In 43 years of marriage, Janet and Robert Balfour never spent more time together than they did after pandemic lockdowns descended last spring.
The husband’s office shuttered and his frequent work trips halted abruptly. The couple’s regular dinners with best friends vanished. Their breakfast ritual at a local diner was gone too, including hugs from staff.
Soon, the Calgary spouses’ 24/7 home life proved “too much,” the husband said. An extrovert, Mr. Balfour missed the camaraderie of his colleagues. And so, with a nudge from his wife, he returned to a lightly staffed office last fall.
“Janet very politely booted me back to work,” said Mr. Balfour, a managing partner in real estate financing.
Throughout the lockdowns, he realized his wife’s social networks were much wider than his own. She’d walk with her girlfriends from the gym, or run her Rotary Club through Zoom, the video calling app.
“She has better resources than I have, which, thank God, because I’ve driven her crazy I’m sure,” Mr. Balfour said. “How often can you just rely on your spouse?”
After a year locked down, many Canadians find their community ties weakened. The characters who used to populate everyday life – work colleagues, gym buddies, craft groups, pub friends, local business owners – have dimmed from view.
Together, they formed a community of “other significant others”– OSOs for short – the people we turn to for a multitude of social and emotional needs. Social psychology professor Eli Finkel coined the term to describe people who help us outsource, so we don’t overwhelm our romantic partners.
A year into the global crisis, stressed and alienated from their OSOs, people are increasingly relying on live-in partners to fill these roles – straining their relationships with unrealistic expectations in the process.
“It’s unlikely that any one person would be capable of or interested in talking about work politics, being your exercise buddy, your fellow movie buff, the person you can talk to about family drama,” said Logan Ury, a behavioural scientist and director of relationship science at the dating app Hinge.
“It puts a lot of pressure on the relationship to be all of these things. When a person inevitably can’t do it, we are disappointed in them, or feel the relationship has failed,” said Ms. Ury, author of How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love.
Ms. Ury points to the research of Elaine Cheung, who found that people with large communities of friends for specific needs – a sister to cheer you up, a colleague to gripe with – were happier than those with fewer ties. Such networks take the load off spouses: “We know from the research that having these other significant others is a way to invest in your own primary relationship,” Ms. Ury said.
Partners “don’t have to be everything to you,” argued Vicki Larson, co-author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels.
“They can be really good at the things that you fell in love with them for,” Ms. Larson said. “You don’t have to burden them with all the other stuff going on in your life.”
As pandemic restrictions eased in Ottawa six months ago, Veronica Roy began dating an acquaintance. The two have made a conscious decision not to overload each other through these hard times, living apart and maintaining contact with friends, if only online.
“We both try to be mindful of not leaning on each other for every single emotional need,” said Ms. Roy, a 34-year-old performing artist and arts administrator.
Since the pandemic hit, Ms. Roy has been suffering disconnection from their arts and culture community, where colleagues served as friends and chosen family, commiserating about costume gaffes and exhausting 14-hour days on the festival circuit.
“These relationships have mostly been distilled to work and periodic messages that say, ‘I love you. I miss you. I can’t wait to hug you again,’” Ms. Roy said.
When Natasha Carpio lost her job at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver during the pandemic, she also lost the world she and close colleagues built over 12 years: inside jokes, informal therapy sessions, Tim Horton’s runs and after-work drinks. Ms. Carpio, 41, spent more time with her work friends than with her own family.
“They get insight into your everyday life that your loved ones don’t get to see,” said Ms. Carpio, who especially misses Trina, her “BFAW” – Best Friend at Work. Once inseparable, the women now call and text sporadically.
In Hamilton, Allison Ward worries the community she forged at her Aqua-Fit classes might be broken forever. Before the pandemic, she’d hop in the pool three or four times a week with a group of mostly retired women.
Flapping in the water, they shared the ups and downs of life. At 34, Ms. Ward was an object of curiosity: the older women wanted to hear about her wedding (a small, family-only ceremony held last October) and dole out marriage advice. She wanted to about know about retired life, grandkids and ailing friends.
“They gave me a real feeling of being part of my immediate community and getting to meet people I wouldn’t usually,” said Ms. Ward, a project manager.
Isolating through the pandemic, Ms. Ward found there isn’t as much news to share with her husband since they’ve been home together so much. “In hindsight, my Aqua-Fit group provided me with surprises,” she said.
Typically, other significant others get to know us in contexts different from those inhabited by our spouses. Ms. Larson believes having OSOs means having more well-rounded perspectives, beyond marriage.
“Society doesn’t prioritize friendships as much as it does romantic partners and that’s wrongheaded,” she said. “You need a much broader village to go through life.”