Posted on Mar 24, 2020, 1 p.m.
Recently everyone’s world just became a whole lot smaller with social distancing as hundreds of millions of people around the globe are being either asked or ordered to stay home. During this time the healthy among us have been tasked with checking on those who are older, frailer, and those with conditions that put them at increased risk.
Can this sense of obligation to answer the call to go get some eggs for them because they have run out of that and a few other things ultimately harm our relationship with these individuals? Michigan State University designed this study to investigate if feeling obligated to help can harm a relationship. The project yielded varied results which have been posted in the International Journal of Behavioral Development; basically sometimes that sense of obligation to another person can help to strengthen bonds to one person, while in other cases it can drive them apart.
“We were looking to find whether obligation is all good or all bad,” says William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at MSU and co-author of the study, in a release. “When we started, we found that people were responding to types of obligations in different ways. People distinguished between requests that were massive obligations and requests that were simple. There’s this point that obligation crosses over and starts to be harmful for relationships.”
“We found that some obligations were linked with greater depressive symptoms and slower increases in support from friends over time,” comments study co-author Jeewon Oh, MSU doctoral student. “However, other obligations were linked with both greater support and less strain from family and friends initially.”
Some scenarios have the sense of obligation as the glue holding the relationship together while it has the opposite effect in others as well as there being differences between the varying levels of obligation having different responses; this study suggests that there is a tangible line in which obligation crosses over from being beneficial to a hindrance, making one feel burdened rather than being loyal to one another.
“The line in our study is when it crosses over and starts to be either a massive financial burden or something that disrupts your day-to-day life,” Chopik says. “While engaging in substantive obligation can benefit others and make someone feel helpful, it is still costly to a person’s time, energy and money.”
“In a way, major obligations violate the norms of friendships,” Chopik notes. “Interestingly, you don’t see that violation as much in relationships with parents or spouses. Our longest lasting friendships continue because we enjoy them. But if obligations pile up, it might compromise how close we feel to our friends,” Chopik explains. “Because friendships are a relationship of choice, people can distance themselves from friends more easily than other types of relationships when faced with burdensome obligations.”
Typically we keep relationships and engage in them because we enjoy them and have fun spending time with that person. But when a relationship becomes burdened with obligations which can be costly in both time and money that relationship can suffer, especially when the majority of the obligations are falling onto one lap.
“Although we may feel good when we do things for our friends, and our friends are grateful to us, we may start to feel like we are investing too much in that relationship,” Oh says.
“Those light obligations make us feel better, make us happier and make our relationships stronger,” Chopik says. “There’s a sense that ‘we’re both in this together and that we’ve both invested something in the relationship.’”
Casual obligations like responding to text messages are a norm of reciprocity. Typically people don’t view their best friend as an obligation nor liking their social media posts, and that is a sign of a healthy relationship. But you may feel very differently about that relative that you never really got along with, in those relationships even the smallest obligation feels like a serious burden.
Other people may even be feeling differently right now, before this person may not have been keeping tabs on their older parents, friends and relatives, but now they are happily picking up extra groceries for them and checking on them frequently and feeling no burden about it. This person feels that in times like this society needs to come together as a whole and help the older, weaker and those at greater risk among us and don’t see it as a hardship of obligation at all, but also is still eager for things to return back to normal.
Feelings of obligation range all over the board. While push is coming to shove here’s hoping that all of us are able to maintain positive relationships with those we are stuck home bound with as well as those that now require that extra bit of assistance.
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This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement