In announcing their decision to divorce, Bill and Melinda Gates cited the work they’d done on their marriage, and a mutual sense of pride in their children and philanthropy. But, they said in identical joint statements shared on Twitter, “we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”
Yes, money is one of the main things couples fight about. But having so much of it that you can give billions away doesn’t eliminate the questions that every couple faces: Do we still want similar things in life? Can we still create that life together? Or would it be better if we forged ahead on our own?
This is one of the reasons we regular folks are fascinated when billionaires split. It’s comforting to know that relationships are difficult no matter who we are.
“They’re real people. They’re not above it all. You still have to deal with each other on a human level,” says Carlos Lastra, a partner in the family law practice at the Maryland firm Paley Rothman. “They somehow figured out what worked in their relationship for the past 27 years. They couldn’t figure out what would work for another 27 years. It doesn’t matter what your background is: You’ve got to figure out your own secret sauce and keep working at it.”
Bill and Melinda met at Microsoft in 1987, when he was the company co-founder and she was an employee who grabbed a seat next to him at a work dinner. When he asked her out the first time, she rejected him, saying his date invite “wasn’t spontaneous enough,” Melinda writes in her 2019 memoir “The Moment of Lift.” Two hours later, he called and asked if she would meet him that evening. “Is this spontaneous enough for you?” he asked.
By those early accounts, their relationship reads like two equals finding their match. “We found we had a lot in common. We both love puzzles and we both love to compete,” Melinda writes, noting that he seemed intrigued when she beat him at a math game and at the board game Clue. When they got engaged and someone asked Bill how Melinda made him feel, he answered: “Amazingly, she makes me feel like getting married.”
Clearly, a lot has changed since then.
When Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos announced their intention to split in 2019, divorce lawyer Nicole Sodoma highlighted this universal challenge in staying together long-term. “The people we marry are not the people we divorce,” she said, “because people change.”
For many couples, the pandemic has made it impossible to ignore those shifts. The big pause of the past year kept couples home together for longer hours, canceled work travel and created new roles and routines unexpectedly, Sodoma says, forcing couples who were ignoring problems in their marriages to suddenly face them head-on. From April 2020 to this past month, Sodoma says, her family law practice in Charlotte has seen a 20 percent increase in requests for consults.
She also thinks that, because the pandemic made many of us grasp life’s fragility, there’s “more permission to be authentic now than there ever has been.” And sometimes that return to our true selves spurs big changes.
Among his clients, Lastra has seen two distinct outcomes for couples who were pondering a split during the pandemic: Stronger than before, or no desire to see each other again.
Another way that Bill, who’s 65, and Melinda, who’s 56, are just a normal couple? As the stigma surrounding divorce has eroded, the divorce rate for Americans 50 and older has doubled since the 1990s. Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos were 55 and 49, respectively, when they divorced. Al and Tipper Gore split while in their 60s.
Vicki Larson, who’s written extensively on divorce and is working on a book about aging as a woman, says that when couples have raised their children to adulthood — the Gateses’ are 18 to 25 — they often feel their job as parents is essentially “done,” prompting them to reassess their lives. “You go through phases in your marriage and you go through phases as a person, and sometimes they don’t jibe,” Larson notes. “When you have kids, you’re on a path together.” Once they’re grown, you have to figure out what your shared path will be, Larson adds, or decide this isn’t what you want anymore.
“We have a lot of scripts when we’re young for how [life] should look,” Larson says, adding that “there’s no script for midlife. You get to create it on your own. That’s both liberating and scary.”