The Infectious Effects of Divorce and Marriage
October 6, 2017 | Published first in Institute for Family Studies
Many of us know a family who has gone through a divorce; it is heartbreaking. But we’ve come to expect it from the younger generations. What’s more baffling is when the older generation divorce. Even those of us who have divorce in our own history are affected when the long-term marriages of our grandparents or other elder family members end. When a retired boomer couple we knew—married for 43 years—divorced after moving to a retirement community, our children began having many doubts and questions about marriage. One day around the dinner table, one of the kids voiced their anxiety, stating that “you never know” if both mom and dad will be there for you as you grow up. This statement (and many besides), and the uncertainty, skepticism, and confusion in our children about a fundamental institution like marriage, worried us. We realized we had to be proactive in our teaching; we couldn’t assume that they would absorb respect for the institution.
What we know from experience—that divorce has an infectious effect—researchers Rose McDermott, James Fowler, and Nicholas Christakis confirm in their study, Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample. They write, “The results suggest that divorce can spread between friends. Clusters of divorces extend to two degrees of separation in the network.”
I would argue this might be especially true in insular groups like retirement communities, where a number of elements coalesce to create a perfect storm for social and personal dysfunction. One of these signs is the rise of divorce in the 50+ baby boomer American generation, what is sometimes called “gray divorce.” In a 2012 study published in The Journals of Gerontology, we learn first, that the United States has the highest rate of divorce in the world. And that Baby Boomers have shown high rates of marital instability beginning from young adulthood. As several studies indicate, Baby Boomers are carrying this marital instability into their latter years, giving rise to the gray divorce phenomenon. The study shows that the divorce rate for middle-aged (50-64) and older (65+) Americans has doubled since 1990. The authors, Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, tell us that “one in four persons who divorced in 2010 was aged 50 or older.” They continue:
Although this profile uncovers the rise in divorce among middle-aged and older adults as well as its correlates, it does not explicitly address the important question of why divorce has doubled among adults aged 50 and older. Indeed, the causes underlying the rapid rise in divorce among middle-aged and older adults are difficult if not impossible to establish using existing data.
Yet Brown and Lin posit that the primary factor in this dramatic rise is marital history. Other experts have given different reasons for the gray divorce phenomenon: longer life expectancy, financial autonomy for women, the fact that divorce has become easy and without stigma. The list is long, but Deirdre Bair, author of Calling It Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over, found that most reasons were some kind of variation of the theme, “It’s my time and if I don’t take it now, I never will.”
Not necessarily, according to Professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone. Looking for correlated variables, Cahn and Carbone dug into a 2016 study in an article for the Institute for Family Studies and found that financial insecurity and marital biographies (as Brown and Lin noted) were two major factors in Baby Boomer divorce. A notable third factor was the marital quality of the couple.
But if we consider the work of McDermott, Fowler, and Christakis, we cannot underestimate the social network effect on the Boomer generation. True, marital histories, economic stress, and marital quality can impact the health of a marriage, but social influence can act on a couple for good or for ill when they are in a weak position. Might we then not posit that older Americans insulating themselves in retirement communities, or mingling only with those in their particular age group, are creating an environment that could be fertile ground for the rise in their divorce rate?
If divorce spreads through social networks, then so does staying married. Not that long ago, my 18-year-old told me: “The reason I want to get married is because of you and dad.” This is not because my husband and I have a perfect marriage; this is the effect of modeling a long-lasting, albeit imperfect, one. The same is true when I look at my parents’ relationship and all the older couples we know in the Middle Eastern subculture here in the States and those abroad. McDermott, Fowler, and Christakis show that it is social rather than geographical distance that matters for divorce. Although it’s true that some of the first and second generation immigrants are succumbing to divorce due to assimilation (I was one in my first marriage, and I’ve known others) in general, I have observed that the younger generation of Middle Easterners, if sufficiently surrounded by older couples with long lasting marriages (no matter the healthiness of those relationships by American standards) have indeed lasted through rough patches. Not only this but among younger couples in the Middle Eastern community, if the overwhelming majority of their social network is Middle Eastern, this too helps marriages stay together.
The forever marriage factor built into my Middle Eastern Christian culture continues to have a positive influence on the young and old. Middle Eastern Christians of the same generation as the American Boomers are not experiencing this high divorce rate. And this is not due only to their Christian religion, as many of them tend to be only culturally religious; it is more about the social network effect and the forever marriage factor built into our culture.
We’ve seen this difference in the divorce rate between immigrant and native communities through some studies, as Nicholas Zill and Anne Snyder have documented on this blog (see here and here). In general, immigrant couples stay married despite factors like financial strain or education level.
The research on social network effects confirms what we know instinctively—culture matters, and the relationship choices of the people with whom we socialize can have a powerful impact on our own relationships, for better or for ill.
Luma Simms is an Associate Fellow at The Philos Project. Her essays and articles have appeared in First Things, Public Discourse, The Federalist, and other publications.