What Is “Divorce Contagion”? An Expert Explains This Trendy TikTok Term

You know that the common cold is contagious. You also know that even emotions can be considered contagious (who hasn’t walked into a room and immediately adhered to a vibe?). But did you know that divorces can be contagious, too? Studies claim that just having a close friend who is divorced can increase your chances of divorce by 75 percent.

“Seeing others make the difficult decision to divorce can inspire those who are unhappy in their marriages to take a hard look at themselves and their relationships,” Nicole Sodoma, divorce attorney and author of Please Don’t Say You’re Sorry, tells Scary Mommy. “The experiences of others can act as a normalizing force that translates into giving oneself permission to get real about what’s happening in their own relationship.”

It’s like when your friend buys a new pair of shoes, and you immediately get shoe envy because you’ve been craving the same pair but were being a little overly cautious — maybe too practical — to bite the bullet. But now that your friend is happy with her new shoes, you want to experience the same and quickly buy your own.

Then again, we’re not really talking about shoes but a marriage, and sometimes what is a reasonable resolution for others (like getting a divorce) isn’t actually what your relationship needs. So, how do you know whether you should resist the divorce contagion or not? Sodoma explains what you need to understand about the phenomenon and how to determine what’s right for your marriage.

The Myths Behind “Divorce Contagion”

As TikTok proves, it’s really easy to get caught up with a trend before fully understanding what it means and its implications, including dispelling any false ideas of what “divorce contagion” actually is.

While divorce contagion implies that one can catch the desire to divorce in much the same way one might catch a cold, Sodoma says divorce contagion is more about “recognizing the ‘sickness’ you’ve been experiencing in the form of an unhealthy marriage as a result of others acting on their own relational awareness and not actively participating in their marital relationship.”

Another myth Sodoma says she hears perpetuated lately is that those who choose to divorce “don’t value the institution of marriage when the truth is that the length of a marriage is not a measure of the quality of a marriage. For those who were raised in traditional or intact families, there can be a mountain of shame to overcome before they can allow themselves to consider divorce as an option.”

This might explain why others might choose not to divorce right away but feel inspired to do so when they see it’s acceptable within their own social circles by others who also have chosen divorce.

Divorce often isn’t a decision made on a whim, Sodoma points out, and just because you haven’t seen conflict within your friend’s marriage doesn’t mean it’s not present.

“How many times have we learned of an amazing musician or actor who bursts onto the scene as what appears to be an overnight success? What we don’t see are the countless hours of practice or the rejection they’ve had to overcome. Similarly, when a couple announces they are divorcing, it can appear to be an overnight disaster (aka divorce disaster),” she explains. “What we don’t see is the resentment that’s built up over time, how alone one or both of them has felt in the context of their relationship, or the dysfunction that is suffocating them.”

Going on the Divorce Contagion Defensive

Scared that you might become infected with the divorce contagion? Sodoma says, first and foremost, it’s important to recognize there’s you and your partner, and then there’s your relationship.

“We are responsible for practicing self-care and for nurturing each other and our relationship,” she explains. “Though the relationship is a separate entity that’s built on connection. I’ve learned these lessons not because of my divorce practice but instead my divorce experience.”

She suggests responding to divorce contagion by asking yourself the following questions:

  • How connected are you to your partner?
  • Ask your partner: How connected do you feel to me?
  • What are the obstacles currently holding you back from feeling connected?

“Express to each other what you need to feel more connected, not what you think they want to hear,” Sodoma says. “Healthy couples see this as an ongoing conversation, working together to make connection a priority and evolving as necessary over time.”

If you’ve reached a point in your marriage where your friend’s divorce seems like an appealing way out of your own marriage, Sodoma says it’s imperative to consider the fact that no two divorces are alike.

“Each divorce has its own nuances, challenges, and uncertainties,” she says. “Therefore, it’s important to make sure you’ve done the work necessary to ensure you’re making the right decision for you and your family. This will give you the resolve you need to move forward, no matter what you decide.”

Supporting, Not Co-opting, a Friend’s Divorce

If your friend is getting a divorce, how can you be a good friend without having it dominate your conversation and possibly lead to being contagious? While you definitely want to be supportive, Sodoma says it’s important to establish healthy boundaries.

“If your friend’s divorce starts to dominate your conversations and time together, bring that up as a concern,” she recommends. “Suggest that you agree to set the divorce aside for an agreed-upon time and commit to enjoying your favorite activities free of any divorce talk. I tell my friends and clients to give themselves at least one day off per week from the divorce. You will need it.”

Another approach she suggests is to coach your friend on how best to approach you when they want to talk about their divorce. For example, you might want to say, “Do you have 30 minutes to help me process something related to my divorce?” which Sodoma says sets an expectation that the divorce part of the conversation will be finite.

“It also helps the friend going through the divorce broaden their perspective beyond the latest turn of events in their divorce (there will be many!),” she explains. “Remember, everything may feel like a crisis to that person. While you may be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the friend experiencing divorce is likely consumed by whatever crisis exists that day.”

She adds friends are a vital part of the support network, “but they have limitations. Some things are best processed with the help of a mental health professional.”

To Divorce or Not to Divorce, That Is The Question

“I always ask clients coming in for an initial consultation to tell me how they met the partner they are considering divorcing,” Sodoma says. ‘How they answer this question often indicates to me whether they’ve left some stones unturned. There are marriages that suffer due to circumstances that take their toll on relationships — careers, parental challenges, serious illnesses, etc. It can be helpful to remember what first attracted you to each other and use that as inspiration to work on restoring what’s been lost.”

But when it’s clear there is layer upon layer of resentment or contempt from one party toward the other, Sodoma says that is a strong indication divorce might be the best option. Perhaps an even stronger indicator, she says, is apathy. “If one party no longer cares enough to do or own their part, the other will eventually come to the conclusion they can’t make the relationship work alone,” she explains.”You can only change you. There is no fixing a relationship alone.”

As a self-titled “marriage-loving divorce attorney,” Sodoma says it’s crucial to understand that *you* get to choose how you respond to divorce contagion. “Hide your symptoms for short-term relief or look yourself in the mirror to decide how you are showing up,” she recommends. “Look at the contagion as an opportunity to determine whether you both are willing to do the work and build your marital immune system for the future.”

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