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'Marriage Story' struck a chord, but America's real divorce story is more complicated

Marriage is becoming a little less prevalent and little more stable — a potential bright spot in a turbulent world.
An illustration of a graph and wedding rings.
Tim Lahan / for NBC News

We live in a time of roiling social discord. Thanksgiving, once an opportunity for touch football and carb-induced naps, is now a politically charged family minefield. Real-life friendships disintegrate under pressure on social media. And the days of civil public discourse and bipartisanship seem distant, indeed. With so much cultural finger-pointing and political name-calling, it would stand to reason that American marriages would be in danger, too. Surely some of that toxicity must be spilling over into the home?

Think again.

With so much cultural finger-pointing and political name-calling, it would stand to reason that American marriages would be in danger, too.

Divorce lawyers, and the sociologists who carefully examine their clients, say the state of American marital affairs is far more complicated. Younger couples are marrying later in life, with the median age at marriage rising over the past two decades, from 26.8 for men and 25.1 for women in 2000 to 29.8 for men and 28 for women in 2019. Older Americans, with one eye on and the other on their Social Security checks, are responsible for a spike in divorce, according to census data. Same-sex marriages, newly legal nationwide, are also producing some surprising trends.

Clearly, the long-accepted narrative — that about half of U.S. marriages end in divorce — no longer holds. And contrary to public perception, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the divorce rate in the U.S. has been declining for decades after a peak in 1980, with the drop especially pronounced among younger couples.

But that doesn't mean marital conflicts are becoming a thing of the past. For one thing, political strife is alive and well. Perhaps inevitably, the president of the United States has extended his reach into America's bedrooms. "I call it the new Trump divorce," says Jim McLaren, a family and divorce lawyer in Columbia, South Carolina, who is past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "I've had a few cases where one spouse says: 'I was married to a reasonable human being, and one day I woke up and she or he is now a Trumper. I significantly disagree with everything Trump stands for, and I can't stay married to that person.'"

Meanwhile, many millennials and some members of Generation Z — people in their 20s and 30s — are taking marriage very seriously, indeed. While the perception of these generations often skews toward tired stereotypes of woke, label-less complainers, data suggest they are evaluating their marital prospects just as soberly as their parents did — perhaps even more so. These couples are waiting longer to marry, are more selective in their choices of partners and view marriage as a confirmation of the social status they've already achieved academically and professionally.

As a result, according to sociology professor Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, "those who marry in their 20s and 30s today have more stable marriages."

Inevitably, social media adds to the pressure. In the words of Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland: Plenty of young couples "want a marriage that looks good on Instagram. You can't just get married at age 23 and expect to be congratulated."

On the other side of the generational divide, boomers are embracing divorce with the fervor of new Peloton owners. Census data shows the divorce rate for Americans 50 or older has more than doubled in the past 30 years.

As older adults enjoy better health and longevity, the notion of an "until death do us part" union with someone they no longer love seems unnecessary.

Why would older couples split, especially when the highest risk of divorce generally falls in the first year or two of a marriage? Brown says that as older adults enjoy better health and longevity, the notion of an "until death do us part" union with someone they no longer love seems unnecessary. That is also consistent with the preferences of younger generations, which are embracing new ideas about equality and division of labor.

Another surprise: Although some people think of second marriages as "love matches," statistics prove that not to be the case. A sizable number of long-lived boomers are on their second marriages, and these triumphs of hope over experience, Brown says, end up shorter than first marriages and 2.5 times more likely to fail.

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage, experts are beginning to identify divorce trends in this newly married population. For one thing, McLaren says he sees a higher rate of same-sex couples seeking pre-nuptial agreements.

These couples also face unique challenges, according to Adam Romero, who teaches at the UCLA School of Law and is co-author of a new book on LGBTQ divorce. Same-sex couples may have been together for decades before they could wed, but a judge will consider only the time they were legally married when dividing assets. And even after Obergefell, state courts are still grappling with whether states and cities are obligated to provide equal marriage benefits to same-sex couples.

Meanwhile, technology, which has changed the terms of dating, has also changed the logistics of divorce. When spouses can't resolve their differences and head to court, social media is making those showdowns even more cringeworthy than when private investigators used old-fashioned techniques to snoop on warring spouses. If a judge orders spouses to share their electronic communications and one or both spouses is a lawyer, a doctor or someone else with an obligation to keep professional information confidential, the lawyers must scrutinize every post, then log material they claim they can't share, raising the cost of pre-divorce wrangling to the lofty levels of a corporate battle.

And for couples who do divorce and then face the challenge of co-parenting with a potentially hostile former spouse? There's an app for that! Our Family Wizard, an app that lets divorced parents keep tabs on their children's appointments without speaking to their former spouses, touts a ToneMeter feature that analyzes texts and flags those with "emotionally charged phrases."

So with 2020 upon us and six Oscar nominations (and one win) for "Marriage Story's" portrayal of cutthroat lawyers representing wistful artists, what can we expect on the divorce front? A continued drop in divorce rates as marriage becomes a little less prevalent and a little more stable — a bright spot in a turbulent world.