Newsletter #68: Beware of the Contagiousness of Divorce
Welcome back to my monthly longform newsletter. This is always free, but you can get access to additional exclusive content, podcast and interview transcripts, commenting privileges, and access to the Subscriber Knowledge Base by becoming a Subscriber today.
One of my principles is to “build up, don’t just tear down.” In that light, I try to make sure that in addition to critiques and big think pieces that provide frameworks and insights to help you understand the world, I want to be providing practical, useful insight to help you live life.
Today I want to let you know to beware of divorce contagion.
Like many things, such as having children or even committing suicide, divorce appears to have an element of social contagion to it. As Pew wrote about a study on this:
McDermott and her colleagues found that study participants were 75% more likely to become divorced if a friend is divorced and 33% more likely to end their marriage if a friend of a friend is divorced.
So divorce is contagious…and you can catch the divorce bug from your friends—even from a friend of a friend? “Approaching the epidemiology of divorce from the perspective of an epidemic may be apt in more ways than one,” McDermott and her colleagues wrote in a forthcoming article in the journal Social Forces. “The contagion of divorce can spread through a social network like a rumor, affecting friends up to two degrees removed.” Sociologists call the phenomenon “social contagion”—the spread of information, attitudes and behaviors through friends, families and other social networks. [emphasis added]
What this means practically for you if you are married is that you need to keep an eye on the people in your own social circle, as well as your spouse’s social circle, looking for divorces.
When Your Spouses’ Friends Get Divorced
It’s said that you are the average of your five closest friends. What I’ve noticed is that people who are heading for divorce often have shifts in their friend network such that either a) their friends start getting a divorce, or b) they make some new friends who already are divorced.
In the latter case, perhaps divorce is not so much a matter of social contagion as it is that a spouse who is unhappy in marriage will gravitate towards people who are divorced and will validate those feelings. Hence I think that it is an even stronger signal that things are going wrong.
Regardless, if you see your spouse’s friend getting divorced or see your spouse start palling around with divorced people, you should treat this as a 911 emergency.
This is one of the many signals that people give off that their marriage or relationship might be in trouble. My wife is incredibly good at being able to deduce from people’s Instagram accounts whether they are heading for divorce. Presumably the major social media companies already have algorithms that pretty much know when divorce is happening. (It probably also helps in these cases that they also have access to people’s direct messages….)
Now, what do you do if you see this happening to your spouse’s friend network? That’s a good question I can’t begin answer. But you should definitely treat it as a potentially serious problem.
One suggestion I once gave someone in this scenario was to make sure his wife stayed engaged with her friends who were still long term happily married. Potentially, making sure you are ramping up your socializing with other married couples would be helpful as well.
Mind Your Own Friend Network
I tell you to keep your eye out for an increase in divorces in your spouse’s friend network, but don’t forget to also be sure to keep a close eye on your own network as well. We can be affected by our friends and associates in powerful ways that we aren’t even aware of.
I believe a lot of so-called political “radicalization” happens this way. That’s why I make an explicit point to read sources and associate with people from a range of perspectives. I don’t want to end up in a ghetto and adopt beliefs that would not have adopted if I had only maintained more diversity of inputs. Someone asked a question to a panel I was on the other day about what are good alternative sources of news to the mainstream media. I said that I do read alternative media – but I also very much subscribe and regularly read the mainstream media as well. I don’t want to just get all my inputs from one source, or from a group of sources that all think alike.
In the case of marriage, I want to be hanging out and being friends with lots of married people. I want that to be the norm for my social experience. If a friend does get divorced, I want to be there for him, and certainly not cut him off. But I’m attuned to who I surround myself with here.
Unfortunately, in today’s world we can’t just rely on the social structures, laws and conventions of yesteryear to keep us on track. In my grandparents’ generation, when lifelong marriage was the norm and divorce uncommon, and sometimes scandalous, you didn’t necessarily need to do much to stay on the straight and narrow.
In today’s world, where the culture encourages self-sabotaging behavior and the guardrails are gone, we have to be super-intentional to make sure we are not exposing ourself to negative or dangerous inputs.
That’s why it’s a good idea today to keep an eye on your own friend network, and also on your spouses’ network to keep an eye out for divorce contagion.
By the way, while I’ve traditionally written mostly for men, this applicable to married people of both sexes.
I know many of you read Rod Dreher’s American Conservative blog. He also has a Substack site which very different in its content. It’s more reflective, introspective, and spiritual. Some folks I know actually like it better than his TAC blog. It’s for paid subscribers only and I’m happy to be one.
He recently had a post with some kind words about American Reformer. For those of you who don’t know, American Reformer, where I am a Senior Fellow, is a non-profit seeking to reinvigorate Protestantism in American religious, political and cultural life. Rod had some kind words for us in a recent newsletter:
I had a terrific breakfast conversation with a young traditional Anglican couple this morning. They were telling me about various initiatives they are involved in, including the work of American Reformer — things that are making a real difference, and building realistic solidarity and resilience. I spoke to a Protestant seminarian who told me that in his seminary, there are more and more young people who understand that we are already in what Aaron Renn has called “negative world” — and they are readying themselves for the challenge.
It was so great for me to learn about these folks and their work. Evangelicals till now have been cold to my Benedict Option idea, even though most of the critics have misunderstood it as counseling total retreat. (It doesn’t; it counsels “strategic retreat” to build resilience for the daily battles that we cannot avoid.) The AmReformer folks are intellectually serious Protestants who are not lost in MAGA politics, and are not given over to the cultural denial required by the “winsomeness” strategy. All gratitude to Yoram Hazony, the Nat Con guru, for recognizing that it’s time to bring these Protestants into the Nat Con fold. I will be paying a lot more attention to American Reformer and its work, and spreading their best practices.
Talking to the young couple this morning, I told them that I believe it’s going to be their generation — they are either young Millennials, or Gen Z — that makes the difference, not mine. I’m Generation X, and I find that most people my age still can’t quite grasp the seriousness of what has happened, and is happening. These young Christians are serious about their faith, and idealistic in the best way.
Please check out American Reformer. We have a journal, run a fellowship program for younger folks like the husband of that Anglican couple, and much more we are working on. It’s exciting times.
Be Killing Your Sin or Your Sin Will Be Killing You
That’s is probably the most famous line from John Owen’s 1656 Puritan classic Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. It’s a book widely recommended by a who’s who of pastors including Tim Keller and John Piper. But its archaic English is very difficult to read. It’s not quite Shakespeare, but that’s a good comparison. This makes it all but unreadable to most people.
To make this work more widely accessible, I created a very good modern English adaptation and translation of it. I’m pleased to say that sales have continued growing and it now has over 100 very positive reviews on Amazon. If you are a Protestant, you should pick up a copy today in paperback, kindle, or epub format. It’s great for personal use or small group discussion. I even know someone who bought copies for his whole church!
As one reviewer recently put it, “An excellent choice for personal growth. I only wish I had this powerful tool much sooner in my walk with the Lord. Perfect for group study.”
A Final Word
If you are interested in some of my other practically oriented material, check out my podcast on teaching your kids American patriotic and folk songs, some starter ideas for building a productive urban household, techniques for improving your ability to make strong eye contact, and tips for improving your posture. There are many more such issues in the newsletter archives if you are interested.
You may have noticed that this issue is a bit shorter than some others. I am going to be busy working on a book project for the next 2-3 months, and will likely feature some of these shorter but still very important topics that have been on my list for a long time but which I have not yet put into the newsletter.
My work is reader supported. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
On a summer excursion to Murray Bay in Quebec, [Learned] Hand met a young woman who, he thought, might rescue him from his unsatisfactory bachelorhood. The problem was that Frances Fincke, the girl in question, had been educated at Bryn Mawr. The college had been founded, in 1885, as a WASP experiment in extending the advantages of liberal education to young women who would otherwise have been condemned to finishing school, and it was a good deal more academically rigorous than Harvard or Yale at the time. Its president, Martha Cary Thomas, part visionary, part ogress, was determined that nothing should stand in the way of her girls’ realization. Among the obstacles she had in mind were husbands. “Our failures only marry,” she said.
- Michael Knox Beran, WASPS