Almost one in two marriages ends in divorce, according to statistics that we all probably know by now – but were you aware that your likelihood of getting divorced is higher when your friends and family’s marriages break up?
This phenomenon of “divorce contagion” has been explored by scientists – one study found that you are 75% more likely to get divorced if you have a close friend who is also divorced. What’s more, people are 147% more likely to split if they have several divorced friends in their social network, compared to people who are married and hang out with mostly married friends.
Even having a divorced brother or sister means you are 22% more likely to get divorced yourself, while having divorced co-workers increases your chances of splitting up with a partner by 50%.
Samantha*, 40, saw two of her closest friends each go through a relationship breakup – and within a year she too found herself calling time on her marriage.
“It forced me to look at my own relationship and reassess what I really wanted,” she tells HuffPost UK. During that same year, Samantha discovered that her husband had had a short-lived affair with a female work colleague.
But it wasn’t his infidelity that ended up being the reason for their subsequent divorce. It was her feelings about it. “I found out he had cheated on me,” she says. “And then I realised something: I didn’t really care.”
Samantha, who gave up a career in finance to look after their three children, said that hearing her friends talk about the intricacies of their marital problems forced her own relationship issues into the spotlight.
“I knew I had to make a big change,” she says. “After I found out about the affair I kept thinking about how I should be feeling. I knew I should be angry and heartbroken. That’s what you always hear about people being cheated on. But I just wasn’t.
“I was sad for the kids, and scared about the future, but I realised we’d been growing apart for a long time before anything happened.”
She might not have been brave enough to leave her partner had she not witnessed her friends go through the very same thing and, crucially, come out the other side, Samantha says. “Seeing them survive something so big and so life-changing gave me the confidence to address the elephant in the room. I was too scared before. I ignored all the red flags. My friends helped me realise I didn’t have to.”
“There’s far too much pressure put on women – or couples in general – to feel like they’ve failed if their marriage doesn’t work out.”
Chartered psychologist Dr Caroline Schuster says Samantha’s account echoes the experiences of some of the clients she has treated. “Peer comparisons can impact on relationships. It can highlight similar issues in your own relationship, and things can go from there,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“Sometimes the relationship is irretrievable; other times I have clients coming into clinic and wanting to work on it. And sometimes ending a marriage can seem like the easiest option.”
Dr Schuster believes one of the reasons a group of friends may experience the ‘knock-on’ effect of divorce is because it has become more socially acceptable for women to walk away.
“We’re living in an age where women are stronger and it is easier for them to say they want more,” she says. “They may not feel they need to stay in an unhappy marriage – or a marriage where they are being coercively controlled, or experiencing violence – because of changing social attitudes.”
But watching people close to you go through a divorce can work the other way around. Jo*, 28, tells HuffPost that when her mum got divorced, some friends drifted away – as if they were scared the break-down of her relationship might be ‘catching’.
“She used to joke and say things like ‘maybe they’re scared I’ll steal their husbands, now!’ but I could tell deep down that it hurt. Thankfully, she had a few close pals that rallied around, but others were nowhere to be seen when she needed them most.”
Samantha says this was something she was worried about, too. “I buried my head in the sand for years about our relationship,” she says. “I was so frightened of what people would say. I didn’t want to be ‘the bad guy’. I didn’t want it to be ‘my fault’.”
But now, she says, she doesn’t feel regret – and neither do her friends. “In many ways, I’m living my best life,” she says. “I can be more selfish. The kids are young enough to have taken it in their stride. And we’re being as kind to each other as we can.”
She adds: “I think there’s far too much pressure put on women, or couples in general, to feel like they’ve ‘failed’ if their marriage doesn’t work out. “I’m spending more quality time by myself, and more time with my friends, than I ever used to. And we’re about to book a girls’ holiday to Spain!”
* Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.