Updated: May 11
Yeah, I know what you’re asking. “How could the sudden announcement that Bill and Melinda Gates are getting divorced have anything to do with me?” A reasonable question.
Here was their announcement on Twitter today:
The only clue we have as to “what went wrong” is the phrase “we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple.”
Let me tell you, given how careful they want to be about their public image, this is the standard phraseology, and it can mean anything, everything, and nothing. It’s really just their way of saying that they aren’t going to say anything.
Now I’ve not worked with the Gates themselves—I couldn’t write this piece if I had—but I can tell you what might have brought them to this point, based on my work with couples like them. I’m not going to talk about scenarios. I’m going to talk about quite possible risk factors. Such as, hypothetically:
1. They never were well suited for each other. They might have been a really good match on paper but as love mates and best friends, they never clicked. The decision to divorce took so long because problems and disconnections that were there from the beginning were hidden by their focus on parenting and family building. And then once the kids were leaving the picture, it took them a long time to realize there was no there there in the relationship.
2. There was nothing bad in their relationship but nothing really good either. Their marriage was just a nothingburger. And one of them might have been content for things to go on the way they were, the other wasn’t.
3. There was something wrong with one of them. Some psychological problem or personality disorder that made life really difficult for the other partner.
4. They poured their energy into their work and then into their parenting and “family life,” but their life as a couple got very little attention and starved to death.
5. In the friction of their life together they weren’t particularly nice to each other. I’m talking both about the power moves that can come up all the time and also about all the comments they might have made flowing from hurt and resentment and disdain.
6. One or both of them has some enormous grievance that you and I may never know about that they tried to get past but never could. And meanwhile, the resentment kept growing.
And it could be combinations of these.
Now here’s what this has to do with you.
1 and 2 are really all about preventive medicine. You need to see as soon as possible that this is going on and get out fast. These are not fixable problems.
3 is something I can’t begin to talk about without knowing the situation. Here great professional help can make all the difference or it can show you that, no, this is unfixable and you have to get out.
4, 5, and 6? They are what Why Couples Fight is all about. They are all solvable problems in real time. Certainly Bill and Melinda would have had the life skills to follow the suggestions in our book. It might have taken some work, or a lot of work, but that would have made all the difference.
As for their statement about how they put in a lot of work on their relationship. I can’t possibly know what work they did or how much work they did. But here’s what I do know from working with some of the most high-powered and conscientious people in the world. They all too often say they’ve worked hard on their relationship the way a fifteen-year-old says he’s “worked hard” on his book report.
Working hard for a lot of people means some combination of go-nowhere conversations and pointless fights. If they’re working hard on their relationship, they’re working hard like a chimpanzee might work hard building a bookcase.
And if they have a therapist, the homework they’re given can too often be exercises of dubious ability to make things better in any relationship. “Stare into each other’s eyes for five full minutes every day, as if you were falling in love all over again.” Like we use to say in New York, that and a nickel...
When you’re in trouble you have to work hard and work smart.
Bottom line, while poverty makes everything worse, wealth doesn’t protect you very much against the preventable forces that destroy relationships.
The good news is that most couples—even if you're on a budget—can do a LOT better at saving your relationship from the trashcan. Better maybe than even one of the richest couples who ever lived.