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The contagious nature of divorce.

June 5, 2011

I’ve linked to this study in the past, but I don’t recall anyone in the manosphere going through it.  When a friend of my wife decided to divorce it prompted me to revisit the study.  While I will share some of my own thoughts in this post, the bulk of it will be my synopsis of the study and selected quotes.  Feel free to view the entire study yourself and share your own thoughts in the comments section:

Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too:
Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample Followed for 32 Years

This paper used the data collected for the Framingham Heart Study to investigate the possibility that divorce spreads through networks of friends.  This kind of longitudinal survey is essential for the type of research they performed.  It allowed them to track both how a network of friends impacted divorce, as well as how divorce impacted the network of friends.  The data set they had to work with is extremely impressive.  It covers three generations and includes an incredible amount of detail.  They can tell for example not only if two people are friends, but if they are neighbors or coworkers.  They can also discern the direction of friendships;  often one person would list others as friends who didn’t happen to list them back.

What they found:

One’s likelihood to divorce is increased by the divorce of either a friend or a friend of a friend.  The impact is strongest with direct friends, but still significant for friends of a friend.  Geographical distance doesn’t seem to reduce this effect, but it is increased if the person divorcing lives in the same household:

The full network shows that participants are 75% (95% C.I. 58% to 96%) more likely to be divorced if a person (obviously other than their spouse) that they are directly connected to (at one degree of separation) is divorced. The size of the effect for people at two degrees of separation (e.g., the friend of a friend) is 33% (95%
C.I. 18% to 52%). At three degrees of separation the effect disappears (–2%, 95% C.I. –12% to 9%), in contrast to the “three degrees of influence” rule of social network contagion that has been exhibited for obesity, smoking, happiness, and loneliness (Cacioppo et al. 2009; Christakis & Fowler 2007; Christakis & Fowler 2008; Fowler & Christakis 2008a).

Notice in the right panel of Figure 2 that the decline in the effect size with social distance contrasts to a lack of decline in the effect size as people become more geographicly distant from one another. Although the association in divorce status is stronger among people who co-reside in the same household (category 1 in Figure 2, p<0.001) geographic distance appears to have no effect on the strength of the association among those who do not reside together. We confirmed this result by testing an interaction between distance and the effect size. These results suggest that a divorced friend or family member who lives hundreds of miles away may have as much influence on an ego’s risk of divorce as one who lives next door.

They also found that while the social network impacts divorce, divorce also changes the structure of the social network:

Table 2 shows that the causal arrow also points in the opposite direction: divorce has a significant effect on the structure of the network. People who go through a divorce experience a 4% (C.I. 0% to 8%) decrease in the number of people who name them as friends. They also name about 7% (C.I. 3% to 12%) fewer friends on average. People who get divorced may become less popular at least partly because they likely lose members of their spouse’s social network as friends. In addition, newly single friends may be perceived as social threats by married friends who worry about marital poaching, or suspect their partner may be susceptible to infidelity.  Table 3 shows that divorce also has an effect on the pattern of ties between ones’ friends.  A measure of transitivity – the probability that two of ones’ contacts are connected with one another – is significantly related to previous divorce status (even controlling for the total number of contacts, which is structurally related to transitivity). The implication is that people who go through a divorce tend to immerse themselves in denser groups with fewer ties outside these groups. In contrast, transitivity appears to have no effect on the future likelihood of divorce (p=0.37). Moreover, we find that sharing the same friends with one’s spouse does not significantly mitigate the likelihood of divorce. The correlation between sharing at least one friend and getting divorced at the next exam is negative but not significant (Pearson rho = -0.012, p=0.20). Similarly, the correlation between fraction of shared friends and getting divorced at the next exam is negative but not significant (Pearson rho = -0.011, p=0.22). Taken together, these results suggest that divorce has a stronger effect on the structure of the network than the structure of the network has on divorce.

As I mentioned in the beginning, they were able to determine a great deal about the nature of the connections between people.  This turns out to be very significant:

People who have named a friend who has gotten divorced are 147% (95% C.I. 13% to 368%) more likely to get divorced themselves by the time they come to their next exam. Among friends, we can distinguish additional possibilities. Since each person was asked to name a friend, and not all of these nominations were reciprocated, we have ego-perceived friends (denoted here as “friends”) and “alter-perceived friends” (the alter named the ego as a friend, but not vice versa). We find that the influence of alter-perceived friends is not significant (the estimate is 23%, C.I. –53% to 165%).  If the associations in the social network were merely due to shared experience, the significance and effect sizes for different types of friendships should be similar. That is, if some third factor were explaining both ego and alter divorce decisions, it should not respect the directionality of the friendship tie.

We also find significant effects for other kinds of alters. People with a divorced sibling are 22% (95% C.I. 0.1% to 45%) more likely to get divorced by the next exam than those without a divorced sibling. And while neighbors who live within 25 meters do not appear to affect each other (23%, C.I. –18% to 77%), we do find a significant association among co-workers at small firms (defined as those where 10 or fewer FHS participants work). People with a divorced co-worker are 55% more likely to get divorced at the next exam (C.I. 2% to 126%) than those with a non-divorced co-worker.

Interestingly they found that the role of children in preventing divorce seems very specific to sheltering the couple from the contagious effect of divorce:

We wondered whether children would have a protective effect by encouraging couples who would otherwise get divorced to stay together for the sake of raising their children, or to provide a self conscious role model against their children’s future prospects for divorce. As noted earlier, most literature and cross-sectional data suggests that children reduce the likelihood of divorce slightly, although childlessness, and especially infertility, can also sometimes precipitate divorce. In Table 6, we study the relationship between number of children and divorce and we find no such effect; in fact, the main effect of children on divorce is slightly positive, albeit not significant at conventional levels (p=0.13). However, we also include an interaction between the alter’s divorce status and ego’s number of children and we find that each additional child significantly (p=0.05) reduces the effect of alter’s divorce status on ego’s likelihood of getting divorced. For couples with no children the effect is much stronger than average—an alter who is divorced nearly sextuples the risk of divorce in the ego (593%, C.I.106% to 1593%). But by the time a person has a third child, the effect of alter’s divorce status becomes insignificant (84%, C.I. –33% to 306%) and by the fifth child it completely vanishes (–4%, C.I. –86% to 233%). These results suggest that the protective effect of children acts specifically on a parent’s susceptibility to influence by peers who have gotten divorced.

The most surprising finding of the study for me was that the effect was the same for men and women:

It is important to note that there are no detectable gender interactions with any of the effects shown (results available on request). Men and women appear to be equally susceptible to splitting up if their friends do it.

This last point wasn’t explored in the paper any further, and seems like an area worth much more investigation.  How does this finding square with the fact that women generally initiate divorce at least twice as often as men?

They also explain why understanding the patterns around divorce is so important:

Divorce is consequential, and a better understanding of the social processes contributing to this behavior offers the promise of possibly being able to reduce the adverse effects of divorce. For example, one recent study showed that, on average, womens’ standard of living declines by 27% while men’s standard of living increases by 10% following divorce (Peterson, 1996). Divorce also appears to exert a decisive effect on overall mortality; married people have higher longevity than unmarried (Ben-Schlomo et al., 1993; Goldman, 1993; Elwert and Christakis, 2006). These mortality rates typically differ by gender, such that men demonstrate greater effects (Koskenvuo et al., 1986), but unemployed women and unskilled male workers in particular may suffer lower rates of life expectancy in the wake of divorce (Hemstrom, 1996). In addition, divorced people tend to have more health problems (Joung et al., 1997; Murphy et al., 1997; Elwert and Christakis, 2008)

Edit:  Several commenters strongly challenged the standard of living statistics from the Peterson study the authors cite in the quote above.  Namae Nanka linked to this article which appears to debunk the findings.  Either way, note that in the above quote the authors are citing a separate study.  This is entirely separate from their findings around the contagious nature of divorce.

I’ll close with one final quote which would be worth sharing with your pastor.  On the discussions on my blog and others (Elusive Wapiti and Terry Breathing Grace) many Christians were hesitant to take a hard a stand on divorce within the congregation because it might discourage those who need saving the most from attending.  I am by no means an expert in this area, but my understanding is that the biblical concept of rebuke is very fitting here.  However, for those Christians who aren’t convinced by the Bible, perhaps science can sway them:

If divorce can be understood as a public and social problem, rather than solely as an individual phenomenon, health interventions based on previous successful public health campaigns may prove beneficial for mitigating its effects, if not its prevalence.

Churches have an extremely powerful tool at their disposal should they ever decide to take on divorce in anywhere near a serious fashion.  There are all sorts of opportunities to discourage the wrong behavior and reinforce the right behavior within the social structure of the congregation.  Since women are especially concerned with social hierarchies, this would be especially effective with the group most likely to decide to divorce.  Moreover, since the direction of the friendship (who has the social status/power) is crucial to the transmission of divorce, a solution could be crafted which changed the social hierarchy within the congregation of those who divorce.  This would allow divorcees to continue as part of the congregation while muting their ability to transmit the contagion to others.

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Title The contagious nature of divorce.
Author Dalrock
Date June 5, 2011 11:59 PM UTC (12 years ago)
Blog Dalrock
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