Is divorce contagious? How to halt the divorce domino effect

In the space of six months, author Claire McGowan’s friendship group had racked up one broken engagement and two failed marriages – including her own. Which got her thinking…

Before I got divorced six years ago, one of the things that stopped me leaving my marriage was fear. Specifically, I was terrified of what people would say when they heard, especially my close-knit group of five female university friends. But by the time I got round to telling them about it, divorce was old news. Mine was the third relationship to implode in the space of just six months. 

I can pinpoint the exact moment the break-ups started. It was November 2012 and I was at my friend Mary’s birthday party in a Central London pub. I was 30 and had been unhappy in my six-year marriage for over a year, but whenever I tried to bring it up, my husband would say that I was never satisfied. There had been a lot of upheaval in our lives – he’d got a new, very stressful job; I had gone freelance as a writer and got a publishing deal and we’d been unsuccessfully trying to have a baby for over a year – so I thought there was some truth in what he was saying.

divorce domino effect
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Among my friends, three of us were married, one newly engaged to her girlfriend and one happily single. We’d noticed something had changed with Zoe, who’d been with her husband for ten years. On nights out she would leave early, or not turn up for long-standing plans, which wasn’t like her. A lawyer, she worked late all the time, sometimes even sleeping at the office. On that night, Zoe’s husband arrived without her. And although he spent the night texting her, asking where she was, she never showed up. 

Theirs wasn’t the only relationship on the rocks. Laura, who had just got engaged, turned up to the party very late. That night, she and her partner excitedly showed me pictures of the rings they were going to buy. As it turned out, that would never happen. 

The next day an email hit my inbox – Zoe and her husband were splitting up. He had gone home to confront her about their issues and they’d had a huge fight. She had already moved out of their house. I was sad for them but had known something wasn’t right. What surprised me was what happened next. My husband came home from work later that day and asked if I had got the email. ‘Do you think that will happen to us as well?’ he asked. I didn’t know what to say. I definitely wasn’t happy, but the idea of being divorced was still terrifying. I mumbled that we were fine and we carried on a little longer. 

Amonth or two later, Laura and her partner called off their engagement. It transpired that they’d been rowing for ages over money and work issues and the news about Zoe’s divorce had forced them into crisis talks. I was shocked. I’d spent most of the year wondering if I was going to get divorced and how I might break this news to people – now I wasn’t even going to be the second of our small group, let alone the first. 

Sure enough, my own divorce limped closer. We got through a terrible Christmas, where I ended up crying in the service station loos on the M25, wearing a reindeer-patterned jumper, and in March we decided to have a trial separation. I stayed at Zoe’s place and took care of her cats while she was on holiday with her new boyfriend. Although it was a freezing, snowy month and I was sad and lonely, I still felt happier than I did at home and could see how she’d made a life for herself after her own divorce. My husband and I split up for good in May 2013 and so in just six months, my friendship group had racked up two divorces and one broken engagement. 

Yet this isn’t an unusual occurrence. There’s evidence to show that divorces and break-ups can indeed spread throughout a group in this way. A 2013 study by Brown University in the US found that you’re 75 per cent more likely to get divorced if a friend or family member does. Co-workers divorcing also increases your chances, and even if a friend of a friend does it, you’re still 33 per cent more likely to split up yourself. It even has a name: ‘divorce clustering’. 

My friend Alison, in her 40s, has also experienced this. When she left her first husband several years ago, two of her friends did the same in quick succession. She says, ‘Both their husbands actually came round to my house to blame me for inspiring them to do it!’ She admits there may be some truth in the phenomenon – that once you see someone else with the courage to leave, you can do it yourself. ‘If I was willing to say that it wasn’t enough for me, then maybe my friends thought the same.’ My former workmate, Jennifer, noticed a similar trend among her friends in their 40s, when five of them announced their divorces in the space of weeks. Although Jennifer’s marriage is solid, she admits, ‘There’s something a bit unnerving about it and you do think, who’s next? It makes you wonder.’ 

Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at relationship counselling service Relate, agrees that divorces can follow a pattern. ‘When you see a friend getting divorced, it can be like holding up a mirror to issues in your own relationship.’ That’s what I experienced in my friendship group – as soon as divorce was on the table, it made it so much harder to pretend my own marriage was fine. I had been sitting on it for a long time, afraid to admit that, after my big fancy wedding just a few years before, it wasn’t going to work out. When I saw my friends being honest about their own problems, there was no excuse any more. 

There is some hope, however. Although 42 per cent of marriages in England and Wales will end in divorce, the overall rate has been falling for some time, and is at its lowest for 40 years. Ammanda has some advice on halting a ‘divorce domino’. ‘Having a light shone on any issues presents a real opportunity to improve your relationship with your partner. Of course, nobody should stay in a relationship where they feel deeply unhappy, but many couples overcome serious problems without it leading to a divorce. Seeking the support of a counsellor may be a good idea.’ 

Seven years on, my friends and I can joke about ‘the night of all the break-ups’, and tease Mary (still happily married) that it was her party that pushed us all over the edge. Although it was a dramatic and difficult time, I think it has worked out for the best. All three exes have new partners and my ex has a baby. Zoe and Laura are both in happy relationships, as am I – I’ve been with my boyfriend for four years. However, we have no plans to marry. I can’t stand the idea of being divorced a second time and would feel strange making those vows, knowing how impossible it is to promise things on behalf of your future self. But as a group, it hasn’t put us off weddings. My fifth friend, who was single at the time of all the break-ups (and, ironically, a divorce lawyer), watching in bemusement as everything fell apart around her, recently got married to a lovely man – and we were all there celebrating with them. Who knows, maybe our wave of terrible break-ups even showed her what not to do. 

How to halt the divorce domino effect

divorce domino effect
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By Relate relationship counsellor Ammanda Major

  • Check in with your partner regularly about how you’re both feeling in your relationship. That way you can spot any issues early before they creep up on you.
  • Make time for each other. When you have busy lives this may mean planning in a coffee, walk or date night. Do schedule a day or evening for intimacy too – this doesn’t need to lead to sex but should be a time to enjoy each other without distractions.
  • If you feel your relationship isn’t in a healthy place, consider seeing a counsellor. Try to do this as early as possible before things reach crisis point.
  • Be wary of letting others influence your decisions. Friends who’ve got divorced or stayed in an unhappy relationship may encourage you to do the same, but ultimately this might not be the right choice for you. 

Claire’s latest novel What You Did is published by Thomas & Mercer, price £8.99. To order a copy with a 20 percent discount until 22 September, call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.