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What Do We "Owe" Our Partners? Obligation in Relationships

Should there be obligations in relationships?

In my last post, I discussed the value of commitments, and also why commitment—especially in the case of marriage—gets a bad rap. In this post, I want to elaborate on those thoughts a bit, this time focusing on obligations within relationship.

Let me be clear—I don't like the idea of obligation in relationships. I don't like using the words "owe," "expect," "deserve," or "rights" when talking to the person I love. I don't want her to think she's under any obligation that will force her to do anything she doesn't naturally want to do, or that I expect anything from her other than what she's naturally inclined to do.

But why does this bother me so much? Isn't it natural to expect things from your partner? Well, let me explain where I'm coming from when I say this—I hear these terms as a philosopher, specifically one that dealswith moral and legal philosophy. So these words carry a particular weight for me—philosophers don't use words like "deserve" lightly. Therefore, it's entirely possible that I'm making a mountain out of a molehill here, but please bear with me nonetheless—I do think there's something interesting here (at least to me!).

Part of my dislike of the use of these words within intimate relationships is that they seem more appropriate for less personal interactions. I owe my bank money on my house, my students deserve and expect fair grades on their work, and I assert my rights in a property dispute with my neighbor. We do have legal (and sometimes) moral obligations to other people we interact with, as defined by our relationships with them and the relevant rules and norms governing them. Furthermore, these obligations are more important the less close we are to people, because we are less likely to care personally for their interests.

But within personal relationships, whether they be family ties, friendships, or romantic relationships, we don't like to think that people "owe" each other anything, or "expect" anything in the sense of a rightful claim. How awkward it would be to assert, after your friend picks up the tab for lunch, that you owe her a meal—or, even worse, if she told you that she expected you to pay next time, or that she deserved to have the next meal paid for! Of course, you may feel you owe her lunch, and she may even be thinking it (especially if she's paid for the last three lunches!), but it would be very odd for her to assert that. Such things between friends, family, or partners are understood, but not mentioned aloud.

Of course, some relationships do deteriorate to the level at which such language is used and even seems natural. In such cases, partners may "trade" favors (housework for sex, for example), or keep track of the number of times each partner's parents visit, or how often each parent takes the kids for the day. This seems natural, but nonetheless it is tragic, because it reduces what was once (presumably) a passionate and romantic coupling, or at least a compassionate friendship, to debits and credits on a balance sheet—a great way to run a business, and maybe even a busy household to some extent, but a horrible way to "operate" a relationship.

This ties back to what I wrote in the last post about the external and internal views to relationships, which borrowed from the legal philosophy of H.L.A. Hart and his book The Concept of Law. Recall that someone with the external view treats the commitment like something imposed by others and pursues his own goals within it, while someone with the internal view "owns" the commitment, appreciates it, and works within it to make the best out of it.

To describe the same distinction, Hart also distinguished between being obliged to do something and having an obligation to do it. (Splitting hairs, I know—philosophers, go figure.) In the context of the law, someone who has an external view feels obliged to follow legal rules, but purely in the sense that he will likely face punishment or other negative consequences should he break them. He feels no further reason to obey the law, since he considers himself "outside" of it, or that they were imposed on him by "the man." But someone with the internal view on the law, who believes that (most of) the laws he must follow (or the legal system in general) are justified, feels a true obligation to obey them, because he believes in them—they are part of his life and his community, and therefore part of his identity.

Now let's bring this concept back to relationships. Someone who takes an internal view to her relationship may feel obligations towards her partner, but she considers these obligations to be part of who she is and what her relationship means to her. She values the relationship, she values her partner, and so she naturally feels the obligations that go along with it, however their particular relationship is defined. If she and her partner value honesty, then she will feel an obligation to be open and truthful; if they value fidelity, she will feel an obligation to be faithful; and so on. Different couples value different things, which leads to different obligations. (The typical marriage vows include their own obligations, which the married couple may or may not choose to adopt as their own.)

But the ironic thing is that in such a relationship, such obligations aren't felt as obliging us; we don't think in terms of "owing" anything to our partners, or of our partners "expecting" anything from us. We just fulfill such obligations because they're part and parcel of the relationship itself (or, in other words, they're constitutive of the relationship). They are obligations in Hart's sense, but we don't necessarily think of them in that way.

With the external view, on the other hand, partners feel obliged to each other in the negative, detached sense that Hart used the term. Partners "have" to do what's "expected" of them, they "have" to live up to "agreements" or "bargains," and so on. No longer are obligations fulfilled out of love for the other person; now they're duties, tasks, things to be crossed off a list or to be recalled on a future occasion for strategic advantage ("remember when I took your mother to her podiatrist's appointment?"). Just as the relationship or commitment has lost its value and seems like a mere burden, so do the obligations connected to it; now, you're obliged to do the things you happily did in the past.

So, I guess it's not the concepts represented by the terms "owe," "deserve," and "expect" that I dislike, but more what implied by using them, or by having to say them. I shudder to imagine telling the person I love that she "owes" me something, or that I "deserve" something from her (or vice versa). If we love and appreciate each other, as implied by the internal view on our relationship, then we'll do these things naturally. And if we reach the stage at which we have to start "reminding" each other what we deserve or expect, I'll know there's something wrong, that we've gotten off track—and that we truly owe it to each other to sit back and talk about things. Our relationship would deserve no less.

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