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Divorce is contagious — and it happened to me.

Most of us go through life believing that all of our choices are as unique and individual as we are. As our future unfolds, we’re comfortable in the notion that however, the story goes, at least we made the choices we made of our own accord — but it’s not quite that simple. Our friends...
Time: 13:04     Date: 16.04.2018
US Living News: Divorce is contagious — and it happened to me. NY Post 24 - US News

As our future unfolds, we’re comfortable in the notion that however, the story goes, at least we made the choices we made of our own accord — but it’s not quite that simple.

Our friends give us the formula for life

Take for example the fact that, for many circles of friends, the years between 28 and 32 will be littered with more weddings than your wallet can handle. For a few years there you’ll be swilling champagne and dancing the Nutbush what feels like every weekend.

A few years later, as if on cue, the babies will start filing out, one by one.

Is it a coincidence that most of our friends find their soulmates and then start having babies all within the same few years of each other? Of course not.

There is a big social component to the times at which we each decide to make major life decisions like marriage — including, research suggests, when and if those marriages end.

According to a study conducted across three US universities, you’re 75 percent more likely to get divorced if at least one member of your close friendship circle ends their marriage.

Yep, 75 percent.

Researchers arrived at this extraordinary figure using a longitudinal study which examined participants over a 32-year period. Their findings, published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information showed that divorce was something that could be passed on through “social contagion.”

The divorce cluster

iStockphoto

Rosie* was never expecting to wind up single at 30.

Married to the man of her dreams since she was 25 and running a successful small business, she thought she knew the way her life was going to play out.

The couple had a tight-knit group of friends whose weekends were filled with the kind of Insta-worthy pursuits that most young inner-city millennials take part in.

“We were always organizing brunches, weekends away and nights out together,” she explains to whimn.com.au. “It was that magic stage where most of us were coupled up but no one had kids yet, so we were cashed up young professionals in love with our city and our friends. It was a great time.”

Before long, however, cracks in Rosie’s relationship with her husband, Fergus* began to show.

“It was nothing too dramatic,” she reveals. “Just the usual problems that begin to snowball if you don’t address them early on.”

“We realized we’d actually been growing apart for years; he worked away a lot and when he was home we both favored group activities to couple time, perhaps because we sensed we had less and less in common over time.”

Long story short, Rosie and Fergus decided to separate. Rosie initially worried that her new relationship status would alienate her from the rest of their coupled-up gang until another close friend confided that she was experiencing similar problems in her own marriage.

A chain reaction?

Over the next few months, Rosie found herself commiserating with her troubled friend over her relationship, while trying to come to terms with her own heartbreak.

Eventually, the news she’d been expecting came when her friend turned up on her doorstep: she’d left her husband as well.

Suddenly, the two women who had been bridesmaids at each other’s weddings just a few years earlier found themselves living together as roommates after their respective break-ups. By the time a third friend showed up unexpectedly on their doorstep one night, tearfully proclaiming that her own marriage had ended, Rosie and her friends were well and truly weirded out.

“I started feeling really weird, not only about my own relationship but about whether I was codependent with my friends — or if they were dependent on me,” she explains. “It was just a really bizarre thing and I wondered if I had set off this chain reaction, or if deep down I’d been trying to plant seeds in their heads. It was a bit of a headf**k, really.”

It turns out Rosie isn’t alone in her experience.

We spoke to Shelly, 42, who now lives in London after a divorce cluster ran through her friendship group. While she wasn’t actually married to her long-term partner when they split, they’d shared a life and home for seven years.

Like Rosie, Shelly was part of a tight-knit group who spent a lot of time with one another.

“It was so easy,” she said. “You never had to make any plans — you just had your crew and it was assumed you would spend every non-working day together.”

“When the first couple broke up, it was scary and, of course, you start to (perhaps selfishly) think ‘how will this impact me, I hope things don’t change.’ And then they do.”

Shelly’s friend was newly single, which meant that along with the tales of woe, Shelly and her other coupled-up girlfriends were exposed to their separated friends new single adventures.

“We heard stories of Tinder and single girl exploits and we looked on from our lustless relationships with curiosity and envy,” she admits.

Dan Auerbach, Relationship Counsellor with Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney, says this can be a contributing factor to the phenomenon of divorce contagion.

“When our friends are feeling unburdened from their old relationship and are telling us of new and exciting experiences with new partners, we may also start to long for the early romantic connection we felt with our partner,” he said.

“If the relationship hasn’t matured past the early infatuation phase which typically lasts six-24 months, we can feel start to feel agitated, distressed or empty and alone and unfulfilled.”

Sure enough, another couple from Shelly’s group began to fall apart.

“As the second relationship started to show cracks, everything changed. Before anything even happened, I could feel the shift in energy and I just wondered how this was all going to go.”

The second couple called it quits only a few months later and Shelly says that initially, this brought her closer to her partner.

“We felt united,” she explained. “Others hadn’t made it through, but we were different and we could. It felt like us against the world in some respects — we wondered how we could support our friends through this, but also felt proud for being strong enough to make it through. It also felt like we suddenly had each other to ourselves and didn’t have to worry about anyone else. However, as time went on, despite the foundations of a strong relationship clearly being intact, bickering got worse and I now wonder if a relationship that was so buffered by best friends, adventures, laughs and booze was suddenly forced out into the open.”

“Without this buffer, the underlying issues became apparent and sadly, we didn’t make it either,” Shelly says. But she doesn’t believe it’s all just down to peer pressure. “I think losing our core group of friends shone a light on existing issues and perhaps sped up the process of breaking up sooner than it would have played out otherwise.”

The other side of the fence

iStockphoto

Dan Auerbach says that empathy can be another factor in divorce clustering.

“We generally choose friends who we respect, admire or closely relate to,” he explains.

“When our friends share their experiences with us we are placing ourselves emotionally ‘into their shoes.’ That sort of experience can make us start to relate our friends’ experience and their chosen solutions, to our own lives.”

Basically, it becomes much easier to make that leap into deciding our own problems are more serious.

“When our friends share that they have separated from their partner after a long struggle to repair their relationship, it’s natural to notice the difficulties in our own relationship,” Dan continues. “If our friends seem relieved we may also start to relate those solutions to our own difficulties. As social beings, there is a strong contagion effect where we watch other’s experience, relate to it and try and use it as information in our own lives.”

So what is the lesson in all this? Should we be choosing our friends based on the strength of their marriages in order to innoculate our own against failure?

Dan reckons early intervention and open communication is a better option.

“Most couples go through cycles of disconnection or conflict,” he says.

“Getting through these phases and learning to communicate and respond to each other’s emotional needs is a very delicate process. When our friends separate we can experience a great deal of anxiety about own relationship security. If we don’t feel closely connected to our partner or are having regular fights, we can start to layer our friend’s decision onto our own very different situation as a logical solution. Unfortunately, most couples get stuck in conflict or distance patterns that don’t necessarily resolve themselves without some skilled intervention.”

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