A few weeks ago, my wife and I learned of five married couples, with whom we had a connection, who had recently had to deal with infidelity, separation, and other major threats to their marriage. These revelations shocked us and caused my wife to develop anxieties and fears. With one of the couples, the husband had been unfaithful for over 15 years, and blames his actions on his wife being too miserable, undermining his masculinity, and not being intimate frequently enough with him. Shortly after learning about the troubles facing these couples, my wife and I were separating for work when she called me back and with deep concern said, “I’m scared. I do not want that to happen to us. I will start texting and emailing you more throughout the day as you asked.” With a smile, I simply responded, “Ok.” I enjoy receiving intimate text messages from her, except they do not come often enough.
It is certainly not uncommon to hear of marriages ending or coming under relentless pressure. My wife’s reaction was due to the fact that we know these couples and are close with some of them. Her concern triggered my curiosity and prompted me to investigate if divorce and other marital troubles are contagious.
Just recently, I was having an 8-mile run with a friend in preparation for the Bermuda Day Half-Marathon Derby to take place on May 24. We had completed this route together before. However, this time my friend actually stopped at about the 5-mile mark after feeling he could not run any further. Prior to this, I was confident I could finish this run, but when my friend stopped, I began to doubt myself. I started thinking that since we already ran it together before and he has now stopped, maybe, just maybe, I do not have what it takes and might have to stop soon as well.
In an article published in the July 2010 issue of Psychology Today magazine, author Susan Pease Gadoua highlighted research done by James Fowler of University of California, Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University, and Rose McDermott of Brown University. The researchers discovered that when close friends break-up, the odds of a marital split increases by 75%. They also discovered that people who have divorced friends in their larger social circles are 147% more likely to get a divorce than people who have friends still married. Furthermore, in a Gallup poll, 89% of people currently going through a divorce sited a family history of divorce as being a contributing factor to the ending of their marriage. For example, Former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, stunned the nation in 2010 with their announcement that they were separating after 40 years of marriage. Then the couple's eldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, announced shortly afterwards that she is separating from her husband after 13 years of marriage.
The researchers coined the term, “divorce clustering” to describe this phenomenon. These findings seem to substantiate my wife’s fears. I must admit that her fears have given rise to concerns of my own. In addition to the likelihood of the realization of a negative self-fulfilling prophecy, as a future marriage and family counselor, my thoughts are now dominated with how “divorce clustering” can be remedied.
In a fishbowl society like Bermuda where the population is just over 60,000, and where ‘everyone’ is somehow connected, “divorce clustering” can, if not already, have devastating effects on families. According to the Bermuda Government’s Department of Statistics, between 1998 and 2008, the number of divorces granted increased by 16%. Conversely, the number of marriages during the same period decreased by 30%. The crude divorce rate in Bermuda is 3.3 per 1000 people compared to America’s 4.95 out of every 1000 people (according to nationmaster.com) with a population upwards of 300,000,000.
It can be a mammoth task for counselors working to save and strengthen marriages. Nonetheless, all is not loss or hopeless. Acknowledging that there are other explanations as to why marriages fail, how can “divorce clustering” has less effect on married couples. I am proposing a solution drawing upon my own experiences as a husband and runner. The proposed solution is a three step cycle my wife and I employed to address the issue of “divorce clustering”.
1.Refocus – while it is important to empathize with and support couples experiencing marital troubles, it is more important for those who are connected to them to evaluate the health of their own marriage. I recommend this being done after things have “cooled down” with the other couple(s). The unaffected couple should take the opportunity to focus primarily on the positive aspects of their marriage. When my running partner had stopped running, I had to resist a strong urge to stop as well by assessing my own energy levels, physical state such as injuries, and my goal to complete the route. That activity helped me to refocus and continued running.
2.Repair – after refocusing, it might be the opportune time for couples to address some of the issues that have been threatening their marriage. In actual fact, some of these issues might surface naturally as a result of refocusing. At this step, couples are likely to have regular sessions with a counselor. It will be up to the counselor to choose the most appropriate and effective technique or intervention for working with couples. Each couple is different and so the technique that works for one couple might not work for another. Usually, when I am running, there is a certain point in time or certain distance when the urge to stop plateaus. Like my running partner, I usually feel as though I cannot make it any further. For married couples in Bermuda, this is between years 5 and 7. Statistics show that it is between these years that most couples get divorced. As in long distance running, so it is in marriage. It is endurance, training, and the right tools that help make the difference. Whenever I get to this point when running, in addition to sheer determination, I usually top up on fluids. Another interesting thing to note is that even though my running and I both do this, he uses a combination of water and Gatorade, while I use water and Powerade
3.Recommit – this is the final stage in the anti-“divorce clustering” cycle. In this stage, couples can actually recommit their vows to each other as well as one partner can recommit him-/herself to the marriage. Couples might decide to spend more quality time together, attend marriage enrichment seminars, and take steps to affair-proof their marriage. For some, this might turn out to be another honeymoon experience – definitely worth it. A likely positive spinoff of recommitting is unintentional encouragement to other couples. I propose that just as divorce has the potential to be contagious, commitment does as well. Something amazing happened to my running partner after he had stopped. He found that because I did not stop running, but kept on going, he was motivated to resume his running and complete the route. I will term this, “commitment outgrowth”. This simply suggest that couples who remain committed to each other will positively, and most likely unintentionally, influence couples who are close to them.
There seems to be something within most of us that wants to do what others are doing. This is the reason why peer pressure will always exist and influence our decisions. It is also the reason why divorce is contagious. The sad truth is that the culture we live in is very accepting of divorce. There are those who still have this idea that marriage should make them happy all the time. I am certain they learn very quickly, sometimes within minutes of saying, “I do,” that that is not the case. Nevertheless, we must encourage our clients to go the full distance - “until “natural” death do us part.”
So, will it happen to us, dear? I am committed to not let it. In the process, we will ensure that we infect those who are closest to us with the commitment virus. I believe we can all harness the power of contagion as it relates to divorce by actively promoting commitment. This will call for a complete shift in how divorce is seen, accepted, and even ‘celebrated’. Divorce had its run. It is now time to demonstrate and highlight the appeal of marital commitment.
Pete Saunders is a counselor in training at Capella University. He also writes a weekly blog and conducts a weekly video interview on manhood at razorsanddiapers.com