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Is Divorce Contagious?

Although most of us have never met them, we were saddened and shocked to hear about the breakup of Al and Tipper Gore’s 40-year marriage.  Days later, we got another jolt when their daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, announced that she, too, was separating from her husband of 13 years.  These simultaneous splits made us wonder if divorce can be contagious.

According to experts, divorce most certainly can spread like a disease.  It’s call the theory of social contagion and it holds that emotions and behaviors can spread through social groups, infecting family, friends and even friends of friends.

According to a study headed by James H. Fowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, couples who have divorced friends are 147% more likely to end up divorced themselves than those whose close friends remain married.

“We think of a regular contagion like the flu.  You get a virus and you’re more likely to spread the symptoms to someone else. This is not just true for a virus. This is true for a lot of social behaviors.”

But what about families?  Did Karenna catch the divorce bug from her parents?  Perhaps.  But more telling, says Fowler, is the fact that Karenna’s sister, Kristin, split from her husband just last year.  That fact backs up his findings that reveal when one sibling gets divorced, her brothers and sisters are 22% more likely to end up divorced themselves.

While Fowler’s research only involved 5,000 people, anecdotal evidence would seem to lend credence to his claim that divorce is contagious.  Marriage counselor Jay Slupesky says he has witnessed the influence of other couple’s breakups on the marriages of his clients.  Seeing friends split up can inspire and even encourage those around them to go for it as well.

While about half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, there is at least one group who seems to have some immunity to the breakup bug.  Fowler says that couples with children are less likely to be be influenced by divorces among their friends.

Image: Ed Yourdon/Flickr

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