Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | February 23, 2013


If anything fucks up relationships more than obligation, I don’t know what it is.

We tend to think that relationships are built upon obligation, and a lot of them in fact are, but is that what we want? Do you want someone to tell you, “I love you,” because they feel like they have to? Is that why you say it to your loved ones? What about non-romantic relationships? Should the words, “I trust you,” ever be forced by obligation? Can they ever be true if they are?

Obligation is a remedy and, like with any medicine, we’d rather it wasn’t necessary. Remedies are needed only as long as something needs to be remedied. So, what does obligation remedy?

One way to ferret out the answer is to ask how we feel about obligation. Obligation feels OK when others are obligated to us, but not so much when we are obligated to them.

What feels good about others being obligated to us? The fact that, whether they feel like it or not, they will force themselves to fulfill their obligation, which makes us feel assured, secure. Safe. If they don’t, we can call “Foul!”

What feels bad to us about being obligated to others? The fact that, whether we feel like it or not, we will force ourselves to fulfill our obligation, which makes them feel assured, secure. Safe. If we don’t, they can call “Foul!”

Hmm… Do you see the problem? This is patently hypocritical. And at best it’s second-rate. Safe is as good as obligation can get. Being safe is a far cry from living.

Would we rather be patronized by those we’re obligated to, or loved? Would we rather be idolized by those obligated to us, or loved? And on the giving end, what would we rather? When willing and motivated for another person–like love makes us–obligation doesn’t make us more so. The most it can offer is what we already want to do. And if we’re unwilling and motivated against another person, obligation is a very weak force. It often doesn’t hold.

Obligation presumes the absence of the very thing that makes love preferable: recognition. When we see each other–truly see the wonderful persons that each of us are–we can trust each other. When we can’t see each other, we don’t know if we can trust, so we resort to obligation: laws, contracts, morality, social norms, divine demands, personal dictates; you name it. None of it energizes and motivates us for the love of it. None of it makes us feel like living, but instead like living can’t start until our obligations are out of the way.

Obligation makes a lot of sense to people who care less about the one obligated and more about what they stand to get from her. Obligation actually kills relationships. Just visualize being told, “You have to!” Does it make you want to hug, or run? Communion doesn’t happen against our will; but obligation is relevant only against our will. Genuine intimacy–or trust or goodwill or loyalty or love or anything else that makes life worth living–cannot be compelled. Obligation doesn’t enliven; instead it dampens our spirits, discourages our initiative, and repels our interest in others, gravitating our attention closely around us. It’s hard to love when you are afraid, and it’s hard to avoid fear when your motivation is, “Do it, or else!”

Obligation has one decided advantage. It allows us to keep operating in environments of distrust. The obvious question is: Why would we want to?


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