Science: Divorce could be contagious!

“The contagion of divorce can spread through a social network like a rumor," according to a new study

Published October 21, 2013 5:12PM (EDT)

            (<a href=''>Mincemeat</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Mincemeat via Shutterstock)

Are you a married person? Do you have friends and family outside of your relationship? Well then science has news for you.

According to a new study published in the journal Social Forces, the divorce of a friend or close relative dramatically increases the odds that your marriage will end in divorce, too.

Researchers at Brown University analyzed three decades of data on marriage, divorce and remarriage from thousands of residents of Framingham, Mass., and found that study participants were 75 percent more likely to become divorced if a friend is divorced, and 33 percent more likely to divorce if a friend of a friend ends his or her marriage.

“Approaching the epidemiology of divorce from the perspective of an epidemic may be apt in more ways than one,” writes lead researcher Rose McDermott. “The contagion of divorce can spread through a social network like a rumor, affecting friends up to two degrees removed.”

Scientists refer to the phenomenon as "social contagion," and friends and family have been found to have a similar influence on other life decisions people make, like if and when to have children.

Interestingly, while researchers identified the "contagion" effect among relationships that are one and two steps removed (the participant's friends and close family, as well as the friends and close family of the participant's friends and close family), it ceases to have an impact among relationships that are three steps removed. That means, having a friend of a friend of a friend go through a divorce does not significantly change the likelihood that a person will divorce.

But, as Rich Morin at the Pew Research Center notes, researchers acknowledged that their study group was limited, and so their findings cannot be interpreted as nationally representative.

Researchers also suggested that if divorce is contagious, lasting relationships might be, too.

“We suggest that attending to the health of one’s friends’ marriages might serve to support and enhance the durability of one’s own relationship,” researchers concluded. “Although the evidence we present here is limited to a single network … marriages endure within the context of communities of healthy relationships and within the context of social networks that encourage and support such unions.”

It's an interesting study, but the language and framing seems to assume that divorce is always a bad thing, when that's not the case. As other studies have shown, ending a high-conflict or otherwise unworkable relationship, particularly when there are children involved, can be a really positive, healthy move for all involved. So while identifying how relationships with others can influence our own behaviors and choices is a fascinating topic, divorce is not the relationship status equivalent of that pig-bat hybrid virus in "Contagion."

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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