bigger things holding connections together than a simple Cost-Benefit analysis." The counterargument is: "On a conscious level someone may feel like they're giving up a payoff in service of higher ideals like 'standing by a friend in need', but they're still getting someone out of it. They may get to feel nice about how loyal they're being. They may be codependent and get off on playing the unappreciated martyr. They may be okay with not getting the usual benefits for a while, but hope the pipeline will start up again once their friend is recovered. Whatever it is, there's a reason they're sticking around. If things got bad enough, if the downsides really outweighed the rewards, they'd bail."

Whether relationships are transactional is similar to questions like, "Is a parent's love for their child sincere, or is it just a feeling our brain gives us so we'll care for our offspring and pass on our genes?" or "Does pure altruism exist, or do we only do good for others if we expect to gain from it in some way, no matter how abstract?" I think it comes back to this: Even if people are technically self-centered on a subconscious level, consciously we usually don't think that way, and for all practical intents and purposes that's not how we view the world. Maybe in the recesses of our lizard brains we see all social relationships as transactional, but in everyday life it isn't how we operate.

Though like I said, that's just my opinion, and the rest of the article doesn't hinge on whether I'm right about it or not.

I don't think someone is automatically a bad person if they think of social relationships as being transactional

Some people find themselves thinking of social relationships as a series of transactions, and they question why their mind went in that direction. They worry they're being too cold, calculating, and robotic, or bitter and jaded.

I don't think seeing friendships this way is an instant negative. Yeah, if you look at everything as a transaction and then go on to cynically, selfishly manipulate and exploit everyone, that's no good. However, some people hold this view as a neutral bit of human nature they've noticed. They may simply see our true social motivations as an interesting question to ponder. They're still going to treat their friends and colleagues with respect.

Some people are neurodiverse, like they're on the autism spectrum, and may naturally think of relationships in a transactional way (though that's not to say everyone who's neurodivergent is like this). They're not trying to be misanthropic. Their mind just doesn't run on vague concepts like "companionship" or "familial bonds". When they're considering their friendships it feels logical to ask what they're getting out of them. That's what allows them to make sense of the social world, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that.

Someone may see relationships as being transactional because they tend to want more concrete, practical things out of their friendships

Many of us want more abstract benefits from our friendships like emotional support, intellectual stimulation, or fun, joking conversation. Some people don't care about these things as much. They have a social style where they don't get a lot out of sitting around someone's living room and chatting about what movies they've seen recently. When they form friendships they do it to accomplish more tangible goals, like having a partner to play a sport with, or to work on an artistic or business project. Because they're looking for such concrete benefits they naturally tend to think of friendships as transactions.

Again, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with this. If everyone involved knows what the deal is, and there's no manipulation or false promises involved, then these exchanges can work out well. Two or more people get together for a specific purpose, and everyone's happy with what they're putting in and getting out of the agreement.

You could argue that people with this kind of social mindset are emotionally stunted, that they've got mental blocks preventing them from appreciating all the other ways friendships can be enjoyable. Maybe some of them do. It's also possible they're just not that social by nature, and when they do need something from other people a transactional alliance does the job. If they're content and not hurting anyone, who's to say that's wrong? Not everything that's different from the norm is automatically bad. Even if they are emotionally stunted, and they're operating in a transactional way for now, if they're being honest and respectful in how they go about it, then that's their choice. They can try to change in the future if they want to.

At times thinking of relationships as being transactional is a reflection of someone's social insecurities

Sometimes when a person thinks of friendships as being based on the exchange of benefits, what they also believe is, "I don't have anything to offer, so why would anyone want to be buddies with me?" Whether relationships are technically transactional or not isn't that relevant. Their core worry is they don't have enough appeal, and they just happen to be expressing it by speaking of how friendships work in a transactional way.

If you wanted to try to calm their worries, but still stay within that transactional lens, you could say, "You may think you don't have enough to offer, but you actually do. You're just writing yourself off because you have too narrow a sense of what kinds of things you bring to the table, and what other people are looking for." I find when people are insecure about what they have going for them they can dismiss many of their positive qualities. They can also falsely assume other people only want a friend who can provide them with clear cut tangible benefits like invitations to exclusive parties. However, most of us aren't so one-dimensional in what we want in our friendships.

People can have similar worries about the "value" they provide, as this article covers: Thoughts On The Social Advice To "Give Value", "Don't Take Value", Etc.

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Someone may start to view all friendships as transactional, when it's just that their current ones feel that way

This is another way someone may talk of all friendships, but they're really commenting on their own struggles. Someone may be at a point in their life where their connections have a hollow, unsatisfying, transactional flavor to them. For example, they're trying to make friends as an adult, and can't seem to get anything meaningful going. They have a handful of acquaintances they go to events with, but their conversations always stay on a surface level, and it feels they're all just agreeing to hang out with each other because they're lonely and don't want to spend the weekend by themselves. After a few months of this they can't shake the feeling that friendships are just empty transactions.

Another example is someone whose new friends are sticklers for paying each other back for every little expense. Rather than everyone informally taking turns grabbing the bill, and trusting it will all work out in the long run, they get home and text, "Here's what you owe me for tonight's dinner." A group thats organized and on top of who owes what to whom isn't intrinsically bad, but if you're used to a more casual approach to this kind of thing it can be jarring, and you could start to feel like friendships these days are too focused on money and exchanging goods and services.

Being excessively focused on the balance of Rewards and Costs in your friendships can lead to resentment or worry

One way transactional thinking can cause problems is if you're too literal about it. It's normal to have a rough sense of how much you put into a friendship vs. how much you get out of it. It's also okay to get upset if you realize the balance is way off, either that a friend is taking and taking from you and not giving much in return, or that you've taken from them a lot recently and don't want to go deeper into "debt" and seem unappreciative. However, most people just have a loose feeling about where they stand with someone, based on how things have been over the last several months. They aren't meticulously tracking every withdrawal and deposit.

Unnecessary resentment can pop up if you believe, consciously or not, that you're owed a quick, direct payoff for each positive thing you provide to a friend - "I did her three favors last week, and she only did one for me in return. She's using me. She's not upholding her end of the deal." In a healthy friendship things will even out in the grand scheme of things, but there usually won't be a totally Even Steven trade off in the short term.

You can become needlessly anxious about your friendships if you think they'll instantly ditch you if you don't maintain a positive balance with them. You might stress yourself out trying to quickly repay the favor, and get out of "debt", if a buddy does something nice for you. You could also tire yourself out by always trying to do nice little things for your social circle, because you think you need to build up some "savings" in order to offset any "withdrawals" you make. The fact is most friends aren't watching the balance sheet that meticulously, and won't drop you the second you go into the red.

Thoughts of relationships being transactional can come from an angry, disappointed place

Some people argue that all relationships are ultimately transactional because they have a dim view of humanity. In their experience everyone really is selfish, shallow, and undependable deep down. There's no true love or connection, everyone's just in it for themselves. They'll toss you away as soon as it's too inconvenient for them.

I think if someone wants to make that case there's evidence to support it. There are counterarguments as well, but if they want to be cynical about how relationships operate they've got enough ground to stand on. And if they want to take that view, that's their right.

This isn't to dismiss the validity of their conclusions, but when people are feeling really down on their fellow man, I do wonder whether there's unhealed baggage at play. Have they been hurt and disappointed in their own relationships, and are now expressing their pain by claiming every friendship is just a sequence of soulless transactions? Would they feel less strongly about the topic if they healed their emotional wounds? The idea isn't to swing all the way to the other side and become blindly naive and optimistic about human connections, but to get back to a balanced stance. If they worked through their baggage they might find they still believe friendships are unconsciously transactional, but now hold that belief on a more dry, intellectual level, instead of a raw, emotional one.