You don’t HAVE to – The Burden of Obligation and The Power of Choice in Relationships

Imani’s Articles

We say “I have to” a lot.

We use the word “have” to indicate a wide variety of circumstances – actions we want to do, pressing tasks due to time constraints, behaviors that we know benefit us, and decisions we – for one reason or another – feel obligated to make. 

In relationships, this language may affect a partner’s sense of freedom, creating blockages for the aspects of love and companionship that that partner actually enjoys. This may especially ring true if they have any negative attachments with the concepts of obligation, pressure, or guilt from their upbringings or traumas. 

I’ll start with my story….

Like many people, I grew up in a religious household. And unfortunately, also like many people, I experienced childhood trauma. Both of these have played a role in creating a storm of guilt, shame, anxiety, and indecisiveness in my life. 

Travel, meditation, books, neuroscience, yoga, therapy, love, and support all came together to help rid me of much of these shadows. However, I realized that there was a missing piece to this puzzle that was at least in part responsible for my struggle with goals, habits, decisions, and self-advocacy – the convoluted and unspecific yet insanely strong sense of OBLIGATION. 

So – Drinking enough water. Doing yoga. Writing. Being intimate. Catching up with people. Spending time with myself.⁣ All of these great activities (and more) had slowly started to become complicated daily decisions that I, ironically, started to do less of. ⁣

Not because I didn’t see the benefits, or I didn’t have the passion or interest –  but because I appreciated them immensely and had realized just how much they contribute to my overall well-being. So naturally, I started to think of them not as wants but as needs.

Therefore, they turned into actions I felt like I HAD to do. ⁣. 

⁣And due to those past experiences and former belief systems, I subconsciously associated “having” to do something with guilt, shame, punishment, etc. if I didn’t do it. Then feeling like I HAD to do these things was actually triggering, thus making me question if I even wanted to do them at all!⁣ 


If you can relate to struggling with this constant push and pull of wanting and needing, this seemingly fine line between desire and obligation – whether from trauma, religion, or for any reason at all – keep reading to see how it may be impacting your relationship. 


If you struggle with this, you may have overanalyzed a lot of decisions within your relationship.

If you love spending quality time with your partner, you may begin to feel like quality time is something you need. “I need quality time with my partner” is a fine and healthy statement for a lot of people. But for you, it may begin to feel like a burden, an obligation, a requirement – and those associations may feel like they’re entrapping you. The result is feeling less free, even when you are doing things you actually want to do.

(This can go the other way around as well: If your partner’s touch or smile or kind words helps you heal, you may simultaneously begin to *avoid* those things because you don’t want to feel like you are *obligating* your partner to do these things – even if you’re not.)

BUT the good news is….

You. Don’t. Have. To.

You don’t have to do those things. 

You may feel burdened by a false and unnecessary sense of obligation, but you can own the power of choice and desire instead:

There are consequences to any choices you make (or don’t make), some more serious or impactful than others… but (unless the “choice” is between life and death/violence, of you or others) you almost always have a choice.

That’s why (among other reasons) violence/abuse/manipulation/deceit are such grave issues – because they take away a person’s right to choose. So when we do have full power, which is more of our lives than we tend to think, and should be especially true in healthy romantic relationships, we might as well USE IT. 

For me, I don’t HAVE to be intimate with my partner, but I recognized that if I didn’t, I would be missing out on the physical connection we share, the pleasure I want, and the appreciation and desire I want to give him. 

In the same way… you don’t HAVE to do anything in your relationship. 

You don’t HAVE to listen to your partner’s desires. 

You don’t HAVE to tell your partner the truth.

You don’t HAVE to buy your partner gifts… But if they have indicated that gift-receiving is a part of their love language, then not doing so may make them feel under-appreciated. How do you want them to feel?

You don’t HAVE to take out the garbage or wash the dishes… But you may want to play an equal role in household chores.

You don’t HAVE to go to therapy. But you may want to get help understanding your past and current self.

You don’t HAVE to ask your partner deeper questions. But you may wish for more understanding and vulnerability as you navigate an exciting new relationship – or a challenging change in a familiar relationship.

You can simply CHOOSE (or not choose) these things based on what you truly want and desire. 

Changing the language around these ideas may make all the difference in the ease of your decision-making. It already has for me.

So if you feel comfortable with “needing” or “having” to do things – then great!

But if you feel burdened by the idea that you MUST act a certain way in a relationship, have a certain “type” of relationship, do certain things within the relationship, etc. I hope this serves as a sign to reflect on what you actually *want* and prioritize that over a false, muddled, or at least counterproductive sense of obligation.

Loving the old; exploring the new,


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