As people practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, and rely more on their immediate social circles, psychologists reveal that a sense of obligation -- from checking on parents to running an errand for a neighbour -- may both benefit and harm individuals.
The findings, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development, shed light on the sweet spot between keeping people together and dooming a relationship.
"We were looking to find whether the obligation is all good or all bad," said William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University (MSU) in the US, 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," Chopik said.
According to Jeewon Oh, another co-author of the study from MSU, the 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, he said, other obligations were linked with both greater support and less strain from family and friends initially.
According to the study, 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," he added.
Earlier studies, according to the researchers, showed inconsistencies in how obligation impacts relationships.
Chopik attributed these effects to the spectrum of obligation which 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," he added.
The researchers 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," he said.
Substantive obligations, according to Oh, may create strain in friendship as people try to encourage their friends to do the same even when they might not be able to do so.
"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 a "norm of reciprocity," according to Chopik.
"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'," he said.
The scientists believe this to be the reason why among the best relationships, low-level acts of obligation don't feel like obligations at all.
In such cases, they said, 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, the study noted.
The researchers said if a person doesn't have a great relationship with a parent, a quick phone call to check-in isn't enjoyable, but an encumbrance.
"Even for things we would expect family members to do, some in the study did them begrudgingly," Chopik said.
"It's the little things you do that can really enhance a friendship, but asking too much of a friend can damage your relationship," he added.