Framingham Heart Study: Research Suggests Divorce May Be Contagious

“Approaching the epidemiology of divorce from the perspective of an epidemic may be apt in more than way than one,” wrote Rose McDermott, professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Dr. McDermott studied interviews with more than 5000 individuals over a 30-plus year period in one of the country’s longest running longitudinal research projects. She continued, “The contagion of divorce can spread through a social network like a rumor, affecting friends up to two degrees removed.”

 A longitudinal study is one that follows the same group of participants over a period of time, often many years. This allows for a team to establish sequences of events or behaviors rather than the snapshot that a cross-sectional survey can provide. Longitudinal studies are therefore more able to suggest cause-and-effect relationships.

McDermott’s team pored through the data gathered in a medical project called the Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948. The Heart Study was aimed at assembling information related to heart health and cardiovascular disease, but in doing so collected a great deal of demographic and socioeconomic information about the participants.

The Framingham Heart Study was conducted in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts, whose size and population relative to the size of the study was very attractive for relational research. Interviewees were asked to name their family and friends, and on average, knew more than 10 other study participants. This allowed McDermott and her team to compile marriage and divorce related data in such a way that social impact could be examined. Their research focused on the period between 1971 and 2001, which included seven rounds of interviews.

What they discovered was that participants’ likelihood of divorce increased by 75 percent if a friend or family member was divorced. If a second-degree friend, e.g., the friend of a friend or family member, was divorced, an individual was 33 percent more likely to follow suit. The researchers suggested that the findings seem to indicate that it may be time to start treating divorce “as a public and social problem, rather than solely as an individual or couple level phenomenon.”

When the same approach was taken with alcoholism, they note, social interventions became a more common method treatment. Dr. McDermott hypothesized that social awareness and support may have similar impact on divorce, and its associated medical, financial, and psychological risks. Additionally, “successful interventions could, in turn, lower the risk for divorce among [children of divorced parents.]”

 Since, by its definition, the Framingham Heart Study was geographically limited, the team’s quantified results may not necessarily match the public at large. Framingham, MA, is predominantly white and middle-class; therefore the results cannot be extrapolated directly to a national level. However, it can hardly be argued that Dr. McDermott’s team certainly has made some very interesting observations on the social nature of marriage and divorce.

If the divorce of someone close to you has caused you to begin considering divorce in Illinois, a qualified divorce lawyer can help. Contact an experienced DuPage County family law attorney for a review of your case. We will go over the options available to you under the law and assist you in making the best possible decisions.