Social Distancing: How Feeling Obligated To Help Family, Friends Can Harm Relationships


In some scenarios, a sense of obligation is the “glue that holds relationships together,” but for other people it has the opposite effect.


EAST LANSING, Mich. — Everyone’s world has suddenly become a whole lot smaller. As literally hundreds of millions of people all over the world are being asked to stay indoors and practice social distancing, the young and healthy among us have been tasked with checking in on their older or frailer neighbors, friends, and family members. But, does this sense of obligation to call up our grandmothers or pick up some eggs for our neighbor ultimately harm or help our relationships with these individuals?

That’s the question a new study conducted at Michigan State University set out to answer. By the end of the project, though, researchers say their results varied greatly. In short, sometimes a sense of obligation to one another can really build up and strengthen a friendship or relationship, while in other cases it can drive people 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.”

In some scenarios, a sense of obligation is the “glue that holds relationships together,” but for other people it has the opposite effect.

“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.”

According to the study, there’s usually a tangible line in the sand in which obligation crosses over from being a benefit to a hinderance. Instead of feeling loyal to one another, the whole arrangement just starts to feel like a burden.

“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.”

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There are, of course, varying levels of obligation. From “light obligation,” such as just sending an old friend a text to keep in touch, to “substantive obligation,” such as feeling forced to lend a family member 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.”

Generally speaking, friendships are usually relationships we engage in because they are fun, and we enjoy spending time with that person.

“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.”

However, when a friendship starts to become burdened by costly obligations, that relationship often suffers. Especially when most of the obligations are falling on one person’s 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.

Meanwhile, more casual obligations like just texting each other back or liking each other’s photos on social media result in what the research team call a “norm of reciprocity.”

“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.’”

Now, you probably don’t think about calling your best friend as an “obligation,” and that’s a sign of a healthy friendship. That being said, you may feel differently about that monthly check-in call with that parent or sibling you never got along with; in these relationships even the smallest of obligations can feel like a major burden.

Normally, it would probably seem like a hassle to do some extra grocery shopping or check in on mom and dad more often, but the situation we all find ourselves in today is anything but normal. The older and weaker among us are going to need our help through this ordeal, and for lack of a better word, it is very much our obligation. Here’s hoping we can still maintain positive relationships with the people in our lives through this pandemic.

The study is published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development.

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