Relationship Transactions

An older but incredibly helpful theory in field of understanding human relationships is called Transactional Analysis, first developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1950’s.


Here is the basic gist of it.  Each person operates, communicates, and behaves out of three different parts of themselves: a parent self, an adult self, and a child self.  So sometimes when we talk to another person we talk in a parent, authoritative voice.  In other situations when we talk to someone we talk in a collegial, adult voice.  In yet some circumstances we talk to others in a submissive or even playful child voice.

What complicates things…or, rather, makes things more interesting…is that the person to whom you are speaking is ALSO operating, communicating, and behaving back towards you out of either a parent self, an adult self, and a child self.

And, then sometimes we can, based on past experiences, expect, anticipate, or assume that others will operate, communicate, and behave towards us out of a certain “self”.  Perhaps, this previous “transaction” has not been very pleasant and you learned to respond out of a certain “self” as a defense mechanism.

Let’s use some common, real life examples to understand how these relational transactions take place.

A husband and wife use all three of these “selves” when communicating and all three can be healthy.  When husband is sick (or vice versa) you can imagine husband taking on a “child self” as the poor sick little boy.  J  The wife might operate, communicate, and behave towards him as the “parent self” as she helps him recover.  As long as this relational transaction does not take place all the time there is nothing wrong with it.  However, while doing something like their taxes together it is more appropriate if they talk “adult self” to “adult self”.  If in a situation like this example if one spouse tends to take on the “parent self” and talk “down” to the “child self’ of the other it is probable not a healthy situation in the long run.

Or, perhaps a woman never felt acceptance from her mother so, in an effort to constantly try to regain the parenting she lost through that relationship, even into adulthood the woman might take on the submissive “child self” when talking to other women.  She doesn’t realize that taking on this submissive role puts her at risk of manipulation in some situations and makes women uncomfortable in others.

In some relationships this is how co-dependency takes place.  As one person in the relationship, the addict, constantly gets themselves into a situation when they are the child who needs caring and “picked up” the other person in the relationship constantly takes on the parent role that is sometimes the supportive, sweet mommy figure, but can turn into the nagging mom as the “parent self”, too.

A person might struggle to maintain friendships or for them to remain incredibly surface, but the person might not realize that he or she is constantly talking to others as the authoritative “parent self” and not everyone enjoys that type of transaction on a regular basis.  Often people adopt this “parent self” because the only way they feel secure in relationships is if they feel “higher” than the other person…compensating for actually a deep feeling of being “lower”…deep insecurity.


The classic reads in Transactional Analysis are Eric Berne’s 1964 book Games People Play and Thomas Harris’ book I’m Ok, You’re Ok.  Both are still very popular and in print.

What can be helpful about TA is to think about your own transactions and be aware of them as you go throughout your day.  How do you talk to others?  Do you operate, communicate, or behave out of “parent self’ in response to certain individuals?  To certain types of individuals?  Or, do you take on the “child self’ when relating to some people?

Without condemnation or judgment, I encourage you just to be curious about your relational transactions and the “selves” you take on.  This curiosity could lead to awareness that might spark some powerful life changing insight….and produce some life changing results in relationships throughout your life.