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One of the things that becomes clear as you examine what you feel obliged to do versus what you are obliged to do in actuality, is that there are some obligations there, whether they were directly stated or have been taught to you.

Every family’s sense of obligation is different. Some families, for instance, feel obliged to spend all of their free time together and others don’t. Some families feel obliged to spend a certain holiday together but not others and it will be for specific reasons. Some families feel obliged to be very close knit whereas others don’t. There may be a sense of obligation around birthdays, events or favours and there is a very easy way to reduce the amount of frustration and resentment – do more things from a place of desire rather than feeling bound to it as if you have no choice.

As humans, we feel obliged to act a certain way. This might be about acting a certain way in the context of certain people or in certain situations or these obligations might even supersede our actual selves.

We generally feel obliged to live up to our agreements. I say generally because as many of us have discovered, not everyone feels obliged to follow through on their commitments or to keep their promises. Some people will see a commitment through even if it’s a bad one that was made without the knowledge that they’ve since gained. Some people see fit to change their mind about agreements if they feel that their personal needs, motivations trump whatever they agreed to – this is similar to when a company makes an agreement but then decides to break the contract even though it’s not a trustworthy act, because they feel as if they have a greater duty to, for instance, their shareholders or because they think that finding a better deal now negates the need to follow through.

We are obliged to stay within the law but again, this is not something that everyone does, clearly.

Family are who most of us on the planet make special concessions for and this is understandable. We feel obliged to do certain things for them that we would not do for someone else. What we’re not obliged to do is to keep fulfilling unhealthy obligations that effectively make us responsible for their feelings and behaviour.

There are so many things at play from emotions, to history, to established roles, that it can be confusing but here’s what you can know for sure:

Each party is obliged to take responsibility. This means each of you taking responsibility for his or herself and also taking responsibility for how you each show up in the relationship.

Like all obligations, real or imagined, we don’t all sing from the same hymn sheet. That’s why so many people are left feeling perplexed and wondering, But if it were me, I’d….  or I just don’t understand how somebody can do that.

We see things in terms of how we see and do things, which gives us clues about our own values but limits our scope with others.

We all obliged to conduct ourselves with care, trust and respect as a basic but hell, a lot of us struggle to do that for ourselves, never mind what we get up to with others.

Coming from a place of care, trust and respect is how we each fulfil our responsibility to be responsible as well as accountable.

Our morals, of which a hell of lot of them come from our family and our experiences in childhood, really tell us about our “don’ts” and “should nots”, hence why there tends to be a negative connotation to our sense of obligation.

The ethics of how we conduct ourselves, which are the set of principles that guide our behaviour, which when it all boils down to it are our values, tell us about who we strive to be and what we live up to.

Our values express our preferences for how we want to live.

They tell us about what feels good and right for us and they are personal to each and every one of us. Our personal values speak for our character and then we have various core and secondary values that tell us about our preferences for our various types of relationship, as well as our position about things like religion, politics, our social and economic values etc.

The easiest way to ensure that we feel good about what we do, obliged or not, is to do it with our values in mind.

Our ethics will mean that we will have a sense of obligation about being kind, fair, keeping our word, being respectful, caring etc and this is undoubtedly a good thing but it is time to get clear on how your sense of obligation is expressing itself because if you’re at this juncture because you’ve been trying to be kind, something has gone off, waaaaay off.

Yes, you are obliged to be a kind and decent human being but that doesn’t obligate you to, for instance, be a doormat or accept subpar treatment from others, especially a family member.

Kindness, compassion, fairness, respect and the list goes on – these are all two-fold, full circle actions and mentalities.

If you are only doing it one way, you’re not doing it, because you’re being unkind, unempathetic, unfair, and disrespectful to you, and there are ways in which to be kind and decent without throwing you under a bus in the process. Likewise, if they’re doing it one-way to themselves, they are not being the things they claim because they don’t seem to be able to do it without obligating you to something that is unboundaried.

You might use your sense of obligation to show your loyalty to your family but if you end up repeatedly feeling disloyal to you and distrusting of you, it’s not that you need to stop engaging with your family but you did need to find other ways to show your affinity with your family.

And I’m going to put it out there – coming out of the birth canal or via c-section does not mean that you are obliged forever and ever more to do as you’re told or do things only in the way your parent or other family members tell you to. You can be grateful for things that your family have done for you in childhood such as helping you to pursue a dream or putting you through private school or whatever it was but that does not oblige you to keep compromising your well-being as a way of doing the thank you dance day in day out.

You can feel a deep sense of respect for someone and still be a loving adult – to you and to them. It does not have to be mutually exclusive.

As a parent, I love and cherish my daughters and the opportunity to guide and nurture them through life as best as I can but I don’t expect them to spend the rest of their days paying me back and I definitely do not want them to ever feel that they have to throw away their identity for ‘family’. I have an obligation to parent them but it’s something I want to do as well.

Doing something because you want to, feels very different to doing something out of fear of negative consequences or because you feel bound to. The more that you authentically say yes to stuff is the more that you can trust your yes and your no, because if you keep doing stuff purely out of obligation while carrying underlying frustration etc, even when you want to do something, it’s tainted by all the times you did something that you really shouldn’t have or that was coupled with feeling bad.

Yes, there are times in life when you will need to grin and bear it. I sometimes go along to events for my in-laws when I don’t know the people and I’d rather stay home and watch How To Get Away With Murder or do what I want. But I go because I realise that it’s a nice thing to do sometimes and I have no underlying expectation of what I should get back in return. I also know that when something is inappropriate, or I can’t or I don’t want to, that after years of being terrified of confrontation, I will afford my family the respect of the truth and let them know because you can’t grin and bear it on anything disrespectful.


  • If you start looking at things from a context of, What are the ethics of my decision? (i.e. what are the values that are governing my decision) as well as the moral sense (what you feel are the “donts” and “shoulds or should nots”, you bring balance and awareness into the equation.
  • If what someone else wants from you will cause you or others harm, that interferes with your obligations. e.g. If a TFM expects you to do something that has negative impact on you as well as your own family (e.g. your children or partner), the ethics of your decision come into question.
  • We are obliged to help our family out on occasion but we can also help out with boundaries. There’s no need to make ourselves bankrupt in any sense of the word in order to help out, whether it’s emotionally, mentally, physically or financially. That is too big an ask and it’s definitely not an obligation.
  • Lose the focus on what you will get back in return and you will be surprised by how many obligations drop off your roster. It’s when you have no attachment to what you’re going to get back that you’re doing it because it’s who you are – yep, your values.

Journal PromptJOURNALING: What are your real obligations – the ones you have to you, the ones you have in general, the specific ones for family? What do you feel your family’s obligations are to you, after all, you’ve spent time evaluating your obligations but what are theirs? Is the TFM living up to these obligations and how much of a part is this playing in your tricky situation? What would need to change in order for there to be less attachment to them fulfilling this obligation and instead, seeing them in reality and recognising that they don’t see things your way? If your TFM has no obligations at all, why is this the case? What needs to happen in order for things to ‘rebalance’ where you’re not overcompensating but you’re also not expecting them to be someone they’re not?

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