Give and Take? It’s not a scale: Transactions and Friendships

Enya Eettickal, Staff Writer

As someone who is regularly approached for advice, one of the hardest discussions I have with friends is when we debate if a relationship is reciprocal or not. Whether the situation is romantic or platonic, the hardest thing to sort out is if a friendship is balanced. At face value, maybe it seems simple. Maybe we can simply give and take to sort everything out in friendships. But what really makes the situation more difficult to navigate is trying to find the line that distinguishes when a relationship is organic versus transactional.

Usually, I approach the solution to my philosophical questions by defining terms, so I started there as per usual. A mutually beneficial relationship to me is one where both people gain something of value from the other individual. A transactional relationship is one where both parties expect that they get something in return for what they give. 

I think this is where the problem starts. Evidently, these two definitions are very similar, to a point that parsing the difference cannot occur by just looking at their definitions. In transactional and mutually beneficial relationships, both parties benefit by having an established dynamic with the other person. While they seem like synonyms, they obviously aren’t. Mutually beneficial relationships aren’t as cold as transactional relationships. So where is the difference? 

Mutually beneficial relationships are positive and should be considered in most friendships and romantic partnerships. This is the conversation I have with a lot of my kind-hearted, passive friends who tolerate and maintain friendships that exhaust them. Often, they are used for the benefit of another person, without being given similar kindnesses or assistance in return. For them particularly, assessing whether or not a relationship is mutually beneficial is really important in helping maintain one’s self-worth. If only one person is initiating every conversation, every hangout or is the only one to put their neck out for the other, it’s fair to say that the relationship is not entirely mutual. Calling that out and assessing that aspect of a dynamic isn’t inherently a problem. 

The question becomes: When can you take that too far? What happens if someone accuses you of looking for a transactional relationship? While transactional relationships are acceptable in business and professional capacities, issues arise when those metrics blend into personal relationships. Say a friend surprises you with food or checks in on you on a random day. Some element of the friendship is compromised when you don’t reciprocate in exactly the same capacity, and they have a problem with it. When every favor has to be repaid with a favor, or one specific act of assistance has to be returned in a similar fashion, the emotional aspects of friendship are done an injustice.

What I’ve decided is that the distinguishing factor is intent. It’s not about scorekeeping, but rather about the emotions attached to the relationship. Transactional relationships can be measured in a tangible way, whereas mutually beneficial relationships cannot. If the way someone discusses friendship is linked to trades, specific instances and counts, that may be a red flag. But if the friendship is assessed in a manner of how it makes the other feel—regardless of the method in which the two people express friendship. It also matters when these considerations are made. If someone starts to look at the give and take of a friendship right from the start, it may be more transactional in their mind. But if these are discussions and considerations that occur after a relationship dynamic has been established for a period of time, then it’s probably with the goal of mutual benefit. 

Friendships are about bonding with someone else, they’re supposed to make everyone feel a bit better in the crazy journeys life puts you through. Trying to keep the emotions involved intact is worth the effort, so long as you’re careful to not trivialize them in the process.