Family Issues, Relationships

Transactional Affection and Relationship Ledgers

There are times when being a prolific LJ poster, even one who tries with some diligence to use the tagging system, can’t find what I’m looking for in the morass of data piled on over the course of a dozen years (tomorrow is my official 12th LJversary, actually; how cool is that??).

Recently family foibles a friend is experience triggered a bunch of thoughts about transactional affection, which is, by and large, another term in my head for what I have previously explored as “relationship ledgers“:

“In times of relational tension and crisis, many of us (me included) find ourselves tallying the internally-maintained “list of grievances”, or clinging to the hurts to justify retaliatory behaviours. This is how people most commonly respond to the balance tipping towards the negative side of the relational ledger. It’s a kind of psychological narcissism (making the hurt and pain all about ourselves as a means of justifying further responses to and on the negative ledger), and leads to something called “destructive entitlement”, in which we inefficiently attempt to rebalance the ledger by forcing another party to “pay for our hurts”. (The principle of “destructive entitlement” is, by the way, a whole other post or series of posts; it sometimes ties in with legacy values we inherit from others, particularly previous generations in our family of origin, or legacy values that we inherit from chosen family or social spheres, any or all of which we respond to in ways that come only at cost to someone else.) Equally often, by the time a relationship reaches the point of drastic rebalancing on account of pervasive negative focus, one or more participants are past the point of being willing or capable of considering, or even viewing, the positive aspects of the relational ledger.”

It’s not just the list of grievances for which we sometimes keep score; sometimes it’s all of the Good Deeds we’ve done. In my friend’s situation, a family member tallied a lengthy list of “things I did for you”, within a very clear context of the implicit expectation of, “…and therefore you owe me [X]”, where [X] resolves to affection, respect, attention, prioritization… any one of a number of values.

Within a family system, contextually most of us are taught that unconditional love and respect is something we as children owe our parents, and that love and support are owed to us by our parents. Within a cultural system, we see this pattern writ large recently as issues of “Nice Guy Syndrome”, for example. In both systemic contexts, the script being followed is that, “I did something nice for you, therefore I *EXPECT* you to do something nice for me”, with all kinds of variable expectations around what that “something nice” is supposed to look like, even if never explicitly stated, negotiated, or consented to. This is what I have come to label as “transactional affection”. In any transaction, something is given with the expectation of something in return. Commerce is a series of financial transactions for goods or services in return. Relational transactions are less clearly defined, but no less-laden with expectations. And therein lies the big problem.

It’s always nice to receive positive interactions, be it compliments, gifts, affection, deeper intimacy, etc.; some people are adept at giving such things without attaching an expectation to it, but in my experience (personal and clinical), such true altruism is incredibly rare. Parents *expect* that their children will love and revere them, no matter what. When their children start to differentiate from the family system, that creates a backlash because in part (I suspect) the parental expectation of being loved and revered is no longer guaranteed, and that creates a kind of doubt or distress that all the effort was for what, exactly?

Transactional affection also exists outside of family systems, in all kinds of social and relational systems. Friends do things for friends, immediately or eventually expecting “favours” to be returned. Ever helped a friend move then asked them to help you move in return? To some extent, the very framework of real-time social networks are founded on this kind of interwoven support, which is no bad thing. Where it becomes problematic in ANY system is when someone in the system starts keeping score and using perceived transactional disparities in the ledger as a stick to “get what they feel they are owed” from someone else in the system. Families in particular get really tetchy when it comes to transactional ledgers, because value systems are often based in inherited values for what constitutes “fair”, what looks like “love”, meanings for “duty and obligation”, and sometimes those inherited values blind some members of the system to the fact that the differentiating individuals might have developed different values for any and all of those concepts… meaning the nature of the transactions also change. One of you is still trading in old British coin, the other in new Canadian dollars. Unsurprisingly, those coins and dollars no longer carry equal weight, and expectations tied to those words have to be renegotiated as the system around them evolves.

Likewise in intimate relationships, much woe I see in and out of the counselling office seems tied to the process of “keeping score”, especially when one partner uses the score card to justify a hard or distant stance out of hurt, fear, or spite. Commonly, I hear the despairing cry of, “All the things I do for you, why don’t you ever/you never do anything nice for me?” or “I’ve met all your needs, it’s not fair that you’re not meeting mine.”

Something that has to happen is a conversation about the difference between “equal” and “fair”. Transactional affection always presumes that effort put out will be rewarded by equal or greater effort in return. Fair, on the other hand, is a discussion about options; what is the need to be met, and if I cannot do the thing you explicitly expect, what else might I be able to offer that can, or comes close? How can we manage it if what I have to offer does NOT meet the need as expected?” In short, the process of defining the value of the transaction becomes a collaborative effort, not a prescriptive (and often invisible) set of assumptions.

It’s my growing suspicion as I write these thoughts out that relational ledgers (transactional affection) is ALL ABOUT outcome attachment, specifically, seeing as a return on one’s own efforts and investments a very specific desired outcome, and being anywhere from disappointed to downright pyroclastic f thwarted in “getting what I deserve”, “getting what’s mine by right”, or even “getting what I deserve”. This attachment to outcome, and failure to manage the intensity of disappointment when expected outcomes don’t manifest as assumed, is nowhere more clear than in the internet-wide phenomenon that was The Nice Guy Issue, in which self-reporting “nice guys” on dating sites and elsewhere lamented at great length about putting time and energy into being great friends with a woman IN THE HOPE AND EXPECTATIONS that she would then fall in love with them instead of Some Other guy, and how put out they felt that their obvious efforts were not being rewarded.

This is transactional affection in its core state.

“I do all this for you, of *COURSE* you owe me in return. Wait, what do you mean you have your own thoughts and feelings on the subject…???”

“I am your parent, I did all of these things for you my child, of *COURSE* you owe me unquestioning respect and affection in return. Wait, what do you mean you have your own thoughts and feelings on the subject…???”

Unraveling the implicit, sometimes hereditary expectations and assumptions built into a transactional system is hard work, I’m not going to lie. (I’m also not going to tell you I’m an expert at it myself; if I were, I might still be married, personally. But I digress…) First of all, you have to go through the process of letting go of an expectation of equal, in favour of a floating and flexible understanding of fair, and sometimes that means letting go of the scorecard while trying to start from where you are right now. A lot of people won’t let go of that stance-justification; many have no clue who they are without it. Score cards give them purpose, even if toxic ones.

If the transactional ledger is writ full of negative things, in which one party keeps track of all the negatives about another person(s), then you have to make every effort to create a positive ledger as well. Only living in the negatives while never acknowledging the positives is a kind of darkness in which no-one thrives in. John Gottman has come up with a mind-bogglingly accurate statistical model for relationship success and failure, with in the neighbourhood of a 94% accuracy. As part of his model, he stipulates,

“In the world of relationships, the most important numbers to learn are: five to one. That is the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones that predicts whether a marriage will last or become one of the sad statistics of divorce.”

While this kind of transaction system isn’t entirely within the same context as transactional affection, it does provide a framework for reflecting on positives within the context of moving out of a negative-based transactional ledger. It also begins to provide a framework for talking about individual interpretations of value (specifically, degree of emotional investment) for those transactions. “I am offering you positive interactions” often comes with the unvoiced expectation that, in a relationship or family system, we’re all in this together, so, “I’m expecting you to do the same in return.” Is that mutually understood and agreed upon? Is what’s being offered coming from a sense of love, is it a gift, or is it a transaction with the implied obligation of something in return? Have we each a clear understanding of that implied obligation, and do we each consent to the transaction on the basis of that expectation? What are our options if that’s not the case?

We begin to change how these conversations happen, not out of a need to nit-pick so much as a need to understand and be open to shifting from a transactional score card to something based more in flexible, collaborative, and above all, explicitly-shared understandings. Differentiation is never easy, and challenging the ledger is definitely hard work given the likelihood that *someone* in the system is using it as a justification for interactive behaviours. But it is necessary for systemic health that things be balanced fairly, and not with a rigid sense of what’s equal. That kind of implicit scoring system only guarantees almost everyone stays miserable for the duration.

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