Understanding Divorce, Social Contagion, and The Asian-American Perspective
by Alex Li, UW Senior
I hope you all are doing well, whether single, cuffed, or somewhere in between. I wanted to take this opportunity to investigate the topic of relationships. Specifically, I noticed that once one of my friends got in a relationship, ALL of them did soon after. I began connecting some more dots, and I realized that in my large Vietnamese family, there were mostly married aunties and uncles. However, after I turned 10, there suddenly began a slew of divorces within a span of a few years. It almost seemed like my aunties and uncles were becoming infected by some divorce virus.
Researcher Rose McDermott at Brown University was pondering that very phenomenon, and analyzed over three decades of longitudinal data collected in the Framingham Heart Study to find out more. She found that “study participants were 75% more likely to become divorced if a friend is divorced” (Morin, 2013). This stunning pattern was discovered in a sample population that totaled over 10,000 participants, spanning generations (McDermott, 2009).
This is an example of social contagion, where information, attitudes, and behaviors are spread through social networks such as friends and family (Morin, 2013). Not only that, but she found that this “social contagion” effect extends across connections in social networks. Specifically, “participants were…33% more likely to end their marriage if a friend of a friend is divorced” (Morin, 2013). This means that couples can be affected by divorces in couples they don’t even know.
McDermott states, “The contagion of divorce can spread through a social network like a rumor, affecting friends up to two degrees removed.”
This has clear implications for Asian American communities that typically place high value on the institution of marriage. According to the Pew Research Center, 54% of Asian Americans say having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their lives, in addition to the 32% that say that it is very important to them (Pew, 2012). Not only that, but “on average, Asian-American adults are more likely than all U.S. adults to be married. In 2010, 59% of all Asian-American adults were married, compared with 51% among the general public” (Pew, 2012).
What does this mean for us?
It unveils the incredible influence the people in our lives have on us, both the people close to us and the people we may never meet.
Secondly, these studies suggest that this influence is not just logical or practical that are associated with peoples’ physical presences, but also extend to psychological and normative influences that affect how we perceive the world around us (McDermott, 2009).
Finally, it reaffirms that social convention, expectations, and social pressure are very real influences on peoples’ lives. It is a reminder of what is expected of us from our community and how many adhere to those expectations.
However, the choice of what to do about those expectations is very much an individual decision. I leave you this Valentine’s day with one last quote. As a wise person once said, “tradition is just peer pressure from dead people”.