A new study has documented what counsellors have observed for years: divorce is contagious. Just like a virus, divorce spreads among social networks and influences marriages among the divorcing couple’s friends, family and work colleagues.
For example, got a divorced sibling? Your chances of divorcing go up by 22%. A divorced friend? Up by 147%. A divorced co-worker? Up by 55%. Got a friend who has a friend who is divorcing? Your chances of divorce go up too.*
In a culture where the ‘right’ to happiness is seen as a God-given entitlement, it is difficult for couples to see the merit in a relationship that isn’t meeting their expectations. As more couples abandon an unsatisfying marriage, the social acceptability of divorce increases and the fear of negative consequences dissipates. Having someone you know go through a divorce and survive it will soften your aversion to divorce and increase your openness to that possibility for your own marriage.
So what’s a couple to do? How can ANY marriage survive in this culture? Here’s some ‘preventive medicine’ tips:
- Bolster your immunity. The study found that people with children were less influenced by divorce contagion. A parent’s love for their children and their desire to do what’s best for them can motivate a couple to tough out a difficult situation. So love your children well; they’ll increase your resolve to seek solutions that keeps the family intact.
- Take a multi-vitamin. Make sure you hang out with people with strong, vibrant marriages. These are the friends who will fortify you against the inevitable brushes with divorce in your extended social network.
- Healthy Lifestyle. Like your body, your marriage needs good nutrition and regular exercise. Feed it with healthy attitudes and romantic attention. Seek opportunities to exercise your relationship muscles by reading about relationship research and doing some marriage enrichment.
- Good bacteria. The social contagion effect works for positive behaviours as well. So share the love: speak highly of your spouse and support the marriages of others – it will raise the marital optimism in your circle of influence.
Bottom line… We don’t live in a vacuum. We need to be conscious about how the people around us influence our views and choices. Despite popular wisdom, the research is clear; divorce does not on average make us happier, whereas a successful marriage does.
It’s not a matter of luck, it’s a matter of choice.
*Ref: James H. Fowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego studied the divorce contagion effect on a sample of 5,000. Coauthor of “Connected”, with Nicholas A. Christakis at Harvard University and Rose McDermott at Brown University. www.connectedthebook.com