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.


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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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