Domino divorce: is your marriage in trouble if your friends split up? We ask an expert
I was having dinner with three of my closest friends and their husbands when someone, presumably accidentally, mentioned that oft-quoted statistic that ‘one in three couples get divorced’.
Oh, how we laughed, because we didn’t think it was legitimate, and because divorce seemed a risible improbability in our close-knit, happily married group.
Also, we’d been drinking heavily.
Want to know something I else I used to laugh at?
The idea of ‘domino divorce’.
You have probably heard the term doing the rounds: it’s the idea that divorce is ‘contagious’ and that one marital split will cause a tsunami of heartbreak in your social circle.
So far, so ridiculous.
Fast-forward a few years and the first of my friends is getting divorced, there are shock waves rippling through our group and I can’t help myself shuddering at the thought that domino divorce might be a real thing after all.
Can a husband leave his wife just because his mate does?
Does a woman’s new-found freedom inspire her girlfriends to run free, too?
Confused, and a little worried for any relationships in a five-mile radius, I decided to turn to the experts.
Breaking down the break-up stats
While domino divorce may sound like a faddiest of faddy hashtags – #hygge, anyone? – the difference is that it has some hefty empirical backing.
A study conducted by Brown University, in the US, looked at three decades of data and concluded that participants were 75% more likely to get divorced if a friend was divorced, too.
It went as far as to suggest that divorce was 33% more likely if the participant knew a divorced friend of a friend.
This research is backed by a 2013 survey of divorced or separated men that found nearly one in four admitted to being influenced by their friends’ split.
It sounds pretty damning, but note, please, that the Brown study was too small to be applied nationally.
So it’s not exactly definitive proof.
Ask the divorce expert
She has numerous examples of friends encouraging each other through the divorce process.
‘I think it triggers something in women when they watch a friend get divorced,’ she says.
‘I run a Facebook group and I get lots of people recommending their friends.
‘It gives other people hope because they think, if you can do it, then I can, too.’
Leonie Harris* finally felt ready to end her ten-year marriage with the support of a close friend.
‘My friend has been divorced three times and it was she who told me it was doable,’ she says.
‘I was worried that I couldn’t cope on my own financially; I did work but was worried I didn’t earn enough.
‘My friend reassured me, talked me through benefits I would be entitled to, and emphasised that it was just a decision I had to make.’
‘There’s a traitor in the midst’
Such is the fear of ‘domino divorce’ that some friendship groups will deal with it by driving the offending divorcees out of the group.
Safety is restored; dinner party seating stays balanced and there are no rogue singletons around to tempt your spouse.
‘Being the first person to say, “Actually I’m not happy”, that takes a lot of courage, because when one person wants to break away it can be massively threatening to other women in the group,’ says Heptonstall.
‘You’re breaking ranks and the thought is: “There’s a traitor in our midst.”
‘Some women will stay away from her because they don’t want a single girl in the group.
‘However, others might think, “Actually she is doing alright – maybe there is something more, and I don’t have to accept what is happening”.’
Fight or flight
When our friends get divorced, we inevitably turn inward to check the state of our own relationship, especially if the warring couple seemed to have an outwardly happy union.
This can result in couples realising just how lucky they are, or finally being forced to consider some less-than-rosy issues; from here, it’s up to each couple whether they choose to work them out.
Jackie Simons* is currently going through a divorce and, among her friends, she has noticed couples ‘pulling back together again’.
She says: ‘For some of my friends, who were going through a difficult patch of their own, seeing me say “enough is enough” was the catalyst to come back [to each other].’
Happy ever after?
Arguably, domino divorces might be considered a good thing: friends helping friends to find their voice; women empowering women and guiding them along a difficult path?
It’s certainly a path no-one treads lightly; your husband may covet a divorced friend’s new sports car, but divorce doesn’t happen on a whim.
In Simon’s experience, ‘People are already leaning one way or the other; the domino divorce affects people who already feel stuck and miserable, and can’t get out.
‘I’m not the sort of person who would be influenced by somebody else; it’s more that people inspired me to believe that I could do it, that it was possible, and that I would survive.’
Similarly, Harris felt she wouldn’t have found the strength to leave without her friends’ guidance: ‘Although it was tough, it was absolutely the right thing and I thank my friend for giving me the strength to walk away.’
Whether or not it truly exists, domino divorce may have been tarred with an unfortunate stigma.
Says Heptonstall: ‘Regardless of money, social status, the women I talk to are going through the same thing. They are all scared and they don’t know what to do, and they are looking for companionship from people going through it.’
So before excusing yourself from your married mates’ Whatsapp group and moving to Nova Scotia, remember that divorce can have a happy outcome, even if your marriage is not happily ever after.
Friends will be there long after your partner has gone.
And if they’re got divorced before you? You’ll be all the better for it.
*Names have been changed