Divorce is Contagious

Divorce is Contagious

Taking advantage of media attention around Al and Tipper Gore’s recent revelation that they are separating after 40 years of marriage, researchers have announced a soon-to-be published study on divorce and its impact on family and social networks.

The idea is based on the theory of social contagion, or the spread of behavior or emotion through a group. In this case, the heated feelings and actions of one person’s divorce can be transferred like a virus, causing others to divorce, according to the study.

The findings are fascinating, but not really surprising to those who study divorce and have lived long enough to see this play out in lives of family, friends, and acquaintances.  Some of the study’s findings include:

  • If your siblings divorce you’re 22 percent more likely to divorce yourself.
  • If you have a close friend who is divorced, you are 147 percent more likely to divorce than people whose close friends’ marriages remain intact.  (Wow!)
  • Divorce can affect relationships two degrees of separation away from the original couple splitting up.
  • A divorced co-worker can increase the likelihood of another employee divorcing by 55 percent compared to an employee who works with non-divorced employees.
  • One glimmer of positive information from the study:  Couples with children were less susceptible to being influenced toward divorce by other divorced couples.

Social behaviors spread through groups (smoking, alcohol, drug use, clothing selection, etc.).  This has been well-documented in other studies, but this study is the first to take a look at marriage and divorce.  Marketing theory is replete with information on “first adopters” and the impact of social circles on purchasing habits and behaviors.  So there is no surprise to us that one’s family and friends could have influence on one’s decisions in regard to divorce.

James H. Fowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego and a co-author of the study, explained that people begin to warm up to the idea of divorce when they see their family, friends or co-workers going through the process.  There is a subtle “giving of permission” that occurs.  The married person gains knowledge about the benefits and drawbacks of divorce.  Divorce then becomes part of the married person’s experience and creates a level of comfortableness and consideration for the idea.

This study analyzed data from 5,000 people and is authored by not only James Fowler, but Nicholas A. Chistakis at Harvard and Rose McDermott at Brown University.

So readers, what do you think?  In your experience (recognizing that this is anecdotal) is divorce contagious?

1 Comment
  • Josh James
    Posted at 19:29h, 21 June

    This is an incredible article. What a fascinating study. It certainly does make sense and it only adds to the social obligation to keep marriages strong. Thank you UFI.

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