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"Feeling obligated" can impact relationships during social distancing

March 29, 2020

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"Feeling obligated" can impact relationships during social distancing

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 new study found the sweet spot between keeping people together and dooming a relationship.

What the researchers say: “We were looking to find whether obligation is all good or all bad,” said the lead 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 the 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,” he said. “However, other obligations were linked with both greater support and less strain from family and friends initially.”

Their 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,” the researchers 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 they attribute 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,” the researchers added. “Interestingly, you don’t see that violation as much in relationships with parents or spouses.”

The lead author 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,” he 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.”

“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,” he said.

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

“Those light obligations make us feel better, make us happier and make our relationships stronger,” he added. “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.” 

So, what?Any relationship is built on two foundations: needs and boundaries. We have relationships—with friends, with co-workers, with supervisors or with family—to get our needs met and, in turn, we meet the needs of the other party or parties to the relationship.

However, most of us are unsure of our boundaries. We are unwilling or unable to say “no” when another person’s needs are too great or inappropriate to the relationship.

Sometimes we are reluctant to express what we need of others—we expect them to guess and then we become disillusioned when they get it wrong. Often, we express our needs in terms that are too general to be actioned: “I need you to respect my wishes,” is an example, so is “I need you to love me.” ‘Respect’ and ‘love’ don’t imply specific actions. They’re emotions which can only be recognized by specific actions or in actions.

Ask yourself what would someone do if they ‘loved’you or ‘respected’ your wishes. Then ask for those actions.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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