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No man (or woman) is an island: the epidemiology of divorce

"No man is an island," wrote the famed English poet John Donne in the Elizabethan age. 

Today, about 500 years later, researchers are finding out more and more about how men and women are influenced by their social networks. To a considerable degree, many of their findings seem to confirm Donne's intuition.

For example, one recent research study found that the divorce of a close relative or friend can make it more likely that someone will be divorced.

In this post, we will discuss that study and the notion that, in some sense, divorce is contagious.

The study was done by team led by a Brown University researcher Rose McDermott. The team collected thousands of records on marriage, divorce and remarriage after divorce among the residents of the Massachusetts city of Framingham.

The researchers concluded that the chances of someone getting divorced were 75 percent higher if the person had a friend who got divorced. Obviously that is a significantly higher risk.

Indeed, the risk of divorce even went up, to a degree, for people who may not even have been directly connected. In particular, the chances of divorce went up 33 percent, the researchers found, if there was a divorce involving the friend of a friend. 

McDermott uses the word "epidemiology" to describe her divorce research. Sociologists refer to such phenomena as "social contagion." The premise is that attitudes can circulate through a social network and have serious influences on behavior.

This does not mean, however, that the vocabulary of disease can truly describe the complex reality of divorce in particular cases. To be sure, the sum total of all divorces has undeniable social effects. But in a given individual case, it may be the right way for a family to move forward.

Source: Pew Research Center, "Is divorce contagious?" Rich Morin, Oct. 21, 2013

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