Many of us haven’t seen our friends or family outside of Zoom in weeks, if not months. Social distancing is hard, and only getting harder.
And yet, relationships find a way. We still feel obligated to check in on our parents, join virtual work happy hours, and bring groceries to elderly neighbors. Does this sense of obligation bring us closer together, or fuel resentment that drives us apart?
The short answer: it’s complicated.
Psychology researchers at Michigan State University found that not all obligations are created equal. They analyzed the results of an 18-year-long study of middle-aged adults and their relationships, and observed that while some obligation strengthens bonds, too much obligation breaks them.
Light obligation, like sharing a virtual glass of wine with an old college friend, was correlated with improvements in well-being across the board. But when favors become disruptive or financially burdensome, the trend flips: substantive obligation was linked to more depressive symptoms and increased strain on friendships over time.
This study was one of the first to investigate how obligation impacts relationships in middle-aged adults, a largely underlooked demographic in the field. Amidst this pandemic, many middle-aged adults find themselves caught in an impossible relationship juggling act. Working from home while taking care of children, connecting with romantic partners while checking in on elderly parents — obligation may be the glue holding us together, whether we like it or not.