A stereotype that divorce attorneys are all too familiar with is the idea that divorce is “contagious,” and that the person who wants to get a divorce “got the idea” from a friend or relative. Divorce lawyers hear this accusation all the time from their clients, but an in-depth sociological study indicates that there may be some truth to the concept.
Dr. Rose McDermott (Brown University), Dr. James Fowler (USC, San Diego), and Dr. Nicholas Christakis (Yale University) conducted a study called “Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample,” which was published in the 2013 of Social Forces, to look at how a person’s social network can affect whether or not that person gets divorced.
First, they examined the historical literature on the sociology of divorce. First, they noted that some sociological theory sees marriage as a form of “social exchange,” involving weighing internal benefits (i.e., companionship) and costs (i.e., time) against external benefits (i.e., money) and costs (i.e., social approval). Studies have found that external stressors, for example, financial strain, may increase the risk for divorce. More simply put, the risk of divorce increases when the benefits of staying in a marriage decrease in relation to the costs of the marriage – common sense, right?
The sociologists knew that divorce seems to “cluster” among social groups, and hypothesized that three different factors may be at play: 1) “influence” or “contagion,” meaning a person’s divorce would encourage or discourage another person from getting divorced; 2) “homophily,” meaning that divorcees are simply more likely to hang out with and date other divorcees; and 3) “confounding,” meaning that friends may experience similar social stressors (like an economic recession in a certain neighborhood) that could lead to divorce.
The scientists also hypothesized that there could be two different ways that a person’s social circle could affect divorce. The first was the structure of the circle – for example, when married couples share friends. The second was how “social contagion” could occur inside of the circle. This could mean, for example, that individuals with friends who have a negative attitude for divorce could have a lower risk of getting divorced.
To conduct the study, the scientists used data from the “Framingham Heart Study,” which was a several-decade-long study began in 1948, with its primary purpose to study the risk factors of cardiovascular disease. The study included a large sample size (over 10,000), but the scientists did note that nearly all the participants of the study were white.
The scientists found that there is a significant relationship between the likelihood a person will get divorced if their friend is divorced, and that this relationship even extends to the second degree of separation. They found a person is 75% more likely to be divorced if a friend, sibling, or other family member is divorced. Even if the divorced person is just a friend of a friend, a person is still 33% more likely of getting divorced.
More compelling is the fact that the study indicated that geographical distance did not affect these statistics. Even a divorced friend who lived hundreds of miles away made an individual more likely to be divorced. Perhaps counterintuitively, they also found that “popular” people have a lower risk of divorce – each person who named the individual a friend decreased the individual’s probability of being divorced by 10%. Conversely, individuals who were divorced tended to be less “popular,” possibly due to the loss of social contacts after a marriage ended.
The scientists also found that those who had friends who were connected with other friends of the same individual had a higher incidence of divorce, which may suggest that divorced individuals may tend to gravitate towards smaller, closer friend groups. While previous research indicated otherwise, the scientists here found that having mutual friends with a spouse did not lower the changes of divorce.
As for the hypothesis regarding the structure of the network, they found that divorce may have a stronger effect on structure than structure has on divorce, meaning divorcees tend to befriend and remarry other divorcees – in fact, divorcees are more than twice as likely to marry someone who has also been divorced. People who had a friend who was divorced were 270% more likely to get divorced themselves.
This study supports the theory of “social contagion,” that an individual’s attitudes, opinions, and behaviors are heavily influenced by those with whom the individual chooses to spend their time. Another phenomenon that is a strong indicator of this is having children – an individual is significantly more likely to have a child soon after his or her sibling has a child.
This study, while just one out of many, does seem to suggest that divorce is somewhat “contagious,” though correlation does not necessarily mean causation. People have many reasons for divorce. If you need a divorce, or are even just contemplating one, an experienced family law practitioner can help you navigate the process and help guide you to the decision that is right for you based on your unique circumstances.