Got a divorced friend? You might be next. It turns out that divorces are contagious.
Laura Soncrant of Chicago filed for divorce in February, after her two best girlfriends got divorced. One ended her marriage three years ago, and the other got divorced six years ago.
“I had asked for marriage counseling, and I tried to apply what I saw was happening there to us,” Soncrant said, explaining how she tried to use her friends’ experiences to better her marriage.
But when that didn’t work, she used a different tactic.
“I watched what they did and I learned from them very quietly,” she said. “Their journey gave me the strength I needed and the information and the knowledge that I needed to make it feasible for me.”
In the most recent study available on the topic, researchers from Brown University, Harvard University and the University of California at San Diego found that you’re 75 percent more likely to become divorced if a friend has divorced, and your odds of getting a divorce if a friend of a friend is divorced is 33 percent.
When a close friend gets a divorce, it alerts us to the possibilities, said Helen Fisher, author of “Anatomy of Love” and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute.
“One person starts doing it, and others look at their own lives, and they assess their lives: If he can do it, I can do it,” Fisher said.
This may be why many friends of Jessica Ashley avoided her when she was going through her divorce.
The 46-year-old Chicago-based certified divorce coach didn’t have any close friends who were divorced at the time, and her sudden split from her husband 11 years ago was shocking to them.
“They physically moved away from me when I talked about what was happening — they literally took four steps backward,” Ashley said. “Some shielded their husbands. The tension was there, and it lasted for years.”
While she was hurt by their avoidance, Ashley realized that her marital problems were bringing her friends’ issues to the forefront.
“Those who stopped talking to me were having their own issues, and someone getting a divorce made it seem like a possibility,” she said.
It’s more than a possibility, even if the other marriage is doing well, said Kevin Darne, who teaches relationship courses and is the author of “My Cat Won’t Bark! (A Relationship Epiphany).”
Misery loves company, and if a friend is complaining about her marriage, it’s only natural to chime in with complaints about your own spouse, Darne said.
“The more time they spend together looking at the negatives within their marriages, the more empathy they have for each other’s circumstance,” he said. And the more you focus on your spouse’s negative traits, the less love you may feel for him.
Then, once a friend divorces, that friend may experience a temporary high, which can seem very appealing, especially to someone who has been married for a while, said Pam Meyerson, a marital therapist in Illinois.
The recently divorced friend may start a new relationship, which is fun and exciting, compared with your seemingly stale marriage.
“Maybe the grass is greener, and it may look better,” Meyerson said. “In the beginning, you can survive on intimacy that’s completely different than intimacy in a marriage.”
Couples should be spending 16 hours of undivided attention together per week, with about six of those hours out of the house, Meyerson said.
While new couples may be putting in the hours and time that many people devote to a new relationship, it’s rare that longer-term married couples do. And the marriage suffers.
You might notice that your friend is happier now, and she has a new, exciting relationship. Plus, if she got a divorce, then she removed the shame in it, Meyerson said.
But it’s possible to avoid this fate, and even use a friend’s divorce to make your own marriage stronger.
One way to do it is to talk with your spouse (instead of your friend) about the problems you noticed in your friend’s marriage: They didn’t have sex, they didn’t talk, they were always angry, Fisher suggested.
Then, develop solutions for your own marriage to combat those potential issues, like going away for a weekend without the children or making more of an effort with each other.
“We watch reality TV because we think, ‘I could have done better than her — or I should do something like that,’ ” Fisher said. “Assess where you are and where your relationship should be improved — or whether it’s time to get out.”
The biggest advantage to observing a friend go through a divorce is that it provides you with an opportunity to have more communication in your own marriage, Darne said.
“Subjects which may have been difficult to bring up in the past can now be discussed because you can preface them by stating how you want to avoid what your friend is going through,” he said. “It’s also a real opportunity to count your blessings, and put more effort into keeping the magic alive in your marriage.”
You should also be aware that as humans, we are prone to copying behaviors.
We watch what’s happening socially around us, and we mimic, Fisher said.
Studies have even found that suicides are contagious.
“One person starts doing it, and others look at their own lives: If he can do it, I can do it too,” Fisher said.
The good news is that when a friend divorces, it won’t rattle couples in great marriages, she said — especially if they talk about their friends’ divorce. But it does make you think more about your past, present and future.
“It alerts you to the possibilities,” Fisher said.
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