Obligation can hamper relationships during social distancing
Does a sense of obligation -- from checking on parents to running an errand for an elderly neighbour - benefit or harm a relationship especially at a time where social distancing is in place and people are relying on their immediate social circles more than usual?
According to researchers from Michigan State University, obligation is sometimes the "glue that holds relationships together," but it often carries negative connotations.
"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.
"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," Chopik mentioned.
The 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.
"We found that some obligations were linked with greater depressive symptoms and slower increases in support from friends over time,: said Jeewon Oh, MSU doctoral student and co-author of the study.
However, other obligations were linked with both greater support and less strain from family and friends initially.
"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," the authors noted.
Until now, similar research showed inconsistencies in how obligation impacts relationships.
This 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".
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 noted in a paper appeared in International Journal of Behavioral Development.
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 added.
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.