Is Divorce Contagious?

Maybe. A new working paper finds “that divorce can spread between friends, siblings, and coworkers, and there are clusters of divorcees that extend two degrees of separation in the network.” Rose McDermott, Nicholas A. Christakis, and?James H. Fowler relied on a 32-year sample from the Framingham Heart Study for their study. The authors conclude that “attending to the health of one’s friends’ marriages serves to support and enhance the durability of one’s own relationship, and that, from a policy perspective, divorce should be understood as a collective phenomenon that extends far beyond those directly affected.” (HT: Jon Forest)[%comments]


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  1. Ian Kemmish says:

    Follow the link, and the first sentence says: “it is also possible that attitudes about divorce flow across social ties”

    As a lapsed mathematician I appreciate the need to test even the most obvious concepts, but surely a “social tie” is, almost by definition, something across which attitudes about stuff flows? More interesting, surely, would be to mine the Framingham data for topics about which attitudes did not diffuse in this way? Ideally, perhaps, to present a paper about what did and what didn’t?

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  2. Jeffrey says:

    How about within families across generations? Is it more or less likely that a child of divorced parents will get a divorce of his/her own?

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  3. KarenS says:

    Maybe these people see how much happier their divorced friends and family members are, and decide to get out of their own unhappy marriage instead of continuing to make themselves miserable.

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  4. Greg says:

    Unfortunately, like many of their papers, the authors do not adequately control for contextual effects.

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  5. frankenduf says:

    could be chicken/egg- people who are more marriage averse may be more likely to hang out with similar types

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  6. MS. DAVIS says:


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  7. Eric says:

    Thank you frankenduf, that possibility occurred to me too as people are attracted to each other as friends/mates for multiple conscious/unconscious reasons that might be behaviorally/genetically based. Like the hovering “helicopter” parents’ behavior being blamed for their children’s anxiety. Perhaps it’s the parents’ genes causing them to hover? Then their children receive these genes and become genetically anxious themselves, even if they were raised in another household? No one ever brings these arguments up, so thanks again.

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  8. LizM says:

    It could also be that it takes one couple to “break the ice” so to speak. My personal experience has been that once one couple divorces, it’s suddenly more acceptable for others in that social group to do so. Also, couples in unhappy marriages see that it’s possible to survive a divorce (and in some cases come out stronger because of it) so they are less likely to fear the unknown. Finally, there is somewhat of a support system, other people in your social group that know what you’re going through.

    Frankenduf also has a good point – there may not be a causal relationship at all, it may just be that people that have more liberal views towards marriage (i.e. those that may be willing to get a divorce if the marriage isn’t working) tend to be friends with people who see the world similarly. I’m reminded of the oft-tossed around statistic (at least in the abstenence crowd) that people who live together before marriage are more likely to get a divorce. At least one study (I read it years ago and can’t remember the cite) found that living together doesn’t cause unhappy marriages, it just indicates a more liberal view towards marriage, and tends to correlate with a willingness to leave an unhappy marriage. Couples that don’t live together before marriage tend to have a more conservative view of marriage, and thus are more likely to view marriage as a life-time commitment that one must stay in. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a similar trend here.

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