By Diane Medved
So, Bill and Melinda Gates put out a shocking statement on Monday, May 3, saying that after 27 years of marriage, they’re getting a divorce.
This is the wife who just a year earlier, on their 26th Anniversary in 2020, posted to Instagram a photo of the smiling couple dancing, with this message: “New Year’s Day was always special to me, marking both a fresh year and an opportunity to celebrate being married to @thisisbillgates. Today makes 26, and I’m still marveling at just how full a heart can get. Happy Anniversary to the man who keeps me dancing through life.”
Bill responded on Instagram on Valentine’s Day saying, “I couldn’t ask for a better partner on this journey.”
Interviewed by the Sunday Times in January, they talked about the secret to a happy marriage, which Melinda says is balance. “I’m a terrible cook, Bill’s a terrible cook, but we can both push the buttons on the microwave. We can both do the dishes. Bill is expected to do things around the house.”
They publicly professed their love, and shared their happy marriage secret. Something pretty awful must’ve happened between last Valentine’s Day and the announcement they were splitting.
Perhaps they were going through problems, but trying to cover it up? Unlikely, as there was no call for Melinda to post such a loving Instagram, and Bill to so sweetly and publicly praise her six weeks later. If they were having marital issues in the beginning of 2020, they would have just kept quiet.
As a psychologist and author of two books on divorce, and as an advocate for preserving marriages, I have some speculation. I don’t have any insider information, but I’d say the issue had to be some kind of sudden and complete betrayal. Something that could not only shake the foundation, pardon the pun, formed over 27 years, but completely smash an alliance that raising three children and sharing altruistic goals built, seemingly strongly until just this year. In her divorce filing, Melinda called their union “irretrievably broken,” and noted there was no pre-nuptial agreement.
Something happened during this pandemic year that broke a union originally so sure it was permanent that the founder of Microsoft, when they wed already the richest man in the world, didn’t bother with a prenup.
I’d guess that Melinda feels totally flummoxed and crushed. She posts about dancing through life with Bill, and a few months later she loses her partner—even after his post that she’s the best one he could ever find. In that short period, what could irretrievably break such a secure union? We don’t have the details, but it must involve the destruction of trust. This is the bedrock on which daily love is built. Also, in nearly every sudden breakup like this, it’s usually one of the two partners that obliterates the trust and withdraws their vows’ lifelong promise. And if one partner doesn’t want to commit to a future rebuilding that trust, the other has little choice.
Melinda has strength. She has projects she’s leading. She appears to be a loving mom to their children, who are now officially adults. Bill is equally well-situated. Their eldest daughter is engaged to fellow equestrian Nayel Nassar. The Gates spent quarantine in their Lake Washington compound with their youngest daughter, Phoebe, who was probably there when the breach of trust was revealed, and must’ve been shocked.
As are we all. What does the Gates’ divorce mean for the rest of us? Unfortunately, it sends the message that no matter how much money you have, no matter how much therapy you can give to your marriage, within a relatively short time, things can totally fall apart. This is not a good message to send either married couples or young people facing life decisions. The Gates were role models through 27 years of leadership, appearing together often. Melinda and Bill shared their careers, especially over the last year or two when Bill shifted his focus from running Microsoft to heading the foundation that has saved countless lives, and brought health to millions. A more-than-worthy cause that they shared.
Marriage is supposed to be a lifetime commitment, and my guess is that Melinda, at least, saw it that way. But our culture pushes couples toward divorce with ceaseless messages to trust one’s feelings over one’s logic and duty. Are the Gates going to be chastised or ostracized because they shocked us all and tore asunder their once-exemplary marriage? Perhaps if they were to face some kind of societal rebuke, they would be more motivated to overcome whatever problem or even whatever betrayal has surfaced, and try to refurbish their marriage. The lives of three children are involved. They’re clearly well-matched. They clearly have had fun together. They make commitments, like the Giving Pledge they created with Warren Buffett for super-wealthy entrepreneurs to donate the majority of their wealth to charity. Why should that commitment be more binding than their marriage vows?
Because our culture just shrugs when they break up. We watched Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott peel off. We see movie stars on tabloids decrying ex-spouses every time we purchase groceries. There’s no sanction or disapproval, not a bit of stigma or disgrace when couples split—even if one breaks the other’s heart.
All you need is a reasonable statement: “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” they both announced sedately. They clearly want to convey that they’ve worked, and thought, about this move. At least since last February when Bill and Melinda were blithely looking forward to dancing through life together.
Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of six books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. Her new project is Wholesome: Raising Kids and Your Consciousness for the Better. She’s married to author and radio talk host Michael Medved (770 AM, noon-3 pm PT weekdays) with whom she can be seen walking (while collecting litter) in their Seattle suburb, likely with their children or at least some of their four toddler grandkids. Reach Diane at DianeMedved.com.