They Look So Happy. What About Us?

Marriage Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

If you’ve ever shopped for a new car you’ve probably experienced by a bit of both excitement and anxiety. I love the look and performance of this car — it’s going to be great. Followed or even preceded by, Wow that’s a lot of money! To complicate matters further you may have narrowed down your top choices to two vehicles that are both just terrific.

Then, as you struggle with your final choice, you have a bit of luck: a friend you haven’t seen in a while tells you they just bought one of your final choices and they couldn’t be happier — they love their new car! That seals the deal and you choose the same vehicle.

Whether you know it or not, your decision illustrates a simple but important principle of behavior: our friends’ and family’s actions influence our actions. Interestingly enough, applying that basic insight into the complexities of marriage may actually shed a bit of light onto a phenomenon you might have observed personally. Writing for, Mark Travers, Ph.D. says, “This same principle underpins the ‘divorce domino effect’ within social circles.

“It’s a phenomenon that many of us may have observed anecdotally — watching as the divorce of a close friend or family member seems to set off a domino effect, leading us to scrutinize our own relationships with a more critical eye.”

Research backs up the validity of the observation. “According to a classic study,” Travers says, “we are about 75% more likely to go through with a divorce if a direct friend is divorced and approximately 33% more likely if a friend of a friend is divorced. This suggests that divorce may spread through social networks up to two degrees of separation.”

Travers goes on to look at three reasons the research indicates are behind the domino effect.

Social Contagion Theory. This is a fairly straightforward explanation for how someone can be influenced by friends’ actions. In our car-buying example, a friend’s decision to make a similar choice reinforces our decision. It’s a comforting thought to know a friend is in the same situation. Apply that pattern of behavior to marriage and you can begin to see the domino effect: if your friend’s relationship is on the rocks, you might semi-consciously begin to be more aware of the flaws in your own relationship.

Comparison And Benchmarking. This may be the most commonly experienced type of behavior. When close friends get together as couples for a dinner party or even a vacation, they observe other couples’ behavior. Some couples may openly show their affection for each other. Whether that apparently happy relationship exists in private is unknowable. But other couples observing that interaction can hardly be expected not to compare their relationships. Wow (someone might think) — I wish were as happy together and as much in love as they are! Or, as Travers, says, extending that thought process,“ When friends divorce, it might highlight the perceived strengths or, more commonly, the weaknesses of our own relationships. If a friend’s reasons for divorce resonate with our own marital grievances, it can amplify our dissatisfaction and lead to a critical reassessment of our partnership.”

Almost worse, if someone sees a friend post-divorce seemingly happier than ever, it can really motivate some reflection about one’s own relationship.

Changing Social Norms And Expectations. The influence of social conventions is more subtle and harder to gauge, but the effect is undeniable. For example, Travers cites some interesting research: “A 2005 study highlighted that children of divorced parents often exhibit a ‘positive attitude’ towards divorce, suggesting that exposure to divorce from a young age can influence perceptions of its acceptability and normalcy. This acceptance is reflective of a broader societal shift where divorce is no longer stigmatized but seen as a viable option for those in unhappy or abusive marriages.”

Can we extrapolate and apply that tendency to our social circles? Do we have a more positive attitude toward divorce if it’s prevalent among our extended family of friendships? Perhaps, but more research is necessary to positively make that leap.

In the meantime, it’s always worth some introspection about relationships when it comes to a major step such as separation or divorce. We can’t know the nature of another couple’s private relationship and behavior versus their behavior in public, so at best we’re dealing with a limited view of the entire dynamic of the relationship. Every romantic relationship and marriage is virtually unique, which is why honest communication and counseling when appropriate are so important.