Divorce is Like the Flu: Witnessing Someone Else's Divorce Could Increase the Odds You Divorce

Perhaps you already know that 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. There are many reasons that such a high number of people get divorced such as infidelity, addictions, financial problems, or religious differences, just to name a few. But you probably wouldn’t guess that divorce can actually be contagious, too. That is, if you are married and you have a pair of close friends who get divorced, your chance of divorcing increases by a whopping 75%.

A new study conducted by scientists at Harvard University, Brown University, and UC San Diego found that divorce is literally like a contagion that can spread through social groups like a virus, weakening the marriages closest to it. The study is called “Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effect on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample Followed for 32 Years” and analyzed the data of several generations of people in Framingham, Massachusetts beginning in the 1970s. Of the 5,000 participants, the researchers found that:

  • A person with a divorced sibling was 22% more likely to get a divorce.
  • A person with a divorced co-worker was 55% more likely to get a divorce than someone with all married co-workers.
  • Witnessing a friend of a friend’s divorce increased the likelihood of a marriage breaking up by 33%.
  • Couples with children were less susceptible to influence by other couples’ divorces.

So if you find yourself hugging your spouse just a little bit longer than usual after spending time with a divorced or divorcing couple, don’t be surprised. Professor James H. Fowler of UCSD stated that he thinks of the phenomenon as being like “a regular contagion like the flu” with the potential to spread symptoms to someone else.

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