The Transactional Model of Relationships

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Polyamorous people tend to think about relationships a lot. I’m no exception. What I want to talk about today is the transactional model of relationships.

A transactional relationship is a relationship where both (or all) parties are in it for themselves, and where partners do things for each other with the expectation of reciprocation. Almost all relationships start here. People tend to date a person because of what they get out of it. Doing otherwise would actually be kind of weird. Genuine concern for a partner’s well-being (some might call it “love”) is something that generally grows as the relationship progresses. But some relationships never get past the transactional stage. I suspect that many, if not the majority, of relationships never do. I’ve fallen victim to this myself. There are times when I’ve bought something for Gina, or done the dishes, or done her some other sort of favor, and expected something in return. But there’s a deeper foundation that some relationships reach, where people do things for each other just to make the other person happy for altruistic* reasons. I truly believe that some relationships transcend selfishness, and reach a place where both partners are happy in large part because the other partner is happy.

Some poly relationships work on the transactional model. You see this is relationships which involve a lot of rules (or ridiculous relationship agreements). The idea is that “I let my partner see other people, and in return, I’m allowed to see other people as well.” Side note: this is why I dislike the term “negotiation” in a relationship context. It’s adopting the language of business transactions.

This doesn’t work with the kind of polyamory I practice. As I’ve said before, polyamory isn’t all about you. My preferred style of polyamory is something people do for their partners, not for themselves. It’s based on a mutual desire not to deny each other the things that we each want. The transactional model doesn’t work there. If you try to do poly for yourself, you start worrying about things like who has more partners, counting date nights, money spent on partners, and keeping a running tally of who is benefiting more from the arrangement. You start worrying if things are “fair.” You start getting resentful if you feel like your partner is getting more goodies than you.

Granted, it’s a spectrum, and not a binary. Some relationships are entirely transactional, and some are entirely altruistic, but most fall somewhere in between. I think that the best relationships, or at least the ones that appeal to me, are much closer to the altruistic side of the spectrum than the transactional one.

What do you think? Can a transactional relationship be fulfilling? Are all relationships really transactional, and we just fool ourselves into thinking otherwise? Discuss in the comments.

* I don’t actually believe in pure altruism, but that’s a discussion for another time. What I’m talking about if functional altruism

9 thoughts on “The Transactional Model of Relationships

  1. Well, is it possible that the practice of transaction could be a kink? Could it be that some aspect of the attempt to balance out the give and take can express itself as a sort of role-playing game or something which gets people off?

    Doesn’t sound appealing to me, but there are all sorts of neuro-atypical behaviors people get into. Just an idea.

  2. Of course, but that’s just a game. The whole point of role-playing a scenario is that it’s fake.

    Transactional vs. altruistic is about people’s actual motivations. You could role-play a transaction (plenty of people role-play prostitution), but still actually be concerned with your partner’s well-being.

  3. yeah. Of course, I have met some people who take role-playing way too seriously (including in the kink world) and it becomes more than just a role, but takes over reality. How often this happens, or at least to what degree, I don’t know. I’m inclined to see it as harmful when it does happen.

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