(In the age of transactional relationships)

Lately, it feels like many of us are circling the drain socially, losing the plot of what it means to be a human being in community with others.

It’s easy to see why: our nearby support networks have shifted or disappeared entirely over the past couple of years. In the absence of in-person social lives, we picked up new hobbies, launched businesses, went back to school. (Or just watched a lot of Netflix.) I moved to a new metro on a whim at the beginning of the pandemic, making 2020 one of the loneliest years of my life.

But most of us are back in the world again. Now that I have a few friends and no longer feel like a bridge troll, I’ve been doing some “spring cleaning” of all the Californians I’ve loved before; blocking exes’ numbers, tossing out one-sided friendships, and most importantly, reassessing what I want out of my social circle.

What I’ve learned is that I need a sense of respect from my people. I can’t abide transactional relationships anymore.

But transactional relationships are becoming the norm.

To be fair, all relationships have at least a slight dynamic of transactionality to them: I’ll give you more of my sense of humor if you give me more great sci-fi romance recommendations! This is fun, sure, but it's not the only reason to check on each other.

A transactional relationship is built on the expectation of reciprocation. It's when you expect your friend to come prepared with S-tier romance recs whenever you see them, and feel disappointed or even cheated when they fail to deliver.

We’re all entitled to our dealbreakers, but we’re also responsible for seeing the people we’re trying to love as people instead of a consistent supply of physical or emotional benefits.

Here’s a highlight reel of the people I’ve blocked, deleted, unfollowed, or ghosted:

  • That one ex who’s been trying to get back together for the last seven years
  • The white guy who checks in exclusively for validation that he isn’t racist
  • My own dad (it really do be like that sometimes)
  • A former gal pal who ghosted the whole friend group without explanation ages ago (those Scorpio Suns, man)
  • The high school bestie who calls for advice and/or money, but never reaches out otherwise

I don’t believe any of the people I’ve cut out of my life are bad. I still love (or mildly like) all of them to an extent.

But if I didn’t behave the way they wanted, I’d be punished—through withdrawal, emotional manipulation, or endless “debating” about why they deserved my grinning compliance in the moment. And through it all, my agency—the ability to say “nah, I’m good,” to simple requests without having the entire relationship fall apart—isn't respected. There’s nothing healthy about that dynamic at all.

When socializing feels like a war, it’s hard for either person to feel comfortable around each other. If you always feel like you have to protect yourself against their advances, demands, needs, complaints, etc., it’s not going to feel like a safe relationship. If you’re always trying to make someone “act right,” you’ll never be able to see them as equals. You’ll both be walking on eggshells, sometimes without knowing why.

In these relationships I realized I was always waiting for The Ask. When my phone rang, I didn’t think, “Oh, it’s Robert! I can’t wait to catch up!” Instead it was, “Oh, it’s Robert. Do I have time to deal with whatever he's got going on right now? I could always call him back.”

But wait! Aren’t you being a bad friend, then?

Yes! Absolutely. But here’s the thing: you were not friends, anyway.

Transactional relationships are already toxic to begin with. While two wrongs don’t make a right, it’s also important to know what you're dealing with, and pick your battles from there. If you step back and realize you’re being used, you can communicate that to them and see what happens. What if they’re okay with the way things are? Are they prone to turn it into another debate? Will they bend over backwards to hold you responsible for their actions?

Some people act like ghosting is the most immature thing ever, but social media and dating apps will continue to change the way we interact, for better or worse. Our physical communities are shrinking while our online lives expand. Ghosting is a thing that, like all social behaviors, exists in response to a social need.

Writing someone a letter in 2022 is antiquated, just like typing paragraphs to someone who is already committed to misunderstanding you to their benefit. If you ghost someone and they don’t even notice until they need something from you, that says more about them than you. It's okay. Breathe.

You know what being a bad friend really is? Acting like they “owe” you something all the time.

Real women anticipate my needs in a relationship. Real men are walking ATMs that can change a tire in 5 minutes. Real friends will take good pics of me every time we’re together, and if they don’t they’re being toxic.” These are real dealbreakers that real people have in their real lives.

It hurts to feel like the people you care about are constantly sizing you up, assessing whether or not you’re putting in enough effort to warrant their attention.

You don’t need to be physically abused or cheated on to decide a relationship isn’t for you. You’re not obligated to spend time with people who make you uncomfortable. If you don’t feel respected or heard, you really can just go. Period.