Giving What’s Needed: Communal vs. Exchange Relationships

Giving What’s Needed: Communal vs. Exchange Relationships

November 4, 2021

I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about unhealthy relationship patterns. Today I figured that I’d write about two relationship patterns that are actually pretty healthy. The exchange relationship and the communal relationship. Of course, like anything, these patterns can become unhealthy if taken to an extreme. But, by and large, relating in these ways create healthy boundaries, expectations, and intimacy.

The exchange relationship is usually how we start when we meet a new person. We give them things, or ask for things expecting a return. We can exchange time, resources, empathy, and emotional experiences. This is how business transactions work and how we deal with acquaintances and networking allies. Being in an exchange relationship doesn’t mean keeping a strict tab or ledger but it does mean feeling as though both parties are engaging at an equal level. The idea is that the relationship is mutually beneficial and no one feels cheated or taken advantage of.

The exchange relationship often gets a bad rap. It’s sometimes viewed as shallow or hollow. Here I present the contrary: I think that the exchange relationship is critical for developing trust and intimacy. Before we dive into a more committed and vulnerable place we need to see if we are compatible with the other person. A great way to do this is to see if the two of you can provide for each other’s needs. Trust is built overtime and through mutually beneficial experience.

Furthermore, many relationships can benefit from having roles and boundaries such as a teacher-student relationship. A teacher can actually help much more if she is able to hold her boundaries with her students. An important lesson is that one person cannot be everything for you. They can’t meet all of your needs. So it is of paramount importance to build a wide array of exchange relationships to ensure that your needs are met without overtaxing your partners or becoming enmeshed or codependent with them.

The communal relationship typically forms after a bond has been built with another person after a successful exchange relationship. The communal relationship is founded on love and compassion. Essentially, it is an agreed upon relationship in which each member takes care of the other to the capacity of their ability. That means that we give what we can not expecting anything in return. The implied understanding is that if we need help from the other person they too will give what they can.

The communal relationship is most evident in healthy family structures. The parents understand that they have more capacity than their children and thus provide them with much more nourishment and care. Nothing is expected in return. The well being of each member directly translates to the well being of the community. This is important to remember. By giving of yourself to someone who loves and appreciate you you strengthen the bond between you too. In this way, the act of giving and of receiving are the same thing. 

Dysfunction can occur if you misjudge the type of relationship that is required. Many people, especially those new in relationships, jump too quickly to the communal style. When they are wrapped up in the fantasy of new love they assume that they will be spending the rest of their lives together. They then give way too much of themselves, again, this can quickly lead to codependency. Conversely, people who have difficulty trusting others can keep loved ones in the exchange relationship which ultimately blocks out intimacy. At some point, the roles need to break down.

How can you apply these two types of relationships to your life?
Do you tend to prefer one over the other?

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