How to stop valuing relationships and make them gifts

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

Economics is everywhere — we talk about the ‘value’ of relationships. If a friend gives us a gift, for the sheer joy of it, not because it’s a birthday, we begin to wonder if we ‘owe’ them something or feel uneasy about being ‘indebted’.

Transactions have run riot to such an extent that even children in nurseries find that ‘value added’ is the criterion measuring their education.

We hear people who are in love saying they don’t feel ‘worthy’ of the other person. When you are asking ‘Do I deserve this person’s love?’ there is no answer that makes sense because the whole question arises in an economic mindset. But that’s the wrong paradigm for relationships.

An overwhelming amount of relationships are transactional. Not only those that are set up as bald economic deals, but from work to marriages. Transactional relationships are all about self-interest and what you get. If conflicts arise, the goal is to win, not to resolve. In transactional relationships what matters are outcomes, not emotions; systems, not people.

Transactional relationships have been important throughout history in encouraging cooperation, whether between bartering individuals or nations. There is a place for transactional relationships, but ultimately they only work if the receiver will return the favours. They are quid pro quo.

And not only are they economic-based, but they are also scarcity-based. Transactions and fear are frequent partners.

  • Let’s make a treaty with that tribe so they don’t come in and destroy us.
  • Let’s do favours for these people because then they’ll be in our debt when we need something.

In a transactional relationship unconditional generosity is a scarce resource. We may not use money (unless it’s about buying a product or paying for someone’s time) but there will be trade and bartering taking place and a jostling to ensure that we get ‘good value’ for what we give. Transactional relationships involve:

  • competition
  • manipulation
  • negotiation
  • keeping a tally
  • winners and losers

Deep, meaningful relationships need another basis. They need a mindset of trust and abundance. These kinds of relationship are not transactional, but transformational. They don’t fizzle out when there is nothing to be ‘gained’. They go on energising because the power of collaboration changes people; together they can address intrinsic needs.

In transformational relationships there is a shared purpose. The relationship itself becomes the focus rather than competing egos. So why do we experience so few transformational relationships? And how can we shift from the economic model of transaction to the ecology of relationships as gifts?

Shift to an abundance mindset

Photo by Francisco morais on Unsplash

If we want have amazing relationships we have to be givers. What stops most people from being generous is not intrinsic meanness, but fear. People are afraid that if they give, others will exploit this and ‘take advantage’ (more economic thinking).

And it’s true, this can happen and it’s rife in many workplace settings. The people at the bottom often make the most value for a company and only to gain least.

And in personal relationships there are people who will see giving as a weakness that they are more than happy to use and abuse.

But despite this, generosity isn’t something that runs out. Generosity is something that multiplies with use, not diminishes.

Learn to tune in and make choices

Photo by Umesh Gopinath on Unsplash

We may make poor decisions sometimes about another person and feel used as a result, but often we have a gut instinct about others. That’s something we can attune our antenna to. As soon as you meet someone you are tuning into to not-verbal clues, so make it conscious too.

  • How comfortable is this person in her own skin?
  • Is this person coming with an agenda?
  • How open and authentic does this person seem?

We will make mistakes, of course, and in both directions. Wrongly judging someone who could have been a good friend is a loss. And setting up a commitment to someone who wants to take from use till we’re drained can mean we have a lot of untangling to do. The mistakes won’t end up being transformational relationships, but we have to take risks to learn and grow.

Like yourself

Photo by Myles Tan on Unsplash

We can all improve and stagnating as a person is a terrible way to go. But as much as we need to make decisions about who we have relationships with, we also need to reflect on ourselves. It might be a life’s work to let go of fear, to accept yourself, even recogising you can still change and grow, but it’s needful.

To have transformational relationships you have to have a certain level of comfort with yourself. You have to not think of yourself in economic terms as a bad deal and unworthy. In the words of Wayne Dyer:

You are complete right now, you are a whole, total person, not an apprentice person on the way to someplace else. Your completeness must be understood by you.

Switch to listening and being

Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

I have often regretted my speech, never my silence

Publilius Syrus

Too often we’re so eager to give our opinions, to hear the sound of our own voices, but it’s harder to listen. Giving recogniton, being with someone attentively is a gift in relationships.

Prioritise collaboration

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Two givers together are powerful and have positive effects beyond the immediate relationship. In transactional relationships, on the other hand, mistrust and the will to be the winner can sabotage collaboration. This piece of wisdom from philosopher David Hume says it well:

Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ’Tis profitable for us both, that I should labour with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labour with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed, and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.

When we are collaborating with someone who isn’t trying to hustle, compete with or manipulate us, the process is extraordinary. It stretches us emotionally and intellectually and creatively. To quote Helen Keller:

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

Opt for confidence

Photo by Tessa Rampersad on Unsplash

Transformational relationships rely on giving rather than an agenda of what we want. But for all that, when we tune in and make good choices, the transformation that happens will be a source of healing and happiness for everyone.

When we:

  • decide to act from abundance and generosity, we will also be more open to experiencing depth and joy.
  • approach relationships as givers, without an agenda, we will have many more surprising and delighting encounters.
  • let go of fear, including the fear of being ourselves, we will find more authentic ways to relate to others.
  • give for the joy of it, without thinking about what we will get in return, we will experience trust and become people others want to know.
  • practice generosity in relationships, we will experience more love and meaning and even better health.
  • listen and recognise someone, we will build a lasting bond that makes a difference.
  • collaborate with magnanimity, we will experience surges in our own creativity.
  • commit to transformational relationships, we will be healthier, happier, calmer and have even more to give.

We can’t place values on deep relationships. Transactional relationships don’t endure. They are short-term with an end in mind. Once the value has extracted there is nothing left of them. Transformational relationships, though, are gifts that keep giving — and:

Giving is the secret of abundance.


Becoming a Different Story

I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.




Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @

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Jan Fortune

Jan Fortune

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @

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