The Mentally Sexy Staff members are a strange and varied lot with many different talents and areas of expertise. There are writers, philosophers, sex therapists, entrepreneurs, media whores, IT experts and more (you can try to connect the dots). It would be a total waste of resources on my part if I didn’t feature their talents regularly on the website. So almost every week one of the staff members will share their wares in the new segment ‘Stuff The Staff Say’ (cue echo).

First up a ripper article from Damon Young. 


The Transactional Relationship

At a café with my toddler son, I overhead one of the most disturbing phrases: ‘transactional relationship’. “We have a great transactional relationship,” said a young mother, about her husband. “‘Pass the pepper,’ and that sort of thing.”

pepper-shaker1I immediately knew what she meant, and every parent juggling work, kids and occasional sanity does too. It’s rushed showers, snatched half-conversations, frantic cleaning, harried cooking. But most of all it’s about function: two people, reduced to their professional and domestic roles. It’s when marriage looks more like a board meeting than a loving union.

There are good reasons for this. Most obviously, there’s lots to do, and only so much time and energy. It makes sense to specialise: dad does paid work and home repairs, mum does kid-wrangling and household labour, or vice versa. After every chore’s done, there’s little left over for moonlight tete-a-tetes, candlelit deep-and-meaningfuls. We do our jobs.

And because we commit to our roles, it’s easy to grow apart. Whether we’re homemaking or in the office, our daily lives can be strikingly different. Deadlines and photocopier squabbles can be abstract next to rancid nappies and café tantrums. Pegging out loads of washing, or servicing piles of filthy washing-up, can look simple beside budget meetings or high-stakes conference calls. The transactional relationship arises because we’re in separate roles, separate worlds.

Now this isn’t necessarily a moral failure; some mark of marital evil. In ages past, a marriage was precisely this: a contract, designed to increase financial and social capital. Intimacy, of the modern sort, was not necessarily part of the deal. This does not mean there was no familiarity, fondness or mutual desire. Sometimes there was love – later if not sooner. But the chief concern was duty: fulfilling one’s role well. No doubt modern marriages of convenience in Hollywood or politics have the same emphasis: being reliably functional, like a good business partnership. We all do this, to varying degrees – a marriage is work.

But if we want more than a transactional relationship we have to work at this, too. But how?

First, honesty about the danger. My wife and I both fall into functions, and we have to keep talking sincerely about it. We have to recognise when we’re treating one another like tardy employees, not lovers. We don’t want to pretend it’s normal. As we talk, we’re also reminded of what’s easily lost: the precious singularity of another human being, who’s more than his or her role.

Second, willingness to bend. One of the hallmarks of the transactional relationship is narrowness: you cook and clean, I’ll earn the money. We’re all guilty of this: I regularly fail at laundry. But it’s vital to be flexible, as the ‘Most Mentally Sexy Dad’ competition demonstrates. This award celebrates men who cook, clean, change nappies, raise kids, all in the interests of a healthier family. It’s a broader definition of gender.

This has a flipside: a partner willing to share skills and domains. I cook more. My wife washes up more. But we don’t quibble when we swap: we do things differently, but they get done. The crucial thing is that we willingly share the domestic burden, not that we win some petty household turf war. To end the transactional relationship, it’s not enough to change our roles. We have to help our spouses do the same.

Lastly, clarity about the stakes. Behind many fraying unions is overwork and time-poverty, often driven by debt or overconsumption. The mortgage, car-loan, private school or brand-name clothes – they can exact more than a financial price. The mortgage, in particular, can be a weighty millstone. Faced with difficult financial, professional and education choices, it’s crucial that couples ask the basic question: Is this all worth it? Sometimes the best remedy for a transactional relationship is a simpler, slower, cheaper life. It might mean less money, but more freedom and intimacy.

My point is not to demonise normal marriages, or to canonise our own. And I’m not seeking bohemian idleness – work’s a good and necessary thing. The point is this: adult life requires sacrifice – we just have to be careful about what’s forgotten, lost or given up.

So pass me the pepper, my dear, and I’ll bake you a frittata with it.

*First published in The Canberra Times

Dr. Damon Young is a philosopher and the author of Distraction. Visit his website here.