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Study finds divorce is contagious

Dennis Deocampo, left, of Wesley Chapel talks with Melissa Smith and Gabriel Chee of Tampa at Peabody’s in New Tampa last week. They are members of a Tampa Bay divorce support group.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Dennis Deocampo, left, of Wesley Chapel talks with Melissa Smith and Gabriel Chee of Tampa at Peabody’s in New Tampa last week. They are members of a Tampa Bay divorce support group.

The divorcees field the same old joke, usually from the mouths of smug married friends.

"They think we have something catching," said Carla Tempesta. "They kind of tend to avoid us."

Tempesta helps lead a Tampa Bay support group of 200 divorced people, so the jokes aren't too shocking. Then again, neither were the results of new research that kind of, well … confirmed the smug married joke.

Divorce is contagious.

It's not exactly the black plague, but the concept is pretty intuitive. The report, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else Is Doing It Too," comes from researchers at Harvard, Brown and the University of California at San Diego.

"These social networks, they have influence on everything," said James Fowler, one of the study's authors. "Our health, who we marry, our economy, our political behavior. Most of the research shows we tend to do what our friends do."

The report, which tracked thousands of people from Framingham, Mass., for 32 years, offers a few revelations:

• Divorce can spread between friends, siblings, co-workers. It can even go two deep — your friends' friends can affect your marriage.

• You're 75 percent more likely to get divorced if a close friend is divorced.

• Having children helps. Every child makes you less susceptible to being influenced by divorced friends. It takes five children to completely negate the virus effect.

• Popular people are less likely to get divorced. Divorcees have deeper social networks and remarry other divorcees.

Half of all U.S. marriages will end in divorce during the first 15 years, according to the Census Bureau, and the examples are all around. Al and Tipper Gore separated in June after 40 years of marriage. The next week, daughter Karenna Gore Schiff announced her separation from her husband, which had happened quietly months earlier. And if you want super-shaky anecdotal data, just watch any of the Real Housewives.

"Women are especially outgoing," said Howard Iken, a lawyer with the Divorce Center of Tampa Bay. "The genders approach divorce totally different. Men curl up in a hole and get ready to die when it's approaching and don't talk with anyone. Women talk with a thousand other women. There's no such thing as a group of women where half of them haven't used a divorce lawyer or know of people who are getting divorced. A lot of times they egg each other on."

Ask Dennis Deocampo, a computer consultant from Wesley Chapel.

He didn't have friends during his marriage, he said. But his wife did.

"A couple of her sisters went through a divorce," said Deocampo, 41. "A couple of her personal friends were going through a divorce. I think this whole divorce thing really got into my ex's head once she started talking to one of her friends who was going through a divorce."

Carla Tempesta split from her husband three years ago. They had moved to Clearwater from New York after losing a family member in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The grief strained the marriage, eventually to its demise.

She didn't have friends egging her on, but she can see patterns.

"A lot of my ex-husband's friends are divorced," said Tempesta, 47. "We weren't the first. And shortly after we divorced, a couple that we were very close friends with in New York split up, too."

She has a new circle now, other divorcees she met in the support group. They go to $5 burger night at the Green Iguana, sip beers at Peabody's in New Tampa, spend Sundays at the beach.

She's dating another divorcee, which the study found is common.

"We're totally in love and we make everybody sick," she said. "My boyfriend likes to say he knows what he did wrong the first time."

If the study sounds scary, it has a silver lining. Your own relationship can benefit from a friend's rocky road.

"People have a choice in what kind of relationship they have," said Fowler, one of the authors of the study. "Some of it is out of their control and some of it is in their control. We should try as much as possible to help our friends have happier relationships."

After her own divorce, Tempesta counseled her sister through a cracking marriage.

In the end, her sister decided to stay married and work it out.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Study finds divorce is contagious 08/01/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 2, 2010 6:01pm]
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