Is Divorce Contagious? Researchers: Yes.

Divorce is contagious among social networks, directly affecting friends and family member’s likelihood to also divorce. In addition, the breakup can lead to other divorces at least two degrees of separation from the initial couple who split. Researchers say behaviors like divorce can spread as viruses do.

CNN reports the findings from James H. Fowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Fowler worked with other researchers at Harvard and Brown Universities. They studied 5,000 people. Fowler says the first couple’s divorce impacts other people’s decision to divorce, “and can even sway your friend’s friend.”

Have you noticed some divorces among groups are announced in fairly quick succession? The obvious example that comes to mind among those who discuss marriage is the Gore family. One of their daughters divorced about a year ago. As everyone knows, Al and Tipper have announced their split as well after 40 years of marriage. Their eldest daughter even more recently announced her plans to divorce after 13 years and three children.

Their decisions to divorce are private, but the research says those with a divorced sibling have a 22 percent increased chance to get divorced than those who don’t have divorced siblings.

While those stats sound rather high, friends who divorce have an even higher impact. “People who had a divorced friend were 147 percent more likely to be divorced than those whose friends’ marriages were intact,” says the study. Even your workplace has a strong impact on your marriage status. If your coworker divorces, your odds of divorce go up 55 percent compared to those who work with non-divorced workers.

Some people become carriers without getting divorced, say the researchers, just by relaying information to their friends and family. The listener may warm up the idea of divorce, says Fowler, or consider the benefits of divorce.

Some marriage therapists have anecdotally agreed that their clients have been influenced by divorced friends. When divorce permeates a social group, group norms can change. In addition, poor relationship skills can be imitated by others. I’m sure we are all aware that ineffective relationship skills can be transferred from one generation to another.

What does this research mean to us? First, we should be cautious about the one-sided information we hear about divorce from those in our social network. You may be hearing the rosy side of divorce, but know there is a dark side others may not show. For instance, I’ve seen the loneliness, financial ruin, heartbroken children and hurt spouses left behind in divorce. But if you run into those same people at the grocery store, they might tell you about how they go out on Friday nights because of their new freedom.

Also, remember that our culture supports the idea of divorce and makes it very easy. It also suggests a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude about marriage. There’s a misconception that if you just change partners, your relationship problems will disappear. You have to decide if you will have a counter-cultural marriage that lives in love and remains committed, even during difficult times.

A recent blog post at Journey to Surrender caught my attention, reminding readers who are trying to get their spouses to change that you can’t push on a rope. “Some things only work in one direction. Pushing a rope only ends in frustration and you might just wind up with a tangled mess. Pulling it, however, will cause the entire rope to move smoothly in the directly you want. It can be tempting at times to push your spouse toward their appropriate roles and actions in your marriage.” Scott’s tips:

  • Speak into that which you want to see rise up, rather than complaining about what you see as missing or wrong. 
  • Use appreciation and gratitude for every small step in the right direction.
  • Ask yourself if there is anything you might be doing that is pushing your spouse and possibly causing an undesirable counter-reaction
  • Look for unmet needs in your spouse. Most men need to feel respected, admired, trusted and desired to be “pulled” toward their position of loving leadership. For a woman, things like affection, attention/time, genuine concern and romantic engagement will draw her toward more fully offering her submission.

Have you noticed divorces that have affected friends and family or occurred in groups?  Do you think this research is on target?

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19 responses to “Is Divorce Contagious? Researchers: Yes.

  1. I had not thought about this before, but I believe it. With the amount of private relationship information that is shared through online social networks these days, it won’t surprise me if the virus effect gets worse.

    I think it works the other way around too, work through your marriage problems, and share your success stories with friends going through the similar things!

    • Definitely, Eric. Positive role models may have an equally strong impact. Those with strong relationships should support and encourage others around them.

  2. I never noticed that before. I’ve noticed that when one person got married, a bunch of people jumped the broom as well.

    I don’t know a lot of people who are going through a divorce, no one in my family is divorced…the only divorced people that I do know I met years after their divorce.

    I know that when I talk to people about my marriage, I never talk negatively. I’d never encourage a divorce.

  3. I think there is a lot of truth to what you say here, Lori. I see so many influences in our society that tend to draw a couple toward divorce. The idea that marriage is disposable and that it’s only about you and your own happiness. My personal mission is to present a counter-cultural alternative, marriage-positive point of view. I’m thankful for blogs like yours that share my passion for marraige. Thanks too for the mention.

  4. I don’t know… everyone I know and am social with is married… still.

    Though that’s the proof of the pudding no doubt.

    • You said it. Surrounding yourself with intact marriages affects your group norms in a positive way, don’t you think?

  5. Pingback: Save your friend’s marriage, save your marriage.

  6. bentwingedbird

    I don’t really have an inner circle of people I keep up with anymore. My best friend from childhood is divorced, and several of the couples we knew at one of our previous churches are divorced.

    I do think there’s something of a pack mentality for us humans. We live in such a consumer-oriented society, where it’s often cheaper to replace something than it is to repair it, that I think it’s flowed over into relationships as well.

    With the relatively easy sharing of information via social networks these days (a good deal of which probably *shouldn’t* be shared), the inner sense of entitlement we all have will be fed.

    We can look at Susie or John and tell ourselves “Well, they seem to be happier after the divorce…maybe divorce isn’t as bad as it seems…or at least it’s better than what I have now.”

    We can blurt out an issue via a status and have instant sympathy and encouragement – sometimes by people who barely even know you, and may not know your spouse at all.

    Divorce, IMO, is a virus – so yes, of course it’s contagious.

    (Sorry if I drifted a bit off the topic).

    Tim

    • Tim, I agree social media has made some previously private topics more “in your face”. Sounds like you are in agreement with the research. Thanks for the note.

  7. I think the idea of divorce being contagious is intriguing. It seems similar to the recent study that says if your social network of friends is overweight, you have a greater chance of obesity as well. Seems like we internally ‘absorb’ and adopt behaviors we see around us.
    The question then becomes: how do we project positive behaviors and attitudes? It feels to me that sometimes we take the easier path of complaining, rather than becoming more pro-active and problem-solving. To be fair, many of us are so overwhelmed by life’s pressures to cope.

  8. I think that is the big question–how can we then take positive behaviors and positive skills and help them spread? I would suggest by speaking positively about marriage in general and your spouse in particular, and by being a role model, mentor, and supporter of those around you. Yes, today’s world can be overwhelming, but it’s uplifting to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Thanks for the input!

  9. Interestingly, I think the reverse is true too. There can be a positive influence on couples who spend time with other happy couples.

    Unfortunately, we have had a number of our members at Power of Two (http://www.poweroftwomarriage.com) say that they don’t have any good role models around… For some, it seemed like the only models they had were friends and parents getting divorced.

    In those cases, it seems so important to search out peers, mentors, or online blogs & programs with great relationships to emulate.

    – Jacob

  10. There may be a correlation between precursors to divorce and those that comprise our network of friends.

    In other words, we may be attracted to those who are more like us and some of those likenesses may be factors that are more prone to lead to divorce (think communication, worldview, values, formative influences and experiences, etc.).

    I’m not sure that divorce is contagious as such. It may, at most, bring to light the issues in our own marriage that need redressing. Some couples make lack the tools to resolve issues and end up like their friends…divorced.

  11. I just started reading “For Better – The Science of a Good Marriage” by Tara Parker-Pope, and something I read made me recall what you said here. She wrote about misquoted divorce statistics, “Inflating divorce statistics has the potential to increase everybody’s risk of getting divorced. Just as we become inured to violence when we see a lot of it on television or in the movies, I think the 50 percent divorce rate myth has trained a generation to be ambivalent about marriage and divorce.” She goes on to explain that divorce rate are declining and that depending on many factors, it can be as low as 20% among some groups (college graduates married after age 25).

    I think she makes a good point that when we live in a culture of divorce, everyone becomes more prone to it.

    • Scott, you are correct on this point. You hear “half of marriages fail” all the time. But first time marriages combined fail about 41% of the time, and as you mention those who are college educated and a bit older have much lower divorce rates. Other criteria also lowers the divorce rate. (You can find lots of related research on this blog.)

  12. Pingback: Study Shows Divorce is Infectious :: Late Bloomer Bride

  13. does divorce friends affect single friends from getting into a relationship or staying single .

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