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Could you be 'infected' by friend's divorce?

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
Karenna Gore Schiff, announced that she is separating from her husband,  Andrew Schiff, after 13 years.
Karenna Gore Schiff, announced that she is separating from her husband, Andrew Schiff, after 13 years.
  • Karenna Gore Schiff is separating from her husband after 13 years of marriage
  • Gore Schiff's announcement comes week after Al and Tipper Gore announce separation
  • A study finds divorce can be contagious and spread to two degrees of separation
  • Study: Divorced siblings, friends, co-workers can impact person's chance of divorce
  • Al Gore
  • Divorce
  • Marriage

(CNN) -- Divorce is contagious in social networks, a new study says. The idea is based on the theory of social contagion, or the spread of behavior or emotion through a group. In this case, the heated feelings and actions of one person's divorce can be transferred like a virus, causing others to divorce, according to the study.

Not only can the risk of divorce spread from one couple to their friends or family, it can also affect relationships at least two degrees of separation away from the original couple splitting up, said James H. Fowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

Your decision to split from your spouse can influence whether your friend gets divorced. It also can sway your friend's friend, according to preliminary findings by Fowler and fellow researchers from Harvard and Brown Universities.

The new findings may be troubling news for members of the Gore family, who have already announced two marital separations this month.

Former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, stunned the nation one week ago with their announcement that they were separating after 40 years of marriage.

Read why the Gores' breakup touched a nerve

Then the couple's eldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, announced Wednesday that she is separating from her husband after 13 years of marriage.

Gore Schiff, 36 and a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, married Dr. Andrew Schiff in 1997, and they have three children together.

Both the elder Gores and their daughter and her husband have declined to comment further on their separation or whether their separations will evolve into divorce.

Fowler's research on divorce contagion didn't examine whether the decision of parents to break up affects their children's relationships. But his study did analyze the effect of divorce on siblings. People with a divorced sibling are 22 percent more likely to get divorced than people who don't have divorced siblings.

Read why some call it quits after decades of marriage

"I would say to the other [Gore] children, 'watch out,' because we find when siblings get divorced it tends to spread," said Fowler about the research, which is pending publication. "I'm sure the whole family is talking about these decisions."

Gore Schiff isn't the first Gore child to face a marital breakup. Her younger sister Kristin Gore, a writer, filed for divorce from Paul Cusack a year ago.

The youngest Gore daughter married businessman Bill Lee in 2007. The Gore's also have a son, Albert Gore III.

"We think of a regular contagion like the flu," Fowler said. "You get a virus and you're more likely to spread the symptoms to someone else. This is not just true for a virus. This is true for a lot of social behaviors."

Friends have even more influence than siblings when it comes to divorce, according to Fowler's study. People who had a divorced friend were 147 percent more likely to be divorced than people whose friends' marriages were intact, the study said.

The study also revealed a divorced co-worker can increase the likelihood of another employee divorcing by 55 percent compared to an employee who works with non-divorced employees.

People with children were less susceptible to being influenced toward divorce by other divorced couples, the study said.

The study also found the divorce influence in chains of friends. For example, a divorcing person confides in a married friend. The married friend doesn't opt for divorce, but relays details of the divorce discussion to a third person, influencing that third person in the chain to get a divorce.

"Some people can be a carrier of the disease without actually exhibiting the symptoms," Fowler said, comparing the divorce influence to an infection. "They can carry a virus, but they might not get a fever or cough."

There are several reasons why divorces create ripple effects in a social network. Fowler said people begin to warm up to the idea of divorce when they see their friends, family or co-workers going through the process. When a divorced person confides in someone married, the married person gains knowledge about the benefits and drawbacks of divorce. In Fowler's study, it appeared most people saw the benefits in divorce.

Fowler cautions that the study only analyzed data from 5,000 people, a small sample of the general population. He began studying social contagion and divorces a year ago with researchers Nicholas A. Christakis at Harvard University and Rose McDermott at Brown University.

Christakis and Fowler previously researched how drinking, obesity and other social behaviors can be contagious and revealed their findings in a 2009 book "Connected".

Fowler's study looks at longitudinal data from a portion of the Framingham Heart Study of several generations of people in a Massachusetts town over more than 30 years beginning in the 1970s. The public perception of divorce changed radically during that period -- going from being nearly taboo in the 1970s to being socially acceptable in the 1990s.

Roughly half of all marriages today in the United States end in divorce, according to the U.S. Census.

Read whether your mariage could be making you sick

Some therapists offer anecdotal reports of the divorce influence on friends.

Jay Slupesky, a California marriage counselor, said he's seen women separate from their husbands because they were inspired by their divorced female friends. Slupesky is working with several couples who are empty nesters in their 40s.

"It makes total sense," said Slupesky.

"Let's say the wife has a friend who is getting divorced -- it may give her a little more courage to pursue it."

Marriage therapist Gerry Lane in Georgia said he agrees divorce can be contagious. He said his clients' friends have triggered their desires for a divorce -- even among previously happily married couples.

"The people you associate with have a powerful influence over you," he said. "It's never just coming from inside the person."

Lane gave an example of a client he counseled, a successful CEO in his mid-30s. The client was surrounded by similarly high-powered male friends, who had been through one or multiple divorces and had remarried younger women. The client contemplated a divorce but ultimately stayed with his wife.

"We are living in a culture that supports divorce," Lane said. "We have this idea that marriage should make you happy and it doesn't always make you happy. We are difficult to live with at times."