Updated: Jun 15
Just imagine: you and the person you’re going with are super smart and super-duper rich. And you have tons in common. And you get married! And so you’re thinking, “Hah! We’ve got it made!! WHAT could possibly go wrong!!!”
Welcome to the Bill and Melinda divorce. Here, based on an article reporting mostly stuff in the public record, are some bits and pieces from mistakes they made and problems they had to deal with in their marriage. Proving what? That smart people can make stupid mistakes. And that all the money in the world can’t protect you from the termites of marital corrosion if you don’t know how to get on top of it. Or if you’re not willing to...
Here’s this, for example. Bill is talking:
"When I was off on my own thinking about marrying Melinda, I called Ann and asked for her approval," he shared. Ann told the magazine, "I said she'd be a good match for him because she had intellectual stamina."
Ann is the tech-wizard best friend he went off on annual weekends with during his marriage to Melinda. Now you have techie to techie advice on who to marry. The logic in her advice is jaw-dropping: if she has intellectual stamina [she can keep up with you intellectually], she’ll be a good match for you. Totally dumb! Intellectual stamina might be something Bill’d definitely want, the way you’d want your new car to have good brakes, but good brakes don’t by themselves mean, hey, that’s a good car for you. Sheesh!
Then there’s this thing we call “making a unilateral move.” Which just means I make a big decision that affects you big time without consulting you. Always a harmful mistake in a marriage. Well, guess what?
Even their massive house, which Bill had started building when he was a bachelor, made Melinda a little uneasy at first, mainly because it was a life decision that he had spearheaded without her. "I didn't particularly want to move into that house," she admitted. "In fact, I didn't feel like Bill and I were on the same page of what we wanted, and we had little time to discuss it. So in the middle of all that, I think I had a crisis of self. Who do I want to be in this marriage. And it pushed me to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do."
Couples usually want to choose their house together. Women in particular rarely like to be told, hey, here’s your house. Bill, I suspect, probably, thought, “This is a multi-billionaire’s super-house. She’s GOT to like it.” Nah. It doesn’t work like that.
Then there’s the itsy-bitsy issue of “I didn't feel like Bill and I were on the same page of what we wanted, and we had little time to discuss it. So in the middle of all that, I think I had a crisis of self. Who do I want to be in this marriage.”
Now if marriage is a contract—and for goodness’ sake it is—then this is stuff you work out and agree to BEFORE you agree to get married. The marriage itself is just a pipe dream unless you have this stuff more or less nailed down. Otherwise, you’re launching the ship before you’ve even designed the ship. And set the stage for who-knows-what surprises and disappointments down the road. “Oh, you want 4 children??? I only want NO children!!!”
But the article tells us that
They bonded over brainteasers and puzzles, board games and music.
So perhaps what with puzzles and comparing intellectual stamina they didn’t have time to sort out the “how we’re going to live” stuff.
A marriage is like a house going through a hurricane. Whatever you don’t nail down, or can’t nail down, before you commit will fly apart once the storm comes.
Then there’s the issue of time and the time-starved marriage, which we devoted a whole book to, The Weekend Marriage. It’s always been the case that even if you’re a kajillionaire, you only get 24 hours in your day, no matter how many people you can pay to do stuff for you. Here’s how Melinda put it:
Asked what was the last thing she and Bill argued about, Melinda told podcast hosts Samantha Ettus and Amy Nelson, "Oh, gosh...probably time. Who is going to spend time on what? That seems to be our commodity that we don't have enough of."
I don’t know when she did this interview, and maybe she offered this answer in an attempt to sound “normal.” But I’m also pretty sure it’s all too true for them, if they’re at all like the power couples I’ve worked with. Limited time is the knife at the throat of the very rich and busy, to the point of making them feel desperate. Every little time disappointment can feel like a major betrayal.
And so if you don’t think of your time together as a precious baby that you have to make it your priority to nurture, you’re screwed. And believe me, no one is too smart or too rich to avoid making that terrible mistake.
Then there’s this:
Melinda had intimated that she wanted to recapture her own voice after—as she wrote in The Moment of Lift—losing track of it while working alongside her husband for so many years. Remembering the first time she asked to co-write the foundation's annual end-of-year dispatch recapping the months just past and plans for the days ahead, a missive Bill usually took care of, "I thought we were going to kill each other," she wrote. "I felt, 'Well, this just might end the marriage right here."
Melinda continued, "I told him that there are some issues where my voice can make an impact, and in those cases, I should be speaking—separately or along with him. It got hot. We both got angry. It was a big test for us—not about how you come to agreement but about what you do when you can't agree. And we took a long time to agree. Until then, we simmered." And still, his signature was on the January 2013 newsletter, though it was sent out along with a supplementary article by Melinda.
And so in the end here they are, two people caught in a power struggle. As we’ve said, the issue isn’t that they had different needs. The issue, as you can see, is that they dealt with their conflict through the use of power. “I thought we were going to kill each other.”
The mystery of divorce is always whether it’s the weight of the problems that kills the marriage or the couple’s inability to deal with their problems without falling into power struggles. I don’t know which it was in the Gates’ marriage. I do know that for nine out of ten couples, it’s NOT the problems. It’s the people’s inability to deal with their problems without resort to power that tears things up.
That, of course, is why we wrote Why Couples Fight. It doesn’t have to be this way.