Are you in a relationship because you feel obligated?

This is a very complex and serious dynamic to be in. I’ll start this topic by giving some examples of real-life couples and then discuss how to start disentangling yourself from such a situation. What exactly is an obligation?


1. an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound
2. a duty or commitment
3. a debt of gratitude for a service or favor

Couple #1
Together for a few years, then have a child together. Together for another 10 years and then they get married. The husband cheated before the marriage and is now cheating within the marriage….wife finds out after 2 years. They go to therapy to see if they can sort out their issues. When the wife finally gets an answer from the husband as to WHY he felt the need to get married if he couldn’t be faithful, his answer was, “You’ve been there for me and have done so much for me- financially, physically through my sickness, etc. I felt like I should give you what I knew you wanted because it’s what you deserve for sticking by me and supporting me through everything – and you’re a good woman.” The wife’s answer: DIVORCE. Surprised? Well, think about it: His answer was not that he loved her, cared about her, not even that he wanted to raise their child together in the same house – he married her because he felt obligated and because she’s a “good” woman! No one wants you to be with them for that reason unless they have issues or have low self esteem! One of the things she said was, “There were many times when he helped ME financially, as a matter of fact, he helped me that way more than I helped him, but I didn’t marry him because I felt I owed him for helping me out!”

Couple #2
Single, successful man with 3 children from previous relationships has a very good, also successful female friend (she has children – 2). She has been there for him through some rough times throughout the years. This female friend eventually ends up falling in-love with her friend – he is attracted to her and thinks she’s very nice, but isn’t sure he would actually get into a long-term situation with her. He was arrested once on a mistaken identity and required a $50K bail to get out of jail. Guess who helped him? His female friend – he actually had the money himself, but no access to it while behind bars. As a matter of fact, she knew he was innocent and only took $40K back to help him with attorney fees. He did get his case dismissed. Eventually, he ended up marrying her. When he was asked why he married her, his answer was, “Well, to be honest, she’s been there, you know? And she’s easy to get along with. She’s a good, smart woman and she’s so kind which is rare -she was getting older, and that’s what she wanted from me, matter of fact, the only thing she EVER said she wanted from me was ME so I figured, hey, I’m 42 and not getting any younger myself, let me go on and give this lady what she wants.” While their friendship lasted for over 10 years, and even a “friends with benefits” situation lasted for a couple more years, they were married in the summer of 2010 and became separated in July of 2011. They reconciled briefly for the holidays and have now decided to get a divorce.

Couple #3
A successful man meets a woman through a colleague and they become friends and eventually start dating. He ends up having Hodgkin’s Disease and has to go through several rounds of chemotherapy, and this woman is really there for him as he is fighting for his life. She drives him everywhere he needs to go, drops his children off at his ex-wife’s house, cooks for him, is a great support system through this rough time. He gets better. She ends up being laid off from her job and gets into a situation where she needs to move as her apartment lease is up. This man, in addition to his little bi-level house, owns a 2 family house and one of his tenants’ lease was about to be up, too. He allows the girlfriend to move in -to him, she needed this help as she lost her job, and because he felt like this was the very least he could do after all she’s done for him, and, after all, it hopefully won’t be for long and it won’t hurt his pocket too much. After some time has passed, he slowly begins to go back to a “normal” life after his traumatic illness, and as this happens, he slowly realizes that he does NOT want to be with his girlfriend in a long-term relationship but SHE makes it known with non-verbal clues that she’s not planning on going anywhere. Also, she is now a part of his life, she knows his daughters, she saw him through the ugliest time of his life – she saw him through a near-death experience. While he does care about her tremendously, he knows he’s just feeling obligated now, and instead of breaking up with her, he stays. After all, she IS a good woman, and where would she move to? He’s happy on the outside, but totally confused and conflicted internally about how to handle this situation.

Couple #4
A woman meets a guy and thinks he’s awesome – they start dating. But somehow, intuitively, she knows that this man is not the man she will end up being with in a forever-type situation. A few people tell her that he’s not her type. Her own mother tells her that she doesn’t think they should be dating. Defiantly, she stays with him- they love each other and she KNOWS she can make this relationship work, even though that very, very soft and subtle internal knowing inside of her heart has a feeling that everyone is right. They stay together for over 10 years – they’ve seen each other through financial issues, health concerns, a death, and all kinds of relationship problems. Yet, in the 10th year, even with the love she felt for him- not an “in-love” type of love, but a deeper, we’ve been through some stuff together kind of love- she recognizes more and more that this relationship is not the one she wants to be in. For the next two years, she thinks about how much they have been through together, how much of her time and youth she invested in the relationship, how much she gave up to be with him, and mostly, about how breaking up with him would prove how wrong she was and how right everyone else was. And, again, all of those years! She felt obligated to the years- and as Nina in the movie “Love Jones” said, “All we have are all these years.” It took two more years of reflecting and soul searching – and to build the strength she needed- for her to leave that relationship, and emotionally, it was the absolute hardest thing she had ever done in her life, because this man, she still loved. But it was better to let him go to find happiness elsewhere – better for her to find happiness elsewhere – she didn’t want to waste another minute of her life or his life in a relationship that wasn’t going to go any further even though he wanted to get married. It’s been 6 years since they have broken up. He is now married with a child, and she’s somewhere in this world enjoying her life and the opportunities she now has because she had the courage to leave. This story is very personal/special because it’s about one of my relationships.

How to get out of a relationship in which you feel morally obligated:

1. Begin to assess the foundation of the obligation- are you REALLY obligated to this person? Morally? Legally?
2. If the person has done something for you – or a few things for you – and now you feel that there is some sort of unspoken debt that you have to pay, does the person feel that you are obligated to them, and if so, what is an acceptable way that you can “pay her/him back”? Perhaps you should discuss this with the person. If they do not feel that you are obligated to them, why do you feel that you owe them anything at all? Is it that YOU have trouble accepting genuine acts of generosity? Really think about this.
3. Assess whether the person helped or is helping you out of their own needs – perhaps to hide from their own personal obligations to themselves.
4. Realize that “faking it” in a relationship not only hurts the other person, it hurts YOU in the long run.
5. Stop trying to prove to everyone that they are wrong about you and your relationship. The only proving you have to do is prove to yourself that you can always find the courage to do what is the absolute best for YOU, in spite of what society, your parents, your friend, your colleagues, and your church says! At the end of the day, being in an obligatory relationship is self-serving because you are trying to meet your own personal needs, which are sometimes guilt and always….F E A R.


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