The Hard Facts: The Obligational Friendship

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“19.5% [of women] have a friend they hang out with strictly out of obligation .” (“Girl Bonding”; Women’s Health, September 2012)

Women’s Health conducted some research about female friendship in this month’s issue, and they found some pretty interesting stuff. 53 % of women have been dumped by a friend. 63% have done the breaking up. 66 % are still friends with an ex.

But in my opinion, the stat above about friendships out of obligation is the most interesting. It made me wonder: Are these 19.5 % of women the ones making the plans, or are they just accepting invitations because they feel they have no other choice?

I’m guessing the latter. According to the same Women’s Health information, of the 63% who have broken up with a friend, 55% say they slowly cut the pal out of their life. Slowly cutting a friend out sounds to me like they just stopped issuing invitations. But actively cutting ties with a friend–choosing to reject invitations and not answer phone calls–takes initiative that I’m guessing feels too mean for some women. So they accept invitations out of obligation, and nothing else.

Truth be told, I’m surprised at that 19.5 number. I actually thought it would be more. From what I can tell, a good amount of women have someone they hang out with because they feel like they should, or they must. It’s amazing to think about, really–friendship is supposed to be this very active relationship. Two people who enjoy each other, choosing to make time to spend together. But so much of friendships come from other influences–families, offices, spouses that force you together.

So I’m wondering, how many of you have friends you hang out with out of obligation? Are there pals you wouldn’t see if it weren’t for their invitations?


Filed under The Search

25 responses to “The Hard Facts: The Obligational Friendship

  1. Sarah

    I’m pretty sure I *am* the friend people hang out with out of obligation. =)

    • Oh no, Sarah, I’m sure that’s not true! Though I bet we are ALL that friend to someone!

    • Anonymous

      Story of my life! I know I should stop inviting them to dinner or whatever (I’m always the one organizing and it takes forever to schedule anything), but I don’t have any close friends in this city and I just get tired of being at home all the time!

      • panbambina

        I find it very difficult to make friends in a new city too. I have not ever had a hard time meeting people and I am a pretty friendly person, but have only ever had one real friend. I don’t bother with trivial obligation friendships that are usually about one side using the other for one reason or another.

  2. aimee

    I have had friends that were “friends” because our kids got along. Not that i did not like the person but we maybe did not have a lot in common, just the kids. But I have had other friends were I like them but not their kids. Maybe thier kid was super naughty or mean to my kid so I would not want to hang out with them as much and it would affect the friendship. And I am a military wife so there are wives you hang out with because our husbands are in the same unit or something.

  3. Interesting study. I’m pretty sure most of the 19.5% are probably too enmeshed in other people’s feelings and that’s why they feel obligated. They probably think they’ll do some great harm to the other if they say “no, thank you.”
    This made me think of my situation with an old friend. She knew I wasn’t busy and always called me out when I said no and took it personal. It became easier to just say yes because I was tired of trying to avoid hurting her feelings.I had weak boundaries (new realization by the way) and she walked all over them.
    It was only when she had moved away and wasn’t invited to my wedding that she dumped me – in anger. She couldn’t take “small wedding” and “it’s not personal” for an answer. I suppose even those were little white lies and me trying to soften the blow of I don’t want you at my wedding. Sometimes I’m too worried about what others will think to be direct and say NO.

  4. None now. Then again I am pretty subversive when it comes to following norms. I was wired for authenticity, meaning I feel good when I am honest with both myself and others. There are very few activities, outside my responsibilities, that I will do because I should. I would never see someone as a friend and pretend to enjoy it. There are family members I see out if obligation , but that’s sort of the design of family life, it’s essentially compusory, that’s why people have families, to be assured they will have someone in their life who is there for them.

    I suppose the obligation piece with friends comes up more when your friend has crossed over into the familial territory. Maybe you told each other you would always be there for each other, but then over the years you or she changed and you find yourselves drifting apart.

    Personally, I have lost so many relationships through the years, but I think this has to do with being someone who has always tried, or needed, to grow and heal and move forward. I wasn’t fixed internally, so when I grew my friendships didn’t always grow with me. I’m older now, and know myself better and see that pattern changing. Now I make friends with people who are more inconventional, and questioning…i fondue people who experience the world similarly, rather than just people who share interests.

    Sorry that was a long response. I am passionate about the topic of human connection 😉

    • Sorry about my autocorrect mistakes! That was find, not fondue ;). It’s hard to type on a phone!

    • That is so insightful . . . friends who have crossed over into the familial territory. Thanks for sharing!

    • PureSnickety

      I love your response as I feel much the same way. I have friends from my youth that I simply have nothing much but our teenage years connecting us.

      Sometimes, different life paths can make a friendship stronger and more interesting.

      However, in most cases, the person expects or wants me to be the same as I was at 16.

      I want someone who appreciates me for who I am now. I do not need someone who wants to hold me back to who I was almost 20 years ago.


  5. alison

    i definitely have those obligatory friends! i moved across the country about a year ago and was set up on more than a few ‘friend of a friend’ dates. in most cases, friendship sparks didn’t fly, but i actually still see most of these people on occasion. part of it is the straight up feelings of obligation you wrote about, but a larger part of me feels drawn to continue to go out with these friends for the sake of the mutual friend whom through we met. so there’s obligation to the new girls AND the (even stronger) meta-obligation to my long time friends!

  6. I know that if I invite someone out and they decline every time, I eventually stop inviting them. I don’t want my friends-even the ones who are more obligation than pleasure-to stop inviting me out, so I do always try to be available.

  7. Anonymous

    This may be slightly off topic, but my grandma has a friend like this. She is constantly talking about how this woman drives her crazy, yet she sees her at least once a week and almost always buys her a little something when we go shopping together (“Oh, Elaine would just love this…”). My grandma claims that she is friends with her because she feels like she NEEDS to be friends with her since Elaine is widowed, unable to drive, and her kids have somewhat abandoned their responsibilities to their mother. In my opinion, they need each other. My grandma, also a widow, has always needed someone to take care of. Now that my grandpa is gone and her children and grandchildren are mostly grown, it gives her a place to spend her “I-need-to- take-care-of-someone” energy. Just like being married or living in a “Second City” affects friendships, I think that aging is certainly a factor too – which I why I love that you incorporate your mom into your book. 🙂

    • Stephanie-Noel Dodt

      You just showed me something about myself! I am in a friendship like your grandmother’s. This is the first thing to give me insight on my behavior.

  8. Katie

    The last comment was me, but I hit the “Post” button too quickly!

  9. I had a friend who had been very close years ago. Over the years and due to living 2 hours apart we saw less and less of each other. I would try to call once in a while, but she rarely reciprocated. My feelings hurt, I stopped making the effort. A couple of years later, we reconnected when she showed up to support me during a personal crisis. As it turned out, she was not rejecting me, but was actually just very busy. We’ve been much more connected lately as our kids are growing up and we are finding we both have more time.

  10. I’ve found obligational friendships happen most often when I become friends with multiple people at once. Even if I don’t like someone or we have a falling out, I might still spend time with that person because it would be too awkward to invite the other friend(s) and not them.


    When I was married I had friends who I hung with because my husband was friends with their husbands. Weirdly enough, some of those friendships (that I wouldn’t have pursued otherwise) turned into long term, important friendships. I guess this proves you should always keep an open mind when it comes to choosing friends.

    At some point can you write about how you loose friends when you get divorced. I was really surprised by this. You feel like there’s something wrong with you. People who you’ve trusted and loved, just drop you like a hot potato.

    By the way I really love reading your blog. Keep up the good work.

  12. Well, I have had and I’ve also been that friend, but dumping was done. And it was painful (for our mutual friends as well as ourselves), but life feels easier without somebody toxic in it.

  13. Definitely there are friends that fall into the “group friend” category… I hang out with so-n-so because I hang out with Jen. If I didn’t hang out with Jen, I wouldn’t hang out with so-n-so. That sort of thing… or some woman who is a wife of DH’s friend.

  14. These are always interesting posts, and I enjoy reading them and then reading the comments.

  15. Anonymous

    Very thought provoking!….Hearing stats like this, always make me very sensitive to repeated no’s to invitations.

  16. Beth M

    I’m also surprised the number isn’t higher. I feel obligated to keep up with college friendships (roommates) and reach out a couple times a year, mom friends I’ve met that I see around town every now and then, and of course, relatives. There is some level of enjoyment in these friendships, but if we hadn’t been thrown together by blood, study, or life experiences that bonded us… we wouldn’t necessarily be friends. We don’t have the same dreams, interests, or level of income but still, well, we’re obligated to check in. Just keeping the network strong.

  17. Anonymous

    I have a friend who I have known since high school who is abrasive and has a word sense of humor that not many people enjoy. At first we became friends because he was kind of a nerd and he would say funny things in class. Then he started asking me all kinds of questions during class, distracting me, and doing what seemed like hitting on me. I started ignoring him and basically ended the friendship. Then he freaked out and came to me with family issues, complained that besides his best friend,I was the only one he had to talk to. I felt guilty and went to his graduation party where I was literally one of two of his friends. His family loved me and has heard all about me from him. This cycle has continued for years: he is funny and mostly harmless but a very aggressive friend who makes me feel horrible for ignoring him until he wears me down and I hang out with him, maybe twice a year. Then I remember how little I get from the relationship and try to cut him out, but he won’t have it because he makes me feel guilty, like I have no reason to ignore him. It has gotten to the point where he calls me and I never answer until he leaves me tearful messages.

  18. Brandy

    I have a girlfriend whom I have known scince grade school. We are now in our early 30’s and live in different states. We still talk occasionally on social media. I message her and she will write back one sentence tops. That should have been a big clue. Also, when I would be in town visiting she would pretend not to get my text message and then reply after a week playing stupid. One time my husband and I met up with her and her boyfriend for dinner and footed the expensive bill. The next day I texted her to tell her how good it was to see her and how we should all get together again. NO RESPONSE ever. Before some of these incidents happened she actually agreed to play her violin at my wedding and told me not to tell any of her family members about it. She comes off as if she is better than me. I always thought she acted like she was more successful and well rounded than me and actually kind of believed it in a way. I have no respect for people who pretend to be nice and I just wish I would have seen through her fake bullshit years ago. Why would someone go out of there way to be such a fake ass friend? I don’t know.

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