‘Feeling obligated’ can impact relationships during social distancing

Summary: Many of us feel obligated to perform acts for loved ones, such as calling more frequently or running an errand for an elderly friend, during this time of social distancing. Researchers report low-level obligations and acts of kindness can help strengthen relationships, while more substantive obligations can put a strain on relationships.

Source: Michigan State University

In a time where many are practicing “social distancing” from the outside world, people are relying on their immediate social circles more than usual. Does a sense of obligation – from checking on parents to running an errand for an elderly neighbor – benefit or harm a relationship? A Michigan State University study found the sweet spot between keeping people together and dooming a relationship.

“We were looking to find whether obligation is all good or all bad,” said William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at MSU and co-author of the study. “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.”

According to Jeewon Oh, MSU doctoral student and co-author of the study, obligation is sometimes the “glue that holds relationships together,” but it often carries negative connotations.

“We found that some obligations were linked with greater depressive symptoms and slower increases in support from friends over time,” Oh said. “However, other obligations were linked with both greater support and less strain from family and friends initially.”

Chopik and Oh’s findings suggest that there’s a distinct point at which obligation pushes individuals to the brink of feeling burdened, which can start to harm their relationships.

“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 said. “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.”

Until now, similar research showed inconsistencies in how obligation impacts relationships, which Chopik attributes to the spectrum of obligation. This spectrum ranges from light obligation, like keeping in touch with a friend, to substantive obligation, like lending that friend a considerable amount of money.

“In a way, major obligations violate the norms of friendships,” Chopik said. “Interestingly, you don’t see that violation as much in relationships with parents or spouses.”

Chopik explained that friendships are viewed as low-investment, fun relationships that make people feel good.

“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 said. “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.”

Additionally, substantive obligations may create strain in a friendship as we try to encourage our friends to do the same even when they might not be able to do so, Oh said.

“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 said.

On the other end of the spectrum, light obligation creates what Chopik calls a “norm of reciprocity.”

This shows two people looking at each other from a distance
According to Jeewon Oh, MSU doctoral student and co-author of the study, obligation is sometimes the “glue that holds relationships together,” but it often carries negative connotations. The image is in the public domain.

“Those light obligations make us feel better, make us happier and make our relationships stronger,” Chopik said. “There’s a sense that ‘we’re both in this together and that we’ve both invested something in the relationship.'”

That’s why, among the best relationships, low-level acts of obligation don’t feel like obligations at all. Small acts of kindness, which strengthen the bonds of our relationships, are done without any fuss or burden.

Still, some types of relationships can make even minor obligations seem daunting. If someone doesn’t have a great relationship with a parent, a quick phone call to check in isn’t enjoyable, it’s an encumbrance.

“Even for things we would expect family members to do, some in the study did them begrudgingly,” Chopik said.

Chopik and Oh’s findings reveal a spectrum of obligations as diverse as the relationships one has in life.

“It’s the little things you do that can really enhance a friendship, but asking too much of a friend can damage your relationship,” Chopik said.

About this social distancing research article

Michigan State University
Media Contacts:
Caroline Brooks – Michigan State University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“The effects of obligation on relationships and well-being over time in middle adulthood”.
Jeewon Oh, William J. Chopik, Amy K. Nuttall.
International Journal of Behavioral Development doi:10.1177/0165025420911089.


The effects of obligation on relationships and well-being over time in middle adulthood

Previous research has offered mixed evidence on whether obligation in relationships benefits or harms individuals and their relationships. Given that few studies are prospective and consider multiple close relationships, we used 18-year longitudinal data to model whether obligation is associated with differences in relational and individual well-being over time. Because prior mixed findings may be attributed to differential influences of obligation across development, we also considered age. Light obligation predicted higher levels of relational and individual well-being; substantive obligation sometimes predicted lower levels of well-being. Both types of obligation mostly did not predict changes in relationships and well-being over time except substantive obligation predicted slower increases in friend support. The associations between light and substantive obligation were largely uniform across age. The only exception was for substantive obligation and friend support; substantive obligation was associated with a slower increase in friend support only for younger adults (<39 years old). This study extends previous research by examining obligation among middle-aged adults, addressing a critical developmental gap in this literature. Findings suggest that understanding people’s obligations toward close others is important not only for their own well-being but also their relationships in adulthood.

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