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Transactions and relationships

We transact with people and institutions every day.

When I need to fill up my car with petrol, I'll find the most convenient petrol station available to get the job done. I typically don't know who the petrol attendant is, and they don't know who I am, and I'm good with that. Provided that they give me what I want (petrol) then I will give them what they want (cash) and we're all square. I can see the price of petrol per litre on the board as I drive in, so I am empowered to choose whether I want to transact with the company or not, and how much it's going to cost me.

The transaction here is nice and clean.

Contrast this with my relationship with my wife, Ash. In our relationship, there is a transactional base between us - Who washes the dishes? Who earns the money? Who baths our son? Who cooks dinner? Who does the shopping? etc etc. In direct contrast to the petrol station example, if in our marriage we left it here, and did nothing more than the base level transactions, then I would argue our relationship wouldn't last very long.

Why? Surely if we just set clear parameters for an equal exchange of value in our relationship, then that should be enough? Surely if we can just work together to make each other's lives easier, then we've done our respective jobs and we should both be happy?

I've been meditating on this point for a few weeks, and the more I sit with it, the more I realise it comes down to one very simple distinction:

In transactions we exchange, in relationships we expand.

When I lived in Rondebosch I would specifically seek out Sisipho at the Caltex garage at Silwood centre because, beyond the fact that I needed to fill my car with petrol, I left every interaction with him feeling like I mattered. Sisipho greeted me like I was his long lost brother. He remembered my name, and when he asks me how I was doing, he really wanted to know the answer. We would joke, we would talk about his life, and would go above and beyond to make sure my windscreen was spotless. I would feel so invigorated by the experience that I go above and beyond for him with a nice tip.

Whilst there was a transactional base to these engagements, we both left them feeling expanded.


As humans, when we show genuine care for, and interest in, another person, we move from transactions to relationships.

In my marriage, if I ask Ash how her day was, but my mind is elsewhere when I ask her, she feels it. I'm saying the words, but not showing her genuine care and interest, and so the words ring hollow. Neither of us are expanded by the experience. I'm not present enough to hear the subtlety of her response, and show her love by delving deeper into her world and showing her that I care, and being of assistance where I can.

As humans, we're wired for community, connection, reciprocity and love. It feels good to be held by someone who cares about us. It feels good to hold someone else and care for them.

With nearly 8 billion people on the planet, we don't have the capacity to have a meaningful relationship with every person we interact with. The problem, of course, is that as the world becomes more connected, and we interact with more people and institutions than ever before, it's tempting to fall into the pattern of treating all of our interactions as transactions. We're interacting with more people than ever before, and yet we've never felt more lonely.

We all have the opportunity to make the distinction in our lives between who we transact with, and who we are in relationship with. A healthy work environment is a relationship. A healthy intimate partnership is a relationship. A healthy business partnership is a relationship. A healthy friendship is a relationship.

Be careful of confusing transactions with relationships, they might share the same base, but they are fundamentally different.


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