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Divorce is catching for those subject to woolly thinking

Colette Douglas Home: When King Edward VIII married the divorcee Wallis Simpson, it cost him his throne.

Princess Margaret gave up her attempts to marry the divorced captain Peter Townsend because it might have ousted her from the succession. Back then, the divorced were treated like lepers. It was as if society feared divorce was contagious.

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Now the latest research from America suggests it is.

A study into the effects of divorce carried out over 32 years by respected psychologists and sociologists concludes: “The contagion of divorce can spread like a rumour.”

It found that our likelihood of divorcing can rise by as much as 75% if a friend divorces and 33% if the friend of a friend divorces. Divorces break out in clusters within social networks. We are even influenced by the marital fortunes of work colleagues. A divorce in the office can raise the chances of our marriage ending by 55%.

Findings such as these make you question whether we exercise as much independence of action as we like to think or whether we are much more susceptible to flock mentality, following each other like sheep.

We all recognise the tendency when it comes to fashion, hairstyles and even the way we furnish our homes. We know that social trends affect our behaviour. For example, the number of women drinking to excess today is greater than at any other time in history. Then there’s smoking: once a national pastime; now a habit with pariah status.

In so many things, we adjust to the flock mentality. But divorce? I don’t know about you, but I’m shocked to discover we’re just as easily influenced by the example of others when we decide to end our marriages and break up our families. I’m aghast because divorce is such a miserable business.

I’ve always seen it as a private grief. It was Tolstoy who said that each unhappy family was unhappy in its own way. Divorce is a private, small-scale tragedy. Isn’t it? Look at the statistics and ask yourself why anyone would contemplate it unless they were personally certain it was their only way forward.

Men who divorce lose 10% of their income. Women lose more than 20%. Both shed friends either because they take sides with the former spouse or because a divorcee is seen as a social threat by other couples.

Health declines and life expectancy dips particularly among men in the lowest income groups. As for the children of the divorced, they demonstrate a decline in educational attainment, income and job level. They are more likely to cohabit, marry young and divorce within five years.

Altogether, it makes an unattractive package. Surely it’s something sane people would contemplate only in exceptional circumstances and for deeply personal and particular reasons.

That seems to be the case only until a friend or the friend of a friend or a colleague does it first. And the effect is equally strong on men and women.

I have a friend who has always insisted that inertia is the saviour of marriages. She holds to the belief that many more couples than admit to it are living lives of quiet desperation. They float on, creatures of habit, shackled to one another, accepting the dissatisfactions with weary resignation.

Then into their millpond drops the stone of a friend’s divorce. It’s followed by another and a sense of restlessness enters the atmosphere. The recently divorced have a way of looking slimmer. It might be caused by stress but it looks good. They’re full of energy, moving home, finding a new flat, maybe sleeping with a new partner.

Only months ago they had children like you do and a mortgage like you do and love handles like you do. Now they have torn up the game plan, started afresh and the sky hasn’t fallen in. Their actions have made divorce possible for you. It’s true they have left a trail of disharmony in their wake. But on balance you are persuaded that the benefits they are enjoying outweigh the pain.

Sometimes there’s a straight­forward domino effect. And this I have observed three times. One couple splits making two people single, each finds a new partner causing two more marriages to fail – and so it goes on.

The divorced are likely to remarry and, when they do, they often choose to marry another divorced person. These marriages have a lower success rate and the rate continues to drop with each trip up the aisle.

Those who are feeling trapped and seeking escape will greet the findings with optimism. They may long for divorce contagion to enter their circle. Maybe now they will be the one to start the trend. But the research will send a wintry chill down the spines of those who imagine themselves to be happily married. Is their union only as strong as their group dynamic? Unfortunately, the short answer is yes.

The report’s writers suggest that it’s wise to promote the health of your friends’ marriages if you want to protect your own. You might also want to be nicer to people since they also discovered that popular people are less likely to divorce. They didn’t discover why this is but popular people may be skilled at relationships or they have so many friends the pressure is off their spouse.

Also, if you share friends with your spouse you are less likely to divorce than if you socialise separately. Despite popular notions that children cement relationships, their existence seems to make little difference to whether or not a couple divorces. However, the effect of peer pressure diminishes with each additional child.

So where does all this leave those who are still negotiating the marriage minefield?

The best thing to do, according to my reading of the report, is for married couples to have large families and to cultivate a wide circle of shared friends.

If that doesn’t work, perhaps you should consider the experience of Kingsley Amis. When asked if he regretted divorcing his first wife, he replied: “Only all the time.”

It makes more sense than following the flock, doesn’t it? Baa. Baa.

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