No one likes to feel obligated. It is like the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. You want to get rid of it but you do not always know how. To make matters worse we do not always know when we are obligated. Some situations are obvious, but many, maybe even most, are less so. Sometimes we feel like we are obligated to not make others feel obligated. Boy do things get sticky then. So many of our interpersonal relationships deal with a certain amount of obligation, and as mentioned so much of it is hard to recognize and reconcile, that we avoid how that makes us feel.
As I said, certain obligations are easy to figure out. You agree to work for you employer for a certain amount of pay. He is therefore obligated to pay you for you efforts and you are obligated to put in that effort. That is pretty cut and dried. If you do harm, accidentally or otherwise, you are obligated to put an honest attempt to make things right. So far so good, easy-peasy, right?
It gets less easy when we get to “unspoken” obligations. We feel obligated to care for our children and parents, and there is truth in that, though what constitutes care, and at what point your obligations to yourself have to be considered is stickier. I would actually say this is a great example of the difference between duty and obligation. We have duty to our parents and our children, and that duty is fulfilled by meeting certain obligations. If we had a date night planned but our children have the flu, we have an obligation to stay home and take care of them. If we are on the phone with a friend we have not heard from in years, we are less obligated to drop that to play with our kid.
Then there are assumptions of obligation. These assumptions can be made on both sides, and are rarely consistent from relationship to relationship and even within those relationships. You are invited to a friend’s house for dinner. They feed and entertain you. Do they feel you are obligated to help with the dishes? Do you feel obligated to do the dishes? Maybe offering to help may make the feel like they have failed in their obligations as a host. Maybe neither side has any feelings on the issue. Maybe the one to whom a “debt is owed feels put out, maybe they are insulted by the notion that they would be. There are so many variables and they shift. Maybe today I feel OK doing a portion of my coworkers tasks no questions asked, tomorrow, I may feel different. We are chaotic and strange creatures that way.
I would say the wisest course of action is to just go with the flow, not just others, but our own. Never assume someone should feel obligated. Be honest with yourself before offering something about whether or not you expect some sort of exchange, equal or otherwise. If you do something for someone, and never mention they can get you back, then you should not expect it. Likewise, if someone does something for you, understand that they may not be being honest with themselves about it, much less you, and by all means, be put out about it, but do not let it fester. Obligation is a part of life, but it should not define your life. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. You owe it to yourself.