Pennsylvania divorces may be contagious, according to study

Many people in Reading are familiar with the feeling of finding marriage or children more appealing after close friends decide to tie the knot or have a child. However, many couples don't realize that this phenomenon might also work the opposite way. A new study suggests that the decision to divorce may spread contagiously among friends and even acquaintances.

Social contagion

Researchers from Brown University recently examined 30 years of data collected during the Framingham Heart Study, a longitudinal study of two generations of a Massachusetts community. More than 10,000 people were ultimately enrolled in the study and interviewed every two to four years. Though the study aimed to collect data on cardiovascular disease risk factors, researchers also gathered information that supports socially oriented studies.

During each interview, study participants were asked about their marital status. They were also asked to list any friends or family members who were participating in the study. On average, each participant knew 11 other participants. This provided extensive data to help researchers analyze the way family or friends might influence a person's health and decisions.

The Brown University researchers found that participants were more likely to divorce if their friends made the same decision. Specifically, the divorce risk increased as follows:

  • People who had a divorced friend were 75 percent more likely to divorce than other people. The divorce rate among this group was 16 percent, compared to an overall divorce rate of 9 percent.
  • People with a divorced friend of a friend were 33 percent more likely to divorce than other people. The divorce rate among this group was 12 percent, compared to the general rate of 9 percent.
  • The divorce of a twice-removed acquaintance - or the friend of a personal friend's friend - did not appear to affect a person's likelihood of divorcing.

There are a few intuitive explanations of why divorce may be contagious. CBS points out that emotions can be contagious, so the discontent friends feel in their marriages may be passed on to other friends. CNN notes that women may be more inspired to pursue a previously-considered separation, even a high-conflict divorce, after seeing friends make it through one successfully.

At the same time, the findings of the study are not completely conclusive. Though the decisions of friends can certainly influence a person's own decisions, divorce may not necessarily spread contagiously among every social group.

Study limitations

The structure of the study limits its findings in a few ways. First, people in the study had friends who were not participating, and some of those friends were likely divorced. Researchers have no way to account for the influence of these non-participants.

Additionally, the study did not include a diverse group of participants who reflected national demographic trends. Most of the study participants were Caucasian and middle class. Compared to the general U.S. population, they were more likely to be better educated and less likely to seek divorces. Thus, the study's results may not effectively predict the behaviors of other groups.

Still, anyone preparing for a divorce after the divorce of a family member or friend may want to recognize the possibility of contagion and carefully consider his or her motivations. Anyone considering a divorce in Pennsylvania should also meet with an attorney to discuss the potential outcomes and complications that could come with the decision.