Transactional and Transformational Relationships, Personality Traits and Satisfaction

Outside of the business domain there isn’t a lot of empirical research on the difference between transactional and transformational relationships, or the traits of people who tend to engage in either type of relationship. As a result, this is an area that merits more investigation. For example, answers to the following basic questions about transactional and transformational relationships have no general consensus:

  1. What is the average length of each type of relationship?
  2. Are there any personality traits that are correlated with each type of relationship?
  3. What is the average satisfaction level of people in each type of relationship?

Since there is no empirical research on these basic questions, and since I haven’t conducted my own empirical study at this time, the remainder of this article will be a conceptual exploration of (2), which has some implications for (3). This conceptual exploration might serve as a hypothesis for future empirical study.

Let’s begin by clarifying what I mean by transactional and transformational relationships. First, for the purposes herein, I will limit relationship to personal relationships, in contrast to business or professional relationships. I also want to exclude family relationships from my scope, e.g., parenting, avuncular, etc. Second, these relationships can be intimate or non-intimate, e.g., friendships. So these relationships can be same-sex or opposite-sex. Transformational relationships promote the growth and development of the people involved in the relationship. Transactional relationships, by contrast, are characterized by the exchange of goods or services. The goods and services come on a continuum that range from material goods like money, material items, expenses, etc; to different kinds of labor such as housework (which doesn’t apply to people in relationships who are living apart), parenting responsibilities, sex, etc.; to items that are characterized by emotional labor such affection or attention but which are things that people do exchange, quantify and track. Last, transformational and transactional relationships come on a continuum of more-or-less transformational or transactional. Personal relationships are almost never purely transformational or transactional, but include some amount of each. Reasonable people will disagree about the precise point at which a relationship becomes primarily transactional or transformational. Nonetheless I think it makes sense to talk about relationships that are primarily transactional or primarily transformational.

Personality Traits of People in Transactional and Transformational Relationships

People who pursue transactional relationship tend to be people who are looking to gain some amount of material resources, services such as parenting help or housework, or they can have some personal or emotional benefit. In other words, people who engage in transactional relationships seek to eliminate something they lack or some deficiency. Since transactional relationships that exchange material resources or services such as parenting or housework are straightforward, I’ll unpack the case of personal or emotional deficiency a bit more. In these cases a person might be seeking anything from emotional support to (typically unconsciously) using someone to help them cope with some personal issue such as unresolved trauma, low self-worth, etc. While it is common and perfectly healthy to depend on others for emotional support, depending on others to help us cope with more serious personal issues instead of a qualified mental health professional will likely be ineffective and potentially harmful to one or more people in the relationship. While the line between healthy inter-dependency and co-dependency varies with each person and each relationship, it seems that people in primarily transactional relationships tend to be more dependent or co-dependent than someone who doesn’t engage in a primarily transactional relationship. Last, keeping score of goods and services provided is built into the nature of relationships that are primarily transactional. That is, typically people expect that the goods, services, affection or attention that we provide will be reciprocated, which is likely to result in an attitude of entitlement or resentment. For example, someone who provides some good, service or simply affection will tend to feel that they’re entitled to something in return. And if their partner doesn’t reciprocate, they tend become resentful. This sort of entitlement and resentment dynamic diminishes flourishing in personal relationships.

People who engage in transformational relationships, on the other hand, simply enjoy being in relationships with other people — spending time with them, conversing with them, being exposed to and learning new things, feeling connected. People who engage in transformational relationship aren’t motivated by a lack in material resources or services nor some personal deficiency. Instead people who engage in transformational relationships come to a relationship motivated by curiosity, a desire for growth or connection . Last, because nothing is exchanged there’s no ledger to keep track of what has been exchanged and what has or hasn’t been reciprocated. As a result there’s no corresponding sense of entitlement or resentment that develops. Last, in transformational relationships there’s no unhealthy co-dependency where one person’s self-worth or well-being depends on someone else.

Concluding Thoughts on Satisfaction

At some point in our lives we all depend on others for material resources, services and even love for our self-worth. And there is such a thing as healthy inter-dependency. But once enough of our material or emotional needs are satisfied and we learn how to manage our own well-being, it seems that relationships that are primarily transformational tend to be more fulfilling than relationships that are primarily transactional. The reason is that relationships that are primarily transactional tend to be more like business or contractual relationships that more often treat people as a means (to our own ends) and so result in keeping score, entitlement and resentment. But people are happiest when they’re treated as ends in themselves, rather than a means to some material or emotional gain. And people tend to be happier when their engagements with others are opportunities to grow. In short, if you want to grow as a person and be more fulfilled, limit your transactional relationships and cultivate transformational ones.

ABD in Philosophy, Senior Public Policy Analyst building freelance writing portfolio. Collaborate, contact me at IG @philo_mentoring

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