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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Is Divorce Contagious?

The likelihood that people will opt for divorce if they are dissatisfied with their marriage is significantly greater if they are directly connected to others who are divorced, according to a study by three researchers at Brown University, the University of California San Diego and Harvard University. Their widely reported recent study, provocatively titled “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else Is Doing It Too,” described divorce as to some extent contagious. It is “possible that attitudes about divorce flow across social ties,” the report said.

However, social networks also possess a capacity to support marriage, the researchers said. They cited research indicating that “supportive friendship networks” may make it “easier for individuals to weather inevitable marital stresses without having to resort to marital rupture.” Moreover, they said, “attending to the health of one’s friends’ marriages serves to support and enhance the durability of one’s own relationship.”

One of the researchers, Rose McDermott, a political scientist at Brown, commented that “putting time and effort into your own marriage can help support your friends’ marriages, just as supporting their marriages can inadvertently help your own.” She called this “part of the intricate and intimate web of human relationships that allow people to survive and thrive in good times and bad.”

McDermott told this website that “communities matter” and that “asking for help when your relationship is in trouble can indirectly work to help maintain and strengthen the relationships of those around you.” She believes that “going it alone may hurt not only you, but others as well.”

Public policy represented another area of concern for the researchers. Public-policy initiatives based on greater understanding of the roles social networks play in divorce and its aftermath might result in lower rates of divorce for the children of divorced parents, the researchers proposed. They said divorce is “consequential” for parents and children in terms of “social dislocation,” commenting:

“It remains important to understand the reciprocal influence between divorce and [social] networks in developing programs designed to provide protection for individuals and children who may suffer social dislocation in the wake of its consequences.”

The researchers explained that “social support structures designed to address the particular medical, financial and psychological risks experienced by divorced individuals might help ameliorate the health and social consequences of those subject to marital rupture.” Successful public-policy “interventions could, in turn, lower the risk for divorce” among the children of divorced parents, the researchers added.

What shapes a person’s attitudes toward divorce? “While past work concentrated on parent-to-child transmission of divorce, we examined the influence of peer-to-peer transfer among friends, siblings, neighbors and co-workers,” the researchers said. According to their report, “one possibility is that people who get divorced promote divorce in others by demonstrating that it is personally beneficial (or at least tolerable) or by providing support that allows an individual to contemplate and endure a rupture in their primary relationship.”

Current statistics raise questions “about whether there is an ‘epidemic’ of divorce and, if so, whether there is a role of social contagion in this ‘epidemic,’” said the researchers, who, in addition to McDermott, included political scientist James H. Fowler of the University of California San Diego and sociologist Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard. They found that the impact of others’ divorces is reduced for couples who have children.

The researchers studied data from the famed Framingham Heart Study, which over a period of decades has collected a vast bank of data on generations of people in Framingham, Mass. Based on this data, the three researchers found that “divorce can spread between friends, siblings and co-workers.”

In addition, “there are clusters of divorcees that extend two degrees of separation in the network,” the researchers reported. “In other words,” they said, “a person’s tendency to divorce depends not just on his friend’s divorce status, but also extends to his friend’s friend.”

Thus, the results of this research reach “beyond previous work intimating a person-to-person effect to suggest a person-to-person-to person effect. Individuals who get divorced may influence not only their friends, but also their friends’ friends.”

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