Is Divorce Contagious?

Forget the flu. Did you catch the Divorce Bug?

Imagine this.  Your best friend comes over to tell you that she and her husband are getting a divorce.  You are shocked.  You knew they had some problems, but they always seemed to work through them.  They seemed so happy last week. You probably spend time listening and consoling your friend, but maybe you should be avoiding her?  Are you going to catch the divorce bug from her?  What will this do to your relationship?

In 2009, Rose McDermott of Brown University, James Fowler of University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University, began studying divorce.  By looking at the data collected from over 30 years of surveys, they concluded that when a close friend divorces the odds of marital split in your relationship increase by 75%.  If it is a friend of a friend, they still increase by 33%.  These researchers concluded that “divorce clustering” is a real phenomenon.

So avoid the divorce germs.

The End.


We can’t just avoid people who get divorced in our lives, and why would we want to.  What we need to look at is WHY there is a clustering affect with divorce rates. The WHY helps us to understand if they are really contagious.

  • One obvious reason why divorces cluster in social groups is that witnessing a divorce could make you feel better about leaving a marriage that you already weren’t happy in.  In a way, seeing that a friend or family member successfully left a bad marriage can be empowering to you.  “If she can leave, so can I! I don’t have to stay in this marriage.” You can also see that some of your biggest fears concerning divorce are not based in reality, when you see firsthand what the process is really like.  Armed with more information and more supports, you may be motivated to make a change.
  • Another reason could be that there could be sense of hopelessness that can fall over you when you see a couple that you thought were happy, break up.  “If they can’t make it, we never will.”  “They were so perfect together.”  ß Some people have this same reaction when celebrity couples break up.  We have to remember that we do not see what happens behind closed doors. People put a different face out to the world.  Their relationship does not reflect on ours.
  • There could also be thoughts that the grass is greener on the other side.  “She is so much happier single.” We always seem to want what we don’t have. Comparing our lives to other peoples often leave us to feeling like ours comes up short. No matter where we are at…if we could just be over there, we would be so much happier.
  • And finally one of the last reasons that divorces could cluster in social/family groups is, the influence of modeled behavior.  We learn many of our dynamics and relationship patterns from our families and we are most likely to choose a partner who reminds us of these relationships.  This means that we repeat a lot of the same patterns in our own relationships.  Why?  Because that is what we know and what feels safe to us.  If divorce is modeled for us, we may repeat that behavior.

So does a divorce bug really exist or does it just stir up some emotions that are already in there?

I would vote the emotion one, but I kind of live in the realm of emotions.  There is probably as much of a divorce bug and there is a baby bug, marriage bug, or buy a new car bug.  When people we are close to, have new things going on in their lives, we try and see how we compare.  Social media sure helps us do that.

This study got a lot of media attention but it is because it plays on our fears.  The reality is that divorce is something we have a say in.  It is not a contagious disease that is transmitted to us.  It is a decision that people make, usually after lots of thought and consideration.  So I agree that a friend going through a divorce can stir up a lot for you, but I do not believe relationships will just start disintegrating because of it.

Therapy can be a helpful place to work on changing patterns and working to get your relationship to a place that is strong and connected.  It can also be a place to process the different emotions and concerns that come up for you.  Sometimes relationships need a “check-up” to keep them on track.  Remember…The grass is greener where you water it…

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