Diabetes risk factors outside the individual are receiving increasing attention. In this issue of Diabetologia, Nielsen et al (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00125-018-4587-1 ) demonstrate that an individual's obesity level is associated with incident type 2 diabetes in their spouse. This is in line with studies providing evidence for spousal and peer similarities in lifestyle behaviours and obesity. Non-random mating and convergence over time are two explanations for this phenomenon, but shared exposure to more upstream drivers of diabetes may also play a role. From a systems-science perspective, these mechanisms are likely to occur simultaneously and interactively as part of a complex system. In this commentary, we provide an overview of the wider system-level factors that contribute to type 2 diabetes.