Is Divorce Contagious?

Seeing a friend go through a divorce is bad enough. However, research at Brown University now indicates that if your friend is divorcing, your chances of becoming divorced yourself increase by 75 percent.

Can Divorce Be Contagious?

According to a 30-year study conducted by Brown University’s Rose McDermott,  “[a]pproaching the epidemiology of divorce from the perspective of an epidemic may be apt in more ways than one. The contagion of divorce can spread through a social network like a rumor, affecting friends up to two degrees removed.” in other words, divorce may be contagious, for the simple reason that it becomes more socially acceptable if someone in your circle also gets a divorce.

Social contagion occurs when an attitude or behavior spreads and becomes acceptable among one’s family and social network. Here’s an example: if one adolescent sibling has a child, the other sibling has a greater than average chance of also becoming pregnant – as if the first sibling’s pregnancy had given the occasion a stamp of approval. The same social theory can apply to divorce.

Social Ties

The concept of degrees of separation relates to the ties that separate us from friends and family. Good friends are one degree removed; friends of friends are two degrees away, etc. McDermott’s study found that the divorce of a first-degree friend can have a significant effect on one’s own marriage. During the Brown University study, 9 percent of a group was divorced once. This number increased to 16 percent (close to double) if a close family member or friend had divorced.

The 9 percent increased to 12 percent if a friend of a friend, or second-degree social tie, experienced a divorce. After three degrees of social distancing, it appears that divorce has no significant effect.

The study concluded that more marriages survived if other marriages within the same social circle remained intact.

More Conclusions From Brown University Study

The same study concluded that there was a four times greater chance of a divorced individual marrying another divorced person.

Divorce made the study participants less socially popular and acceptable as the divorce had cost them friendships and their social circle consequently became narrower. This is exacerbated by the fact that a married friend may perceive a newly divorced friend as a threat to his or her own marriage and may create some distance.

It was revealed that popular members of a group with a large social network had less of a chance of divorcing. That could be the result of having a larger support group to help weather the occasional marital problems.

Can Divorce Look Appealing?

For some couples, a divorce can be a positive move forward and the beginning of a new life. This can be seen by their friends as appealing. Their friends may no longer consider remaining in an unhappy relationship as the only future as they see a divorce with a happy ending. A divorce can open people’s eyes to greater possibilities.

Social Contagion

Peer pressure within social circles can compel friends to act alike. If members are getting married, others will get married, as well. If couples are having babies, other couples within the social circle are more likely to have their own children. This means couples can frequently act out of social pressure rather than logic.

That is why when couples see their friends divorcing, they can become aware that they may have gotten married for the wrong reason. There is every possibility that these couples should not have been together in the first place, and this fact has now become obvious to them.

Couples who are unhappy but afraid to consider divorce for fear of becoming social outcasts can consider a friend’s divorce a needed boost of acceptability. If he or she can get divorced, so can I! Social contagion can provide social approval or disapproval within a particular circle.

Does the concept of divorce contagion imply that happily married couples will suddenly split up? Not at all. The divorce “bug” is likely to influence those couples who are experiencing conflict and negativity. These same people might view a divorcing couple with a certain amount of wistfulness and envy. The divorce of a friend can seem like a winning rather than a losing proposition.

A Friend’s Divorce Can Open Eyes

Many couples move through marriage without paying much attention. They married because society said they should. Whether or not they are happy isn’t a question that these couples pursue. It’s more likely shrugged off with an indifferent, “So, who is happy, anyway?”

Such a couple can have its eyes opened and world upended when it witnesses friends improving their life and being obviously happier and more content while apart. The question that can arise now is, “Why aren’t I as happy?”

Such insight can lead the couple to pursue a divorce of their own, after being influenced by the positive results of their friends’ divorce.


Divorce is hard and a loss. However, if someone’s marriage is already suffering and making their life miserable, seeing a friend grow and living a better life after his or her own divorce can surely persuade us to act and consider improving our own lives.

The legal process can get difficult, which is why we always recommend that you seek the assistance of counsel; or at least have a consultation. Schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys today to review the issues of your case, the legal options you may have, and certain rights that pertain to your unique situation.

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