The pandemic is not over and neither is the ever climbing divorce rate across the United States. With the announcement of their divorce yesterday, Bill and Melinda Gates have joined a growing number of couples who have decided to call it quits over the last year. What makes this one so shocking, at least for me, is that they’ve been together for 27 years. They’ve raised three kids and climbed to a financial stratosphere that most of us, if not all of us, will never see. They are billionaires.
In their statement, which I thought was incredibly touching, they acknowledged very important pieces about their decision to divorce that we all should take note of, sharing that they will continue to work together, but that their relationship has entered a new phase — and staying married isn’t part of the equation.
Anyone who is married knows just how exhausting marriage can be. We know the hurdles we must jump over are never ending and that we don’t always like the other person. Married couples know that in order to succeed, we must continue to put in the work. Even with bank accounts like Bill and Melinda Gates, we must remember that they are two people trying to work together to build a lasting marriage — and they did for 27 years. A marriage is a different kind of partnership; it’s not like working together professionally. Although regarding their work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they’ve committed to continue its mission.
The part of their statement which really struck me is the part which says, “… but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple.” This is imperative for us all to understand, and learn from. If the marriage is going south and the couple no longer carry the same values, essentially, growing apart — what is the point of staying married? Even if your estimated wealth exceeds $130 billion dollars, you can’t buy your way out of doing the work every married couple needs to do, and you can’t buy a fix for what is, in Melinda’s words, “irretrievably broken.”
Think about the person you were years ago. None of us stay the same forever; in the almost three decades of the Gates’ marriage, they have no doubt gone through personal growth and changes, and have been several versions of themselves. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to have our metamorphoses mesh with those of our partner, but sometimes you just don’t work as a couple any more, and that’s okay. It isn’t something we should judge or condemn; it’s just life. Throw in the added pressure of being constantly scrutinized in the public eye, and it isn’t hard to see how that kind of tension could put a strain on any relationship.
The pandemic reminded us how stressful marriage can be, even for the most average among us. Being stuck in the house with one’s spouse drove the U.S. divorce rate up. According to the National Review, in the early months of the pandemic, “the interest in divorce had already increased by 34% in the US, with newer couples being the most likely to file for divorce. In fact, a full 20% of couples who had been married for five months or less sought divorce during this time period, compared with only 11% in 2019. Some predict a continuation of this trend, anticipating that divorce rates will increase between 10% and 25% in the second half of the year.”
True, Bill and Melinda Gates did not fall into the newly-married category. And they did appear to take the time during the pandemic to do the work that married couples must do — but with the added burden of being the fourth-richest couple in the world. Can you imagine every article, every news blip, every social media post about you, your work or your family leading with “the wealthiest?” Can you imagine that?
We tend to think that when people are rich, they have the resources to weather any storm. And in many life scenarios, that’s true – but when it comes to navigating relationships, they’re on the same playing field as the rest of us. No amount of money can guarantee happiness or security or fulfillment in love. It may pay the bills, but it can’t negate relationship stress. Even billionaires have to maneuver through choppy waters in their relationships, the one place where their money can’t rescue them.
Bill and Melinda Gates made the brave choice to end their marriage. We don’t need to know the details of how they got to the point of divorce, but what they shared in their statement — the part about how they and their family will “navigate this new life” — is important. We must remember that this is their life, their marriage, and their family, and being under a societal microscope isn’t going to make it any less tough. Going through a divorce isn’t easy, no matter how long you’ve been married or how old your kids are or how much money you have in your savings account. Relationships, by definition, are work; they must be nurtured, and sometimes, they must also come to an end.