We hear this all the time, but what does it mean, and when do people actually owe something to one another?
This page is a stub, created on 2023-11-13. Its contents are notes on the issues and angles I want to address about this topic.
On 2023-01-01, someone posted in a Facebook group I'm in about Attachment Theory:
"We don't owe eachother anything, we could decide to leave at any time" a secure, true statement or an unloving one?
My response (with some typographical edits):
Forgive me, but I have to challenge a premise here: What does it mean to "owe" somebody something?
If it were true that nobody owes anybody anything, that just defines "owing" out of existence. Surely, we can come to owe other people things (and we are ourselves owed things by other people) under certain conditions. That's how the concept of "owing" came about. So what are those conditions? How does anybody come to owe anybody else anything? We're very accustomed to talking about owing people things like money or things under a written contract. And that seems uncontroversial. Why should it be controversial that, under certain circumstances, we come to owe people things in the context of a relationship, like love and care?
The kernel of truth in the statement "nobody owes you anything" is that, in advance of any special kind of relationship or agreement, nobody inherently owes you anything (though you could debate at the margins whether people still owe one another basic kindness, decency, and respect). It is important to avoid going about life with an attitude of entitlement, like people ought to affirmatively be doing things for you merely because you desire those things or they would be good for you.
But that is very different from what you can legitimately say a romantic partner owes you and vice versa, once your relationship has evolved to a certain point.
That said, I'm not saying that, at that certain point, you can no longer leave a relationship that isn't serving you. Certainly, circumstances can arise, and the love in a relationship might fizzle, not through anybody's fault, and one partner may wish to leave the relationship. That is certainly their right. But it's not this callous "at any time". It would be under some specific set of circumstances.
Imagine the absurdity of a loving, close relationship of a decade that's great in every respect, and then one morning, one of them says to the other "You know, I think I'm done. I don't owe you anything anyway, and I can leave at any time, so I'm out. Bye!", packs up, and leaves. Frankly, that's so extreme as to suggest a mental illness. And that's because the two people actually owe one another something: at the very least, open, honest communication, working through whatever the cause is of the desire to split up, etc. You don't just arbitrarily decide to leave after a decade on the premise that nobody owes one another anything. Again, that's absurd. Another relevant point is that owing people things is not some sacrificial act. You don't owe someone something for their benefit.
Yes, they benefit, and that might be the immediate goal, but to get philosophical here, the whole point of recognizing that you owe someone something is that it benefits you to treat people in a certain way, that your life is better off when you recognize that treating people a certain way serves your interests. Nobody experiences it like that (that would be sociopathic), but people's genuine interests are harmonious, and the whole field of ethics arises because we need guidance on how to live and live well. Owing and desert are specific areas within ethics dealing with how to relate to other people, but the fundamental reason to care about such things is to understand how to improve our own enjoyment of life. This is what self-love is about. This is what it means to take care of yourself. This is what it means to put yourself first. Then you seek out win-win relationships with other people. (Side note: You're never genuinely better off by going about harming others, even if that might feel emotionally gratifying in the moment.)
So we do come to owe people things, and it's profoundly self-serving to treat people as they deserve. For a person in a committed relationship to just up and leave on the premise that they don't owe their partner anything is profoundly self-destructive, and again, because people's genuine interests are harmonious, it is also destructive to the person to whom they legitimately owe some amount of love and care and respect. A person who is secure and loves themselves also knows that loving someone else entails treating them a certain way--owing them something.
But I hasten to add, in case I haven't made this clear: you know what we don't ever owe anybody else? Our own suffering. Our own demise. Our own destruction. (I'm definitely not saying that you stay in a toxic relationship because of some misguided notion that you owe the other person your self-sacrifice.)