The Economics of Love

While most of expect a certain amount of give or take in a relationship, it can become a commercial transaction if we are not careful. So what do we do if an emotional trade-off becomes our usual currency. Words by Cynthia Hickman, Psychologist.

When we treat relationships like a commercial transaction it affects our ‘bottom line’ – love . . .

“I am sick of being the one who gives all the time. I’m totally over it.” Angie had been in a long-term relationship and was angry about what she felt was an imbalance of give and take with her partner. Her resentment was fuelling a withdrawal of favours on her part. “If he doesn’t start paying me some attention then that’s it!”

Like Angie many of us unwittingly treat our friends and lovers as trading partners. Our relationships involve a form of commerce where an exchange goes on: I give this to you (care, understanding, support) and in return you will give that to me (loyalty, respect, reliability).

The trouble with bringing economics into relationships is that it leaves no room for love. Love is not a transaction and if love is used as currency then it is not love.

Trade Terms

The psychologist David Schnarch says specifically that “the character of happy stable marriages is not quid pro quo; this characterises the most rigid, unstable, unhappy ones.” While treating your companion as a trading partner can generate comfort and stability it does so at a cost to the vitality of the relationship and the maturity of the two people involved.

“Intimacy is often misunderstood as necessarily involving acceptance, validation and reciprocality from one’s partner”, says Schnarch when actually “intimacy seems to develop through conflict, self validation and unilateral disclosure”. A healthy relationship is therefore not a refuge. It will generate discomfort because it is an “incubator for growth”.

Schnarch says we have a “natural tendency to reduce our anxiety through emotional connection”. What this means is that if we have a particular area of emotional weakness we will unconsciously try to get it bolstered through interaction with our partner. So for example if we doubt our self worth we will use our partner’s positive regard to shore ourselves up instead of developing our own confidence.

We all have our insecurities and doubts but if we depend on our partner for assurance instead of developing our own then we diminish our own growth. You end up with two small people instead of two grown-ups.

Why we choose the relationships we do

As children most of us didn’t get ‘met’ by our parents. What this means is that they didn’t see us as we truly are. Instead they had expectations and unconscious needs that we felt we had to meet in order to receive their positive attention. Not that our parents are to blame since they got treated the same way by their parents.

During childhood we get rewarded for doing what our parents want. So we are subtly taught that we will get recognition and acceptance from what we do, not from our own unique being-ness. At an unconscious level this leaves us lonely and empty inside. We lack self-love and need someone else to tell us we are loveable.

As Schnarch says, we are driven by something that makes it look like we want intimacy when the truth is that what we really want is “someone else to make us feel acceptable and worthwhile”. We use people to do what we can’t do for ourselves – soothe the anxiety about our own worth. So we choose people to fill our needs and get what we are lacking inside.

Having learned that there are certain sorts of exchanges that will lead to us feeling loved we come to treat our own selves conditionally: “If I act in a particular way then I will get love”. Then we treat other people the same way: “If they behave as I want then I will love them”.

Types of relationship transactions

There are some common transactions that go on in close relationships. The deal is that one person will give or do something for their partner with the unconscious hope that they will receive what they need in return.

Giving help and care – receiving attention and worth

Sandra* was a competent young woman who had been in a relationship for two years. She was working in human resources but was finding herself suffering from chronic exhaustion. We quickly discovered that her exhaustion had nothing to do with her work but everything to do with her relationship.

Sandra’s partner was not doing so well in his work and he needed constant support and encouragement to keep going. Sandra gave endless emotional, financial and physical support not realizing that she was ignoring her own needs and therefore exhausting herself in the process.

Having grown up being a support for her own parents, Sandra had gained her sense of self worth from such behaviour. It defined her and made her feel good about who she was. Her partner understandably valued her contribution and thus encouraged the unhealthy pattern of relating. But none of this moved him closer to managing his own vocational situation.

You are doing an unfair trade if your currency is ‘caring’ and you trade this in return for people’s value for what you do. Caring for others just covers your own lack of self-care. It cheats you of your true value because the focus is on your external actions not on who you are. The cost is you never attend to or get to know the value of your own inner self and the other person never has to develop their particular inner strength.

Doing things for others – being treated well

Having come from an abusive background Simone was used to being treated badly by others. But over the years Simone had found out that if you treated people well, anticipated their needs and did everything they wanted then people might like you and treat you well in return.

Over the years however Simone had suffered from an extreme case of eczema. During therapy she uncovered the emotional component of this ailment – it was a simmering anger and resentment about never having received from others.

We shouldn’t have to do things in order to be treated well by others. Simone needed to address the poor sense of self worth that drove her to behave with such self-abnegation. Then she would feel the right to be respected and appreciated without having to martyr herself for it.

Giving over power – receiving security and stability

I have spoken with many people in relationships who stay because of the security it brings to their life. Mandy was a young mother of two who had done this and tolerated the control her partner had over her time and finances. Hers was not a good relationship but she couldn’t leave because she was too scared to go out into life on her own.

Mandy had never developed her own sense of self so she was afraid to be independent. She chose her partner because he brought financial stability to her life but the cost was that she was left dependent on him. It was only after some personal growth that she found the courage to leave the relationship and begin her own life including studying for a career that she had always dreamed of but never believed she could enter.

Giving sexual relief – receiving affection

Sex shouldn’t be an exchange either. Too often it’s a case of: “If you give me affection then in return I’ll give you relief”. You end up using your own body in order to receive the emotion you want. The body will only stand this for so long. Eventually you will find your libido disappearing. Its like your sexuality says, “If you are not going to treat me well then I am not going to hang around”.

To invite your sexuality back you will need to become ‘intimate’ with yourself by developing your own capacity for self-care and nurturing. Then you can stand up for a sexuality that is about honest exploration not a subtle economics.

The dependence – support see saw

Lily was a research assistant who was very much in love with her partner of three years. When I spoke with her about being self-validating in a relationship she was quite put out: “But isn’t a relationship about supporting your partner? What’s wrong with being able to lean on them when you need to?”

Lily and her partner James went through stages where one would be feeling needy and would elicit support from the other. Then the other would go through an insecure phase and the other partner would take their turn at being the strong one. Neither had to develop their own resilience and maturity. The dynamic was more like parent – child where they took turns at taking on each role.

Over time Lily began to observe this dependency seesaw for herself. And she began to be repulsed by James’ childlike behaviour and disliked feeling like a parent to him. She also disliked the inhibiting effect this dynamic was having on their sex life. Lily was also able to own up to her own childish behaviour at times.

Like Lily many of us assume that intimacy hinges on our partner’s support and encouragement. Instead of validating ourself we expect to receive it from our partner. We give to each other and then it is unspoken but nevertheless an expectation that we will receive back. If we don’t then it generates anger and resentment. “I’m going to stop being nice because I’m sick of getting nothing back,” is the common refrain as was the case with Angie at the beginning of this article.


Co-dependence is one word used to describe the situation where you depend on someone else in order to feel OK in yourself. Melody Beattie in her book ‘Co-dependent No More’ says that we end up wanting to protect, help, and care-take people.

Someone who is co-dependent reacts to others instead of focusing on their own ability to act. They end up knowing the other person’s feelings not their own. The truth however is that the answer lies not in the other person but in ourselves.

Lily struggled with the concept of co-dependence. She felt her identity depended on her being a caring person. “I care about James. I don’t know who I would be without this. Why would I be cold-hearted, especially to someone I love?”

We so easily equate being differentiated and self-supporting with being cold- hearted. It says how ingrained are our co-dependent patterns of relating. We don’t have any other map.

Having healthy boundaries in a relationship doesn’t equal being cold or unconcerned about your partner. But it does mean that we don’t take responsibility for someone else or solve problems that aren’t ours. We let our partner be free and responsible for themselves while simultaneously taking responsibility for our own life. It allows space within the relationship, there’s room to breath.

10 Signs of co-dependency

  • You feel anxious/sad/guilty when others have a problem
  • You feel compelled to help people with their problems
  • You anticipate others’ needs
  • You find yourself saying “yes” when you really mean “no”
  • You abandon your own plans to respond to someone else
  • You find it easier to give than receive
  • You feel unappreciated/used/a martyr
  • You tolerate bad behaviour from others
  • You take things personally
  • You fear rejection

From Codependent No More by Melody Beattie

Co-dependence in the Bedroom

  • You look after your partner’s sexual needs while ignoring your own
  • You have sex when you don’t want to
  • You have sex when you would prefer to be cuddled and nurtured
  • You don’t ask for what you need in bed
  • You get angry that your sexual needs aren’t met and resent your partner
  • You lose enjoyment of sex
  • You begin to avoid sex

From Codependent No More by Melody Beattie


The antidote to co-dependence is love. But love is not about romance, it is not about support nor is it about validation and acceptance. Love isn’t an emotion you feel, it isn’t something you do, it is something you be. It is you being present to yourself and then from this state being with another.

Recent research backs up the notion of love being about presence. A study reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (Sept 26) found that two people can become physiologically aligned, meaning that their autonomic nervous systems beat in harmony, despite having no physical contact with each other. It indicates that we have the capacity to make contact with people at a deep level without ‘doing’ anything. The researcher Trisha Stratford was quoted as saying “my energy impacts with you just standing there. I am impacting your brain and body just by being here.”

At the centre of our being is stillness, just being-ness. This needs no exchange. It is love. We access this love through our inner heart. This inner heart has nothing to do with romantic emotional notions our culture has about the heart though. The inner heart can only be accessed when we are present to ourselves in stillness.

To have a loving relationship we therefore need to have developed the capacity for stillness within our own being. We take responsibility for our own state instead of expecting someone else to make us feel better.

With love there is just a radiance from you but not towards anyone, just out from you. Presence doesn’t reach out. It just is. No sticky attachments, it is clear and clean. You would live your life with the following thought in mind:

“I am doing this activity because it wants to be done not because the other person needs it from me, not because they will like me if I do it, and not because I will feel guilty if I don’t.”

When you have a relationship from the inner heart you simply meet another and show yourself and share yourself. But not as in giving something of yourself away, simply by joining with another as yourself. You don’t trade something of yourself and then get something equal back from the other person.

Love means celebrating who you already are, what you already have and then sharing that with another. And in turn you share in someone else’s greatness. You already feel whole so you don’t need something from them.

Returning to yourself

In order to love you have to have a relationship with yourself first. You have to become your own mother, carer and appreciator. As Schnarch says, “long term intimacy…hinges on validating yourself rather than trusting your partner to make you feel safe”. There may be a surrender that has to go on, where you say something like this:

“I give up. I give up on living in hope that someone will like me, that someone will behave better or that someone will get that I’m a good person. This all leaves me at the mercy of the world. I give up on this. I’m going to come back to myself.”

To come back to yourself you need time to sit in stillness. Then ask yourself: “What am I feeling? How can I soothe this for myself? What do I need? How can I nurture this myself?”

If your partner is upset you would say something to yourself like: “I realize that he has issues. I remember that these issues are nothing to do with me. They are inside him. I cannot fix them. If they trigger a feeling in me then that is mine to deal with.”

You can be influenced by your partner and take others into account but you don’t have to be reactive to what’s going on outside you. You can understand your partner’s reality without losing your own. You don’t lose yourself to support your partner.

After much inner work Lily came to value her ability to be non-reactive in her relationship. She was on the path to discovering what love was really all about. “There is so much more freedom now. I feel like I am finally growing up.”

Focus: Parenting

With children it is important not to teach them that they have to do something to make mummy or daddy feel OK. Children are sensitive and loving and they will leave their true self and manipulate themselves, twist themselves into knots if necessary so as to give you what you need.

Remember that your state of being is transmitted to your children and they will pick up on this. If you lose your temper they learn that they have to do what you say so as to make you become calm again. Its all about the state you are in and what they can do to make it all OK.

If you are still and calm then your requests are not about them having to make you feel better. They get that you are already OK. Then they get that what is being requested of them is nothing to do with emotions or pacifying you. It is simply what is needed at that time.

Check what state you are in when you give affection to children. Is it: “I need it because I am upset about something”? (they become compulsive nurturers) or “I never got enough so I must give them plenty”? (they sense your panic underneath and become anxious) or “they have to be OK because that makes me feel OK”? (they repress their own feeling life).

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality

Cynthia is a psychologist working in private practise in Melbourne. See her full website at This article was first published in Wellbeing Magazine.

Cynthia Hickman Psychologist

4 thoughts on “The Economics of Love

  1. Oh my Lordy, Now I understand what is really going on in my relationships and how my own lack of self worth is so destructive and drives me away from those I love dearly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love how the ill health in so many relationships is being exposed for the rot it is. I can see so many behaviours that I have allowed for so long, which were keeping me as less and the other person as less too. Unhealthy dynamics are not by chance but something we can address. We don’t need to get our self worth from others if we know how to offer it to ourselves first and foremost.


  3. Awesome supportive article Cynthia! Relationship health is no different to our physical health. Relationships need support and nurturing, beginning with my relationship with myself first.


  4. The paragraph on returning to yourself is the key, gift wrapped and presented in such a clear and loving way. I’ve had a lifetime of not appreciating myself and relying on others to make me feel I’m worth something. It’s not always easy to change, but I can feel that this is the only way forward.


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