Study suggests divorce spreads contagiously among social groups

Many people in New York State have heard of social contagion, which is essentially the spread of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors through a social group. This theory has been used to explain the spread of various habits, from losing weight to smoking, but many people don't realize social contagion may also affect their relationships; recent research indicates that even the decision to get a divorce may be contagious.

Peer influence on divorce decisions

The Brown University study analyzed three decades of data that was collected during the Framingham Heart Study, which was a longitudinal survey that began in 1948. More than 5,000 people were initially enrolled in the study and interviewed every two years. Later, a second generation of another 5,000 participants entered the study. These participants were interviewed every four years.

Although the data was collected for medical purposes, it also offers researchers an opportunity to study social connections. Study participants were asked to identify friends or family members every time they were surveyed, and the average participant had 11 friends or family members who were also participants. Based on interviews conducted between 1971 and 2001, the Brown University team made the following conclusions:

  • People with at least one divorced friend were 75 percent more likely to personally seek a divorce.
  • People with a divorced friend of a friend were 33 percent more likely to get divorced.
  • Third-degree connections had no noticeable impact on the likelihood of a participant divorcing.
  • Overall, the divorce rate among people with a divorced friend was 16 percent, while the rate was 12 percent among people with a divorced friend of a friend.

Researchers caution that these findings do not necessarily represent the kind of results that a larger-scale study would generate. The study participants all had similar levels of education and income, for instance, and the study did not account for divorced friends who were not part of the study. Still, it's not unreasonable to think divorce may be contagious to an extent among other groups as well.

People who would otherwise be hesitant to divorce may gain confidence when they see friends successfully work through issues such as property division and child custody. People who wish to spare family members or friends from the issues inherent to divorce could be emboldened if someone else in the group goes through a separation first. According to the New York Post, anecdotal evidence suggests that "copycat divorces" are not so uncommon.

Making the optimal decision

The concept of the contagious nature of divorce can occasionally be beneficial when the support of friends and acquaintances has an empowering effect on someone who was already considering a divorce. However, the contagious nature could be harmful when peer influence leads people to pursue divorces they do not truly want. In light of this effect, it is crucial that anyone considering a divorce fully considers the legal and financial consequences to make sure separating is the right choice.

Anyone thinking of seeking a divorce in New York should make sure to meet with an attorney to discuss likely outcomes and means of preparing for the separation. David I. Grauer welcomes the opportunity to discuss the matter with you and urges you to reach out.