Modern Love: We Needed More Significant Others

We tried to soldier on but struggled. One afternoon, our good friends Kristen and Phil visited us in our backyard; for the first time, they understood the gravity of what we were dealing with.

Not long after, they invited us to their place in Oakland for an outdoor dinner, but “their place” requires some explanation. A couple of years earlier, they founded a co-owned community called Radish, where a dozen or so people in their 20s and 30s live together. Most have their own one-bedroom apartment, but they share food expenses, cooking responsibilities and an outdoor space with a hot tub, fire pit and hammock. These days, they were working from home and following extremely strict Covid protocols.

As a researcher who studies romantic relationships, I have always been intrigued by this kind of arrangement. Modern couples expect to get all of their needs met by one romantic partner, but that can put a lot of pressure on the relationship. In 2015, a team of psychologists, led by Elaine Cheung, found that relying on different people for discrete needs leads to happier relationships. Eli Finkel, another psychologist, coined a name for them: OSOs (Other Significant Others).

An OSO can be a friend or family member who fulfills a need that your significant other cannot: a triathlete who exercises with you because your partner doesn’t, or a sibling you call to vent about work because your significant other hates corporate politics. This web of support is not new, but for many of us it has been lost.

For couples to survive and thrive, they need OSOs. That’s especially true during nightmarish years like the one Scott and I faced, which was exacerbated by the pandemic separating us from our normal network of support.

That evening, as we sat at a picnic table at Radish, one of the residents brought out roasted asparagus, a salad topped with seeds and berries, and a platter of sweet potatoes — a stark contrast to all that cold pizza and hospital food. As I ate and laughed, I felt happy and relaxed for the first time in months.

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