• Robb G. Best

Obligation During Social Distancing

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

As Covid-19 forces us indoors, people are more and more relying on their social circles, for favors big and small. William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University and Jeewon Oh, an MSU doctoral student, set out to determine whether these obligations were a net positive or a net negative for relationships. What they found was a little more complicated.

“We were looking to find whether obligation is all good or all bad,” said Chopik. "When we started, we found that people were responding to types of obligations in different ways." Simply put, not all obligations were made equal. People distinguished between big obligations--a huge financial strain, for instance, or a tremendous time sink--and smaller favors, like keeping in touch with a friend who's going through something. Previous research on obligation has proven inconclusive, which Chopik suggests is because these studies didn't differentiate between major and minor favors.

“We found that some obligations were linked with greater depressive symptoms and slower increases in support from friends over time,” said Oh. “However, other obligations were linked with both greater support and less strain from family and friends initially.” Small favors seem to make individuals feel closer to each other, at least until those favors grow to the size of burdens. "There’s this point that obligation crosses over and starts to be harmful for relationships," Chopik said.

On the opposite end of burden, though, Chopik and Oh found that an exchange of small favors and gestures could actually help cement a bond. “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.'" Still, asking too much can cause a person to wonder if they're investing too much time and energy into this individual.

As with so many things, evaluating whether obligations during a pandemic are good or bad for a relationship is nuanced. It's not about asking for anything you want with abandon, or being careful to never ask anything of another person. The key is balance.

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