Sunday, September 27, 2015

Learning to act right (51)… Obligation and relationships – invisible bonds which bind

Torrey Orton*
Sept 28, 2015

Attachment by obligation – an implicit reciprocity

A commitment may often be expressed in and through an obligation. An obligation reflects or expresses a reliable attachment, though this may not be what attachment theory means at first glance**. Add some culture to the mix and the meaning gets perhaps even more attenuated because experienced with less insight. For instance,

30 years ago my wife and I did a favour for someone which transformed their life, and not just putting on a new shirt or haircut as the word is used today. Our favour opened the door to a future they could not have ventured, though they certainly could imagine it and had done so. We have been paying for it ever since in the form of the others’ absolutely persistent thankfulness every time we see them (every few years 1/2 a world away). Here’s the rub: sustaining our enthusiasm for their over the top gifts is difficult for two reasons - time withers the intensity as the imbalance in the equation of our favour’s worth vis-à-vis the receiver’s benefit reduces our sense of that value to them. And the counter rub is this: our failure to receive with the energy of their thankful giving may demean the value of the gift and the giver!

This could be the dynamic of any gift relationship, until it is extended over 30 years with the expectation that it will never cease! That’s the cultural additive to the mix. Such devoted thankfulness is understandable in cultures where personal control over one’s fate, to say nothing of one’s opportunities and pursuit of them, is radically conditional. Such is the case described.

Ignorance of cultural obligations

The cultural effect at the individual, family and work group levels is a set of bonds with great temporal reach, with the consequence that social and personal bonds are almost an inescapable condition of living. These bonds provide a roughly guaranteed system of support extending to the outer reaches of ‘family’ to include village neighbours (the source of financial support for many Chinese students in Australia 20 years ago; those students who failed in the relevant terms were failing a whole village of stakeholders; the shame could be terminal). In this sense and in our own case, an obligation may often be attached with anchors at both ends. Under-acknowledgement of a benefit I provide may constitute another entangling bond both for me and my beneficiaries.


However, our western preparation for life included the implicit assumption that we could and should control our destinies in almost every regard. Where not possible, it became the responsibility of higher authorities to pitch in with ever more powerful health cares, safety nets and so on. Assume these conflicting assumptions in me and I came up short in receivership: I did not sustain the appropriate levels of concern for the honour they were bestowing. For me even 10 years later I emitted low grade resistance – the kinds expressed through slight withholdings of feelings…By 35 years later I had to mask a sense of irritation with the formalities. Of course lack of formality is ever so western, not eastern, too.

Binding bonds

The thing is, this bond (bind) by obligation can sustain any contents, from the merest reciprocities of food and drink to the entangling compromises of corruption and crime!! It can make anything personal and invest everyone touched by it with an ownership of the results of its exercise. So, we can track the resistance of institutions of many kinds to the acknowledgment of their various ethical, moral and legal calumnies to the need to hold the bonded together. Institution members hug their misdemeaning associates with warm embraces of approval or, under pressure, the cool handling of denial without betraying or exiling them. Those two ejecting responses are retained for punishing whistle-blowers of all kinds.


*I am a 72 year old, AHPRA registered male psychotherapist with a large caseload out of family violences. There the question of what is ‘live’ in real life is the central existential challenge and how to live better the central developmental one.


** I became aware by stepping into this simple task that whole chapters of Shaver and Mikulincer’s 577 pg. Attachment in Adulthood (2007) opened with it. A few hours perusal of it in turn reminded me of the abstract complexities of ‘attachment’ which cannot be processed in the act of engaging without disengaging to do the processing. I invite you to a small view here of that wide frame. There’s a modest (34 pg.) chapter on “Interpersonal Regulation” concerned mainly with the dynamic structures of interdependent attachment and not obviously with any contents, personal or socio-systemic, of those attachments.

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