The Blog

Obligation Fatigue -- by Megan Owen Cox

Nov 09, 2023

Obligation Fatigue. Have you heard of it? That's because I just coined the phrase. Hopefully, it will begin to pop up everywhere! We needed a term that is all-encompassing. There are so many out there who are discussing the painful and devastating effects of "obligation sex" (check out this amazing quote by  James Hollis/Jay Stringer).

But there is so much more to it. 

As a child (a little child, mind you), we would always be given thank you notes by our mother as one of our Christmas gifts. We could count on having to write 10-15 thank you notes for family members the next day -- as if we had to pay someone back for the Christmas gifts in the form of pretty cursive arriving in their mailbox. I know that everyone was impressed. But I remember how laborious it all was. That's a lot of thank you notes to write well when you are 7. I know that gratitude is important. We have to teach our children gratitude, as they don't come into this world appreciating what is given to them. 

I'm talking about something deeper, though -- a Sitz im Leben.

There was a tone, for us . . . . a culture . . . growing up that when you receive, you have to give something back. My mother was endlessly complaining about how, if they go to someone else's house, it's now "her turn" to entertain them in what seemed like pay-backsies. If brought a meal, you can't send the dish back empty. If someone does something kind, you have to do something in return. It's EXHAUSTING. The entire concept of hospitality was lost on me until adulthood. 

Obligation fatigue ruins freedom, obviously. And without freedom, where is genuine love? Transactional love is not where its at. Because of what Jesus did, we can experience a beautiful, unconditional love that (seriously, I'm just learning this) feels so good. Because out of good theology, comes good fruits! 

It was not until I grew up and received beautiful gifts when I needed them most -- without the expectation of return -- that I understood was actual hospitality was. I began to reject obligation, which wasn't popular in my family or origin. All of a sudden, I was a bad person if I missed a gift, or a holiday or a thank you note. I was legitimately scolded for not sending a baby gift at the height of my crisis in leaving my ex husband. (Seriously -- I was living in poverty.) I rejected obligatory transactional acceptance more. I could not see Christ in the exhausting, strings-attached way I had grown up. Even worse, obligation fatigue as it related to sex was draining me, in every way. Romance was lost . . . a real, intimate, alive connection was replaced by a mechanical, soul-sucking demand. The heaviness drowned me. 

I know I'm not alone. 

It was not just sex. It was a general tone of "Well, what do YOU bring to the table, Megan? AND . . . . can you keep doing it?" Wow. What if I went through a mid-life crisis? What if I fell apart or needed to switch meds or needed help? What if I couldn't have sex, anymore? The letter of the law was palpable. (And we all know what the letter of the law does) The obligations plus the conditions drove away love, which is (by nature), intertwined with freedom. Passion? Gone. Hope? Gone. Weight? Toxically, disturbingly heavy.

We look across the table and say, "My desire is gone. I can't feel it, anymore." And, now we're a bad spouse. 

The desire to reciprocate is gone; the desire to try is gone; the desire to work so dang hard to be what someone else needs us to be is gone. It's just gone. And now, I'm bad. You're bad -- we are bad spouses, children, siblings . . . because we just get . . . . tired

The answer to this is, of course, to let it all go. Be OK with being the bad guy because you are tired of looking for love. Be free. If people want to give something, it's OK to take it. If you can give something to someone else, do it. But don't look for reciprocity. 

It took way too long for me to discover that the greatest, most life-giving, otherworldly, most-like-Jesus experiences are when we are able to give to those who are dying or hurting because they CAN'T reciprocate. What a relief. Or maybe someone is passing through and we can give them a warm home for a few days. No problem! I won't ask for a thank you note! Ha! I have learned that the experience of getting to know someone and sharing our home and love and laughter are enough. That is my reward . . . . I could love and give without any expectation of return. Because of this, my kids live honest lives before me. Do they express gratitude? Yes . . . but not because I demanded it. Not because I would stop giving if they needed it. 

I'm going to give like God -- the perfect parent. Ask me for bread and I will give it. How can I not when I see the image of God in each of their faces? 

If you are experiencing obligation fatigue, your soul is starting to die. It's OK to walk away. 

I promise. There is freedom on the other side. And it is lovely.

And gosh . . . . you can breathe



Post Script: Please don't miss any of the point here. If you owe someone money, pay it back. Have integrity. But, as Believers, let's not foster interaction as love. Transactional relationships are a cheap imitation for deep, abiding and long-lasting passion.