Nav: Home

'Feeling obligated' can impact relationships during social distancing

March 19, 2020

EAST LANSING, Mich. - 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."

"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.
-end-
(Note for media: Please include a link to the original paper in online coverage: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0165025420911089)

Michigan State University

Related Relationships Articles:

'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.
We can make predictions about relationships - but is this necessary?
'Predictions as to the longevity of a relationship are definitely possible,' says Dr Christine Finn from the University of Jena.
Disruptions of salesperson-customer relationships. Is that always bad?
Implications from sales relationship disruptions are intricate and can be revitalizing.
Do open relationships really work?
Open relationships typically describe couples in which the partners have agreed on sexual activity with someone other than their primary romantic partner, while maintaining the couple bond.
The 7 types of sugar daddy relationships
University of Colorado Denver researcher looks inside 48 sugar daddy relationships to better understand the different types of dynamics, break down the typical stereotype(s) and better understand how these relationships work in the United States.
Positive relationships boost self-esteem, and vice versa
Does having close friends boost your self-esteem, or does having high self-esteem influence the quality of your friendships?
Strong family relationships may help with asthma outcomes for children
Positive family relationships might help youth to maintain good asthma management behaviors even in the face of difficult neighborhood conditions, according to a new Northwestern University study.
In romantic relationships, people do indeed have a 'type'
Researchers at the University of Toronto show that people do indeed have a 'type' when it comes to dating, and that despite best intentions to date outside that type -- for example, after a bad relationship -- some will gravitate to similar partners.
Advancing dementia and its effect on care home relationships
New research published today in the journal Dementia by researchers from the University of Chichester focuses on the effects of behavioral change due to dementia in a residential care home setting.
Passion trumps love for sex in relationships
When women distinguish between sex and the relational and emotional aspects of a relationship, this determines how often couples in long-term relationships have sex.
More Relationships News and Relationships Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Processing The Pandemic
Between the pandemic and America's reckoning with racism and police brutality, many of us are anxious, angry, and depressed. This hour, TED Fellow and writer Laurel Braitman helps us process it all.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#568 Poker Face Psychology
Anyone who's seen pop culture depictions of poker might think statistics and math is the only way to get ahead. But no, there's psychology too. Author Maria Konnikova took her Ph.D. in psychology to the poker table, and turned out to be good. So good, she went pro in poker, and learned all about her own biases on the way. We're talking about her new book "The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Invisible Allies
As scientists have been scrambling to find new and better ways to treat covid-19, they've come across some unexpected allies. Invisible and primordial, these protectors have been with us all along. And they just might help us to better weather this viral storm. To kick things off, we travel through time from a homeless shelter to a military hospital, pondering the pandemic-fighting power of the sun. And then, we dive deep into the periodic table to look at how a simple element might actually be a microbe's biggest foe. This episode was reported by Simon Adler and Molly Webster, and produced by Annie McEwen and Pat Walters. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.