You don’t give in to peer pressure, right? That was so Middle School! Surprisingly, adult you is still rather impressionable. Your chances of divorce just went up!
A study from researchers at Brown University, UC-San Diego, and Yale University has found that having a divorced friend can increase your own risk of a breakup by 75%. Similarly, more recent studies have found that being friends with someone who gets divorced makes someone 147% more likely to get divorced themselves. A person who has a sibling who gets divorced is 22% more likely to also split from his or her spouse. Similar findings related to infidelity have been discovered, too. (Infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce, after all.) What’s going on here?
Let’s try to understand why this happens and then think about how to avoid it. (And maybe even how to use this dynamic for good!)
This is known as “behavioral” or “social contagion.” It’s like an idea or lifestyle virus. The general concept is that one person introduces a new social norm into a group (divorce, infidelity) which reduces the social constraints against it or takes away some of the pressure to avoid it. They even make it seem more normal. The other members of the group then begin to look at themselves and their marriages differently.
They hear the benefits of divorce or infidelity from the person that introduced the “virus” and then reevaluate their own happiness. They look at their spouses and partners in a new, perhaps, unflattering light. Then the next person in the group takes the plunge, reducing social constraints even further and making divorce even more normal, which makes it even easier for the next person, and so on.
I’ve seen it spread in a social group with divorce and infidelity in about a year. The tighter-knit the group is, the easier and quicker the virus can be passed around. It doesn’t take someone saying, “You know, you should really consider divorce, sweetie…” and applying what we would call direct peer pressure. It can all happen on a level that we are not even directly conscious of, just like an insidious virus that we don’t even know has infected us.
The study, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample” did discover something extremely hopeful. “Interestingly, only outside support from friends and family predicted marital success in the time period examined.” Did you catch that?
Even as they proved the validity of the “social virus,” they also discovered the cure. Being tightly connected and supported by friends and family that are FOR your marriage “inoculates” you against the “social virus” and reduces your susceptibility.
To carry the analogy further, having friends and family that believe in and are committed to their marriages and faithfulness helps build up our “immunities” to divorce and infidelity. The same social dynamic can work in a positive way, too!
None of this is to say you should run away shrieking in terror from anyone who gets a divorce. Maybe they were the victim of domestic violence and need your support. On the other hand, it is a great reminder that none of us are above being influenced. Keeping toxic, negative people that don’t share our family values close to us may influence us much more than we care to acknowledge.
Written by John Daum