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This simple theory helps couples navigate conflict in their relationship, communicate more clearly and feel more understood.
Here, we’ll explain Transactional Analysis, outline how we tend to communicate in 1 of 3 modes, known as Human Transactions, and how we can apply this knowledge to improve your relationship.
I see this theory put to great use in my couples sessions so I know how quickly it can help to change patterns of behaviour, particularly when couples find themselves repeating the same cycle of arguments over and over again.
So let’s dive into a deeper understanding and how we can apply this to help.
What Is Transactional Analysis?
Transactional Analysis (TA) is a psychological theory developed by Eric Berne that’s been around since the 1950s. It offers a framework for understanding human interactions and improving communication within relationships.
TA focuses on analysing the transactions or exchanges between people, the different ego-states that influence our behaviour, and how these interactions impact the relationship overall.
It suggests that we adopt 1 of 3 roles when communicating with our partners, either the Parent, the Adult or the Child.
When we’re in the Parent ego-state, we are displaying the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that we learned from our parents. This has two aspects: the Nurturing Parent and the Critical Parent.
The Nurturing Parent reflects the positive and caring aspects and these are usually displayed as empathy, compassion and support. When someone interacts with their Nurturing Parent, they are likely to offer comfort, advice or encouragement.
On the other hand, there is a Critical Parent at play. This can be judgemental, controlling and disapproving. When someone interacts with their Critical Parent, they will most likely come across with a sharp tone, that sounds like it’s criticising or blaming other people.
The Adult ego-state is all about rational thinking, logical analysis and objective decision-making. This is where you process information without emotional biases or past experiences. You’re open-minded and looking for the facts and truth within a conversation or situation.
The Child ego-state is focused on emotions, behaviours, and attitudes that you developed during your childhood. This also has two aspects: the Natural Child and the Adapted Child.
The Natural Child is spontaneous, curious and creative. It’s the instinctive emotions and desires to do what feels right in the moment. This might be led by what looks most fun and exciting, and can sometimes come across as immature.
The Adapted Child, on the other hand, reflects the rules and behaviours imposed on you from your childhood, mainly from your parents. If you’re in this mode you are motivated to conform and meet the expectations once placed on you. This is more about compliance, obedience, or in some cases rebellion.
How does knowing this help?
Types of Human Transactions
Transactional analysis refers to how we interact in these different roles and how these ‘transactions’ can be classified as either complementary, ulterior or crossed.
Complementary transactions are when the ego-states of both people align with each other. For example, if you start a conversation from your Adult ego-state when arranging plans with your partner for the weekend ahead, and your partner responds from their Adult ego-state so you can discuss openly. This is where a complementary transaction takes place because it typically leads to smooth and effective communication.
Ulterior transactions involve hidden or underlying messages. While the words spoken may seem straightforward, there is an implicit meaning or intention behind them. For instance, if you ask your partner if you can help with the cooking, but this is actually because you want to take control of the situation, an ulterior transaction is occurring. Recognising and addressing these hidden messages can improve understanding and prevent miscommunication.
Crossed transactions happen when the ego-states do not align. For example, you ask your partner what’s for dinner from your Adult ego-state as you are genuinely curious what we have in the fridge. However, your partner responds from their Critical Parent ego-state, making a snappy remark in disapproval of the fact that you assumed they are cooking something for you. This type of transaction often leads to misunderstandings and conflicts.
More about transactional analysis can be found HERE.
Using Transactional Analysis in Your Relationship
Applying this type of understanding of transactional analysis can really positively impact your relationship. By recognising the different ego-states, you become more self-aware and make conscious choices about how you communicate and interact with your partner.
Transactional analysis helps you identify patterns of behaviour and situations that may be holding your relationship back. For example, recognising when one of you is consistently responding from their Critical Parent ego-state can allow you to explore alternative ways of expressing your concerns or frustrations. Similarly, being aware of your Natural Child ego-state can help couples embrace spontaneity and bring joy back in their relationship, as long as the other person is also in their Natural Child at the same time, so it’s a complementary transaction.
If you’re practising entering those important conversations in the Adult ego-state, you are way more likely to have constructive dialogue, focusing on the facts and truth of the situation rather than feeling overwhelmed by emotional reactions. Adult conversations promote understanding, stronger team work and the problem-solving abilities of your relationship.
Transactional analysis also encourages you to recognise ulterior transactions and the meaning behind some of the underlying messages, not just the spoken word.
ERIC BERNE’s RESEARCH CONCLUDED THAT…
10% of meaning is in the spoken word
30% of meaning is in the pitch, inflection and volume
60% of meaning is displayed through facial expression
So, sometimes it’s an understanding of those crossed transactions that helps couples navigate conflicts and disagreements more effectively. By recognising when conversations have gone off track, you can pause, re-evaluate your ego-state, and adjust your communication style to restore alignment and understanding.
Overall, it’s a really valuable framework for understanding how you’re interacting with your partner and how you can improve your relationship.
It’s really about developing self-awareness and building healthier and a more fulfilling relationship together, so you are leading with greater empathy, focusing on problem-solving rather than conflict, and improving your overall happiness.
Would you like to explore relationship coaching to help improve your relationship? Maybe you are still on the fence as to whether it is right for you? If so ask yourself these 4 questions before seeking out help.