Why is it that it seems like divorce is contagious among social groups? Is it because friends share similar pressures in life, or does one couple’s divorce allow others to consider doing the same?
In the largest study available on the topic, researchers from Brown University, Harvard University and the University of California at San Diego found that you’re 75 percent more likely to become divorced if a friend has divorced, and if a friend of a friend is divorced your odds of getting a divorce increase 33 percent.
The research comes from sociologists and psychologists from three North American universities who have examined statistics from a group of individuals over a 32-year period. They looked at the effect of divorce among peer groups on an individual’s own risk of divorce and found a clear process of what the scientists called “social contagion”. The study was carried out by academics Rose McDermott at Brown University, James Fowler at the University of California and Nicholas Christakis at Harvard.
They used the Framingham Heart Study – a longitudinal study of the population of a small Massachusetts town near Boston which was started in 1948 to investigate risk for heart disease but has since become a godsend for social research because of the wealth of information that continues to be collected from generation after generation of residents. The statistics also follow people who have left the town and suggest that a divorced friend or family member who lives hundreds of miles away may have as much influence on risk of divorce as one who lives next door. It also found that the presence of children within a marriage did not in itself influence the likelihood of people getting divorced. But each child a couple had further reduced the parents’ susceptibility to being influenced by divorcing friends. The report suggested that the “normalising” of splits could be to blame. It also found that “divorcees have denser social networks and are much more likely to remarry other divorcees”. The study threw up further bad news for divorcees – they stand to lose 10% of friends and are seen by some as a social threat.
When a close friend gets a divorce, it alerts us to the possibilities, said Helen Fisher, author of “Anatomy of Love” and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute.
“One person starts doing it, and others look at their own lives, and they assess their lives: If he can do it, I can do it,” Fisher said.
Once a friend divorces, that friend may experience a temporary high, which can seem very appealing, especially to someone who has been married for a while, said Pam Meyerson, a marital therapist.
The recently divorced friend may start a new relationship, which is fun and exciting, compared with your seemingly stale marriage.
“Maybe the grass is greener, and it may look better,” Meyerson said. “In the beginning, you can survive on intimacy that’s completely different than intimacy in a marriage.”
Couples should be spending 16 hours of undivided attention together per week, with about six of those hours out of the house, Meyerson said. While new couples may be putting in the hours and time that many people devote to a new relationship, it’s rare that longer-term married couples do. And the marriage suffers.
You might notice that your friend is happier now, and she has a new, exciting relationship. Plus, if she got a divorce, then she removed the shame in it, Meyerson said. But it’s possible to avoid this fate, and even use a friend’s divorce to make your own marriage stronger.
One way to do it is to talk with your spouse (instead of your friend) about the problems you noticed in your friend’s marriage: They didn’t have sex, they didn’t talk, they were always angry, Fisher suggested. Then, develop solutions for your own marriage to combat those potential issues, like going away for a weekend without the children or making more of an effort with each other.
You should also be aware that as humans, we are prone to copying behaviors. We watch what’s happening socially around us, and we mimic, Fisher said.
It seems that divorce is not the only human behaviour that is copied among social groups. Studies have even found that suicides are contagious.
“One person starts doing it, and others look at their own lives: If he can do it, I can do it too,” Fisher said.
The good news is that when a friend divorces, it won’t rattle couples in great marriages, she said — especially if they talk about their friends’ divorce. But it does make you think more about your past, present and future.
The US report concluded that we need to recognise the far-reaching effects of a marital breakdown and treat it as a disease that will spread unless couples recognise the risk and talk openly about their friends’ break-ups. “Divorce should be understood as a collective phenomenon that extends far beyond those directly affected,” concludes the report, which says friends ought to support each other through marital problems for selfish as well as compassionate reasons.