Is Celebrity Divorce Contagious?

Are we influenced by our friends -- or the micro-societies we live in -- when it comes to working on our relationships, or giving them up?

Is Celebrity Divorce Contagious?
(Image credit: John Shearer/WireImage)

In the last few days, the separations of three high-profile couples have become public: Courteney Cox and David Arquette have acknowledged they are trying out a trial separation after 11 years of marriage, pop star Christina Aquilera is splitting up with her husband Jordan Bratman after five years, and musician Ben Harper and actress wife Laura Dern have filed for divorce, also after five years.

My editor and I were chatting about all this celebrity gossip yesterday, and she asked me, "Do you think divorce is contagious?"

At first, I scoffed at the question, thinking, Come on — people can't possibly be so silly that they'd compromise one of their most important relationships — and renege on a promise to stay together 'til death did them part just due to peer pressure, or based on headlines.

But then I started to think more about it. And it occurred to me that headlines can impact people's personal lives. We often dress the way celebrities dress, for instance, or name our babies after presidents, or feel more empowered to tell families and friends about our sexual orientation after some movie star comes out of the closet.

What's more, I remembered the post I did way back when, about the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (and about how our friends influence our odds of finding love).

The book talks about how a surprising number of things are "socially contagious" — including emotions, lifestyle behaviors, sexual practices, and even political beliefs. And though I've never been divorced, I can say that when more of my friends are single, it's more comfortable for me to be single. When they are all in relationships, my urge to get into a relationship is heightened. (Or else I want to make new, single friends!) Similarly, I think in cities like New York, where so many people marry late in life, being single is a lot more socially acceptable than it is in other parts of the country, and therefore people in their 20s and 30s here are less likely to have life partners than their contemporaries elsewhere.

Also, let's consider a hypothetical situation: Two women are thinking of getting divorced. One asks her friends for advice, and they all say, "Breaking up with my dude was the best thing I've ever done." The other woman's friends all say, "Working things out and staying with my husband was the best thing I could've done." This exaggerated example helps to make it clear to me, at least, that friends probably do have a considerable influence on their friends. And that divorce probably is, to some degree, "contagious."

I mean, I've often wondered why it is that big stars go through so many marriages — and while I think enormous egos and extreme beauty probably have a lot to do with it, the commonly-accepted idea that most (or many) stars have multiple marriages must play a role, too.

What do you guys think?