The “contagious divorce”

So why are more young women losing faith in marriage? Could all the drama surrounding celebrity splits be to blame? Forty-four percent of women in our poll say: Yes, the hoopla is fueling the divorce rate. Some research hints at the reason. A controversial 2010 study out of Harvard University, Brown University, and the University of California, San Diego, suggests that divorce is catching: If, for example, a friend ends her marriage, your odds of following suit rise by 14 percent; if it’s a sibling, 22 percent, researchers reported. And in today’s digital, tabloid-obsessed world, stars are like your next-door neighbors. “I think of Heidi Klum as a friend,” says Ashley Spencer, 25, of Orlando, Florida. “I follow her on Twitter and love all her projects. I really thought she and Seal were going to go the distance. So when I heard she was getting a divorce, it was like hearing an actual friend was ending her marriage.” Caitlin Brody, 25, of New York City also took the Klum-Seal breakup hard. “They seemed in love beyond belief. He freakin’ had an igloo made for the proposal!” she says. “It can be hard to believe in happily ever after if even supermodels and award-winning musicians can’t make it.”

Of course, we are wise enough to know that celebrity couples have unique challenges, from long stints on location with sexy costars to legions of love-struck fans. As Laura Jansen, 24, of Los Angeles says, “I am just not on the same planet as Demi and Ashton.” And yes, women in our survey were more affected by breakups among couples they know personally. A full 63 percent say they get upset when a friend or someone they know splits up. “It’s depressing,” says Wilson. “And sometimes I find myself hoping it doesn’t happen to me.” That feeling, says Haag, “gets at the ripple effect of anxiety and fear that one divorce can have among friends. While divorce might not be, strictly speaking, a viral phenomenon, I’ve seen how catalyzing one breakup can be within a small community.”

Ironically, this is where celeb divorces are actually helpful. When divorce hits close to home, it’s hard to deal with—and often kept hush-hush. “While it can be difficult to speak our mind when someone close to us divorces, riffing on Heidi and Seal helps us to process it,” says Eric Klinenberg, Ph.D., a New York University professor of sociology and author of the new book Going Solo. “We’re interested in celebrities’ revolving-door marriages because so many of us have experienced the same thing among our circle.”

And there is another positive side to all this marital collapse: It seems to be taking the pressure off women to get hitched. Nearly one in three women in our survey says she’d feel fine going through the rest of her life single. Plus, 59 percent of women say divorce is healthy if two people fall out of love. “Thirty years ago people in a bad marriage felt they had to justify getting divorced—to themselves and to their friends and family,” says Klinenberg. “Today they have to justify staying together. Very few think that if they get divorced, their life will be over. The country is full of single people living big lives.”

The new happy marriage

Still, our survey shows that most women—and men—would prefer, all things being equal, to get married. So what do they want from matrimony today? Something great. Now that marriage is optional, say experts, we have higher expectations of it. “There’s a real strengthening of the idea that marriage is now about personal growth and fulfillment,” says Andrea L. Press, Ph.D., professor of media studies and sociology at the University of Virginia. As Laura from Los Angeles puts it, “Getting married is really important to me, but I won’t do it unless it’s going to be amazing.”

And if an amazing marriage is your dream, by all means follow it—just don’t pretend that divorce may never happen to you, advises Fisher. “Learn from what’s going on around you,” she says. “Why are your friends breaking up? Is it money, cheating, issues over kids? The brain is built for love, but knowledge is absolute power when it comes to surviving the ups and downs of marriage.”

Traci Miller of New York City knows that now: “I learned from my own divorce. I was in an unhealthy relationship, and I left him,” says the 34-year-old, who is now engaged to another man. “I am definitely OK with not getting married. But I do believe in forever love—just with the right guy. And I think I’ve found him this time.”

Sarah Wildman writes for The New York Times and Slate.