Breaking Up is Not So Hard to Do




Half of marriages in the United States eventually end in divorce. In addition to just being a socially-accepted norm, a new study reveals that divorce may actually be contagious.

A new study, authored by researchers from Brown University, the University of San Diego, and Harvard University, reports that divorce spreads through social networks much like a cold or flu virus. They examined longitudinal data from approximately 5000 men and women involved in the long-running Framingham Heart Study. According to the authors, divorce spreads between friends and family members, and its effects extend at least two degrees of separation from the divorce.

In the study, people with a divorced friend are 147% more likely to get divorced than people without divorced friends. Those with a divorced coworker have a 55% increased risk of divorce. Apparently, friends and family members of divorcees see the positives and negatives associated with divorce, and then are able to make an informed decision regarding maintaining or dissolving their own marriage. Interestingly, the presence of children reduces the susceptibility of being influenced by divorced friends.

Another study of divorce concluded that the divorce rate is a function of the amount of unmarried people in a population. That is, the more single people in a community, the more pressure that is placed on married couples to dissolve their marriages.

Many factors influence marital health and durability, not just social networks or population demographics. Negative and positive premarital communication are predictors of marriage failure and success, respectively. Also, mental health problems exist that influence the ability of individuals to maintain positive relationships. The loss of a child also increases the likelihood that a couple will get divorced. Some factors are predictable before a marriage starts, while others are due to unexpected life experiences and circumstances. The current study did not factor in many such variables that may affect the divorce rate.

No matter the cause, divorce has far-reaching implications. It not only affects the couple getting divorced, but disrupts the traditional family structure, leading to dysfunctional parent-child relationships throughout adulthood and decreased quality of life for children of divorce. And, children of divorce are more likely to have out-of-wedlock children at a young age.

To claim that divorce is a result of little more than peer pressure is simplifying a significant societal concern. Divorce is a serious issue affecting families and communities and strategies aimed at supporting healthy, intact marriages are important for the health and well-being of future generations.

The current study is still a working paper, pending peer review and publication. It builds on the authors’ previous works that report qualities and behaviors including obesity, smoking, drinking, and happiness are also socially contagious.

References

Bracke PF, Colman E, Symoens SA, & Van Praag L (2010). Divorce, divorce rates, and professional care seeking for mental health problems in Europe: a cross-sectional population-based study. BMC public health, 10 PMID: 20429904

Gold KJ, Sen A, & Hayward RA (2010). Marriage and cohabitation outcomes after pregnancy loss. Pediatrics, 125 (5) PMID: 20368319

Hofferth SL, Goldscheider F. Family structure and the transition to early parenthood. Demography. May 2010;47(2):415-437. PMID: 20608104

Markman HJ, Rhoades GK, Stanley SM, Ragan EP, & Whitton SW (2010). The premarital communication roots of marital distress and divorce: the first five years of marriage. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 24 (3), 289-98 PMID: 20545402

Maxin D, & Berec L (2010). A two-sex demographic model with single-dependent divorce rate. Journal of theoretical biology, 265 (4), 647-56 PMID: 20542042

Shapiro A, & Remle RC (2010). Generational Jeopardy? Parents’ Marital Transitions and the Provision of Financial Transfers to Adult Children. The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences PMID: 20197303

Yu T, Pettit GS, Lansford JE, Dodge KA, & Bates JE (2010). The Interactive Effects of Marital Conflict and Divorce on Parent-Adult Children’s Relationships. Journal of marriage and the family, 72 (2), 282-292 PMID: 20544009

McDermott R, Fowler JH, Christakis NA. Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample Followed for 32 Years. 2010.

  • I agree with the findings of this article. Glad you addressed it. I can’t imagine that most people don’t have a few friends or acquaintences who have traversed down this copy-cat path of divorce. I’ve even witnessed the transition in one friend suddenly getting what they or anyone else may misinterpret as “courage” after watching someone else walk thru the steps of divorce. There are so many stages of divorce, because its no different than the grieving stages of losing a loved one. People put up positive fronts to affirm their decisions of splitting and to manage their decisions. It can be the most depressing time for the majority. I think the key is when it is inevitable for one couple, the remainder of affiliated people in challenging marriages can’t assume a divorce is right for them. Unfortunately the couple who truly had no choice but to divorce can subconsciously convince others to follow their lead because no one wants to stand alone in making such a bold move against their own promises and vows they made before an entire congregation, church, God, or crowd of family and friends. Most marriages are salvagable in my opinion, but it takes both people. The issue is when one remains stagnant and the other is willing to grow and mature. You can’t force someone to grow and accept responsibility and one person can’t do it for both.

    Great article!

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Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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