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Is Divorce Contagious?

Maybe you're actually catching something very different.

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

CBS cares about married people. That was clear from the headline of their recent story: "Divorce contagious? Your network could bring you down." The first paragraph was even more straightforward: "Is your best friend getting a divorce? Watch out, your marriage could be next." (Thanks to April for the heads-up.)

The divorce report is the latest in a series based on an amazing dataset. Thousands of people from Framingham, Massachusetts have been studied repeatedly and extensively over time, some since 1948. The divorce study is based on more than 5,000 offspring of the original participants, plus the spouses of the offspring, and more than 12,000 people in their social networks.

Here are a few of the findings:

  • If someone you name as a friend gets divorced, then when the researchers see you again about 4 years later, you are 147% more likely to have gotten divorced yourself than if you didn't have a friend who got divorced. (The overall rate of divorce in the sample was fairly low, so most couples did not get divorced even if their friends did.)
  • If you have a sibling who got divorced, you are 22% more likely to get divorced yourself within the next four years.
  • If you work at a small firm and one of your co-workers gets divorced, you are 55% more likely to get divorced yourself within the next four years.
  • Even people at two degrees of separation from yourself can apparently influence your likelihood of divorce. So, for example, it is not just your friends' divorces that matter, but also the divorces of the friends of your friends.

The authors believe that the people in our social networks, such as our friends, siblings, and coworkers, are influencing us. They ruled out alternative explanations such as "birds of a feather flock together" and the possibility that some external event is affecting everyone's divorce rate simultaneously.

So far, I'm with them. I do believe that our own attitudes and behaviors can be influenced by those of our friends, siblings, and co-workers. What bothers me is the assumption—by the media, and sometimes by the authors, too—that the influence is necessarily bad. CBS, remember, proclaimed in its headline that "your social network could bring you down." The authors urge us to consider divorce not just as an individual phenomenon but "as a public and social problem." They swallow a lot of the marriage mythology whole, and in their book, Connected, even use the condescending phrase "stupid bachelor tricks" to refer misleadingly to some of the research literature.

The authors' own work has shown that the important people in our lives can influence us in both good and bad ways. We can "catch" their happiness as well as their loneliness, and we can become either slimmer or fatter as a result of their apparent influence.

The questionable assumption, I think, is that if our friends, siblings, or co-workers nudged us toward divorce, that means they pushed us in a bad direction. Maybe in some cases, couples really were just experiencing a rough patch and could have and should have stayed together. But why assume that's always the case? (See Rachel Buddeberg's post, "Are you sure you want to call that marriage a failure?")

If your spouse is physically or emotionally abusive, then the friends who influenced you in the direction of divorce may well deserve your gratitude. But I don't think it is necessary, though, to invoke only the most extreme cases, such as those involving abuse. People live longer than they once did. They change jobs, they change locations—they just change. And two people don't always change in the same ways.

Even when children are involved, staying together "for the sake of the kids" is not always the most constructive solution. Studies showing problematic outcomes for children of divorce cannot answer this question: If the parents had stayed together, experiencing the same conflicts and antagonism that made them contemplate divorce, would the children have been better off than if the parents had split? We can't randomly assign clashing parents to stay together or divorce, so we can never know for sure.

I don't think very many couples take divorce lightly. When they see friends divorce, they don't just shrug and decide to do the same thing themselves. Maybe what's contagious isn't just divorce but reflection and contemplation. Maybe even courage. You see your friends divorce and you think more deeply and more seriously about whether staying married is the right thing to do. You know that getting divorced would be hard and expensive. You know it would probably be painful, even if your marriage has made you miserable. You've developed your routines, even if they are unpleasant ones. You'd have to develop a new way of living.

The path of inertia, and the path of doing what society in general thinks you should do, is to stay married. Maybe in your case, it is what you should do. Once a friend divorces, though, then maybe you make a more deliberate, thoughtful, informed choice.

When divorce was much more stigmatized, more couples stayed together. That doesn't mean that they were all doing the right thing, the brave thing, or even the safest thing.

More from Bella DePaulo Ph.D.
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