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Is divorce contagion really a thing?

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divorce contagion - The catholic weekly - Smartloving
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Usually associated with adolescents, social contagion refers to the spread of behaviours, attitudes, and emotions through a social group.

The mechanism is indiscriminate, so good, bad, or simply untrue ideas can equally be captured and amplified. Susceptible populations, like the young, the socially insecure, or the intellectually under-developed are especially vulnerable.

It’s not really a new phenomenon—after all, every revolution in history ‘caught on’ via social contagion. What’s different in our age is its turbo-boosting by digital social media. In a matter of hours, an idea ‘birthed’ on one continent can become a movement on the other side of the world.

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While many social contagions begin life as noble causes inspired by good intentions, too often they get hijacked by extremist views or activists of ill intent. We can all think of examples when a good idea turned sour when it was taken too far.

A noble idea gone rogue

No-fault divorce is one of those in our view. Initially proposed as a more humane way to manage chronically dysfunctional or dangerous marriages, the legal reforms removed the need to prove ‘fault’.

Fault was usually aligned with one of the four ‘A’s’—abuse, adultery, addiction, or abandonment. And one couldn’t just claim it—an abused or betrayed spouse had to prove it with photographs, medical or police reports, and eye-witness accounts.

The stakes were high. The at-fault party often lost access to children and financial assets. Consequently, many women, in particular, chose to stay rather than risk destitution with dependent children.

divorce contagion - the catholic weekly

Francine’s grandmother is one such example. She tolerated a dangerous marriage for two decades before her adult children intervened.

Family law reforms also introduced a new justification for divorce in ‘irreconcilable differences’. It posited that if both spouses desired to end the marriage, their assets and parenting responsibilities could be split 50-50.

But it didn’t take long for ‘irreconcilable differences’ to be interpreted more and more creatively. The result was that no-fault divorce morphed into ‘no-serious-reason divorce’, and ‘unilateral divorce’.

Today, it’s possible to unilaterally initiate divorce for reasons such as having drifted apart, being bored with, or unfulfilled by one’s spouse, or just wanting to be with someone else. And their spouse is powerless to stop it.

We see this as a toxic development. It trivialises the trauma experienced by those affected by more serious situations and undermines marriage as a sacred and binding vow.

Everybody’s doing it

Is it also true that divorce is contagious? Research by Rose McDermott (Brown University) suggests it is.

McDermott’s team analysed three decades of data collected from thousands of residents in Framingham, Massachusetts. They found that participants were 75 per cent more likely to divorce if a close friend or family member was divorced.

These are described as first-degree contacts—people participants personally knew. Significantly, the chances of divorce also went up by a third for second degree contacts—the divorce of a friend of a friend.

Social contagion - The Catholic weekly

That’s the power of social contagion. It was first noted by physician Nicholas A. Christakis (Harvard University) who observed that the ‘widowhood effect’ (ie. the increased mortality following a spouse’s death) extended to other family members, and the friends of those members.

We don’t live in a vacuum. Our attitudes and behaviours are shaped by those with whom we associate and the culture in which we live.

As more couples abandon an unsatisfying marriage, the social acceptability of divorce increases, and the incentives to work through difficulties declines. The simple reality is the more we’re exposed to something, the more it becomes normal to us.

Equally, if social contagion can drive up divorce rates and other negative trends, it can also amplify positive influences. Find a tribe that honours life-long marriage and proactively pursues it.

Immerse yourself in those social networks and watch your family and friends—and friends of friends—reap the benefits.

Francine and Byron Pirola are the co-founders of SmartLoving. For more, visit

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