Is divorce catching? That might seem like a ridiculous question, but there is more evidence for the idea than you might think. In a recent study, researchers at the prestigious Brown University on Rhode Island came to this very conclusion after analysing thirty years of marriage data collected from the inhabitants of Framingham, a town in Massachusetts.
The data suggests, they claim, that having a divorced friend increases your own chance of divorce by a rather startling 75 per cent. Even knowing someone who has been divorced will increase your own chances of divorce by as much as a third.
Meanwhile, it seems, children discourage divorce. A couple is less likely to be influenced by divorce amongst friends and acquaintances the more children they have.
The researchers write:
“Divorce represents the dissolution of a social tie, but it is also possible that attitudes about divorce flow across social ties…The results suggest that divorce can spread between friends.”
It is not difficult to see what might be happening here. Marriage is a very public commitment. We meet up with friends and family on our big day to declare our choice of partner and the apparent permanence of the relationship. Of course, everyone at the wedding, including the bride and groom, know full well that the union is subject to later revision. But still, it is difficult to admit you were wrong, difficult to announce to the world that your marriage has failed – whether it has collapsed because your partner ran off with someone else or because you both simply fell out of love with each other. It is a huge upheaval and can be both heartbreaking and expensive.
If you are not already boiling over with adrenalin or indignation, taking that first step – picking up the phone to call your solicitor or simply breaking the news to your spouse – can take real courage. Watching friends split or even hearing about acquaintances who have gone their separate ways may be a valuable validation of the thoughts going through your own mind. “If they can do it, so can I”. Taking that first step doesn’t seem quite so daunting when you know people who have already taken it.
Many a divorced person will admit they were influenced by friends, and ‘contagious’ divorce is certainly something I have observed amongst my own clients. But it is a surprise to see in the facts and figures of this extensive study just how pronounced the effect seems to be.
Intriguingly, the researchers conclude that “attending to the health of one’s friends’ marriages may serve to support and enhance the durability of one’s own relationship” – in other words, helping your friends overcome marital difficulties might make it easier to overcome problems in your own relationship. Doing so is effectively setting yourself a good example.
For the Brown University researchers, divorce is not just a personal event, but also “a collective phenomenon that extends beyond those directly affected.”
Food for thought!
Photo by Seth Reineke via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence