Is Divorce Contagious? What This Study Doesn't Tell Us

To conclude that divorce is contagious is insulting

Posted Jul 11, 2010

James Fowler of University of California, San Diego, Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University and Rose McDermott of Brown University began studying divorce and social contagion one year ago. According to the numbers they culled, they have determined that indeed divorce is contagious.

These researchers determined that that when close friends break-up, the odds of a marital split increase by 75%. They also found that people who have divorced friends in their larger social circles are 147% more likely to get a divorce than people who have friends still married. People with divorced siblings are 22% more likely to divorce. The study even revealed the contagion of divorce among co-workers could be as much as 55% in small companies.

The technical term they coined to describe this phenomenon is called, "divorce clustering." 
Taken at face value, these statistics certainly vie on the worst fears of many in this culture who suspected that divorce may be much like the flu with germs that are easily transmitted. 

Certainly, there are psychosocial explanations as to why marital break ups happen in clusters. When someone close to you gets a divorce, it can act as passive permission for you to get divorced as well if you are unhappily married. A "well, if they can do it, so can I," attitude.

There may also be a sense of loss that comes with comparing your marriage to that of the couple you thought was "so perfect together," and, if they didn't make it, you probably won't either.

And, finally, most of us humans think the "grass is greener on the other side," so, no matter which side we are on, we think the other side will "make us happier."

The familial "divorce clusters" may be a bit easier to explain by the fact that many people choose a partner who feels familiar. Many of the same family of origin dynamics that they saw their parents engage in can get played out in their relationship simply because that was what was modeled. If there is a particular trait that doesn't lend itself well to long term relationships, such as being conflict avoidant and not communicating needs, you are more likely to have the same fate as your parents and siblings.

It seems to me, however, that a big piece of information is missing from this study. How does "divorce clustering" compare to the patterns people show in marrying and in having children?

I wonder what the statistics would show us about "marriage clustering" and "child bearing clustering." I imagine those numbers would be equally staggering. I remember well the intense social pressure I felt when my two sisters married within weeks of each other and when all my friends were marrying and having children. There was certainly a part of me that wanted to be just like everyone else in my circle.

There are covert but powerful social norms and expectations, however, there is simply too much information missing in this research for me to conclude that divorce is contagious.

I think this statement insults the integrity of every person who finds themselves facing this incredibly difficult choice.

Granted, we in the Western world are "quick-fix" oriented, but I am not ready to conclude that most of us are that impressionable when it comes to the dissolution of a marriage and family

This study has managed to get a great deal of media attention but I hope the readers of these articles can see past the surface level findings. Divorce is not contagious. Divorce is not an epidemic and it is not a disease that is transmitted.

Divorce is almost always a decision entered into much more seriously and reluctantly than marriage.

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