I have never met Bill and Melinda Gates, yet the announcement of their divorce after a 27-year marriage feels like a personal loss. They were such “good guys.” The ultimate power couple had checked all my mental boxes: well-adjusted, happy, generous. Since hearing the news, I’ve become aware that there were rumblings of disquiet in their marriage for the past several years, but what I personally knew of their story had helped me construct a Dream Life in Seattle for them, where they were always firm business partners, dedicated philanthropists, the loving parents of three kids, and, I was certain, totally compatible as husband and wife.
On top of it all, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major player in such important charity work (supporting partner organizations and individuals worldwide in fighting poverty and improving health, including the development and delivery of Covid-19 treatments and vaccines) that the sight of the couple in photographs, always looking so focused and kind and bright, felt like it had global significance.
Prior to their marriage, I had thought of Bill as the precocious and brilliant developer of Microsoft, wealthy beyond imagining, but nerdy-looking, perhaps awkward and unlucky in love. When he met Melinda, who worked with him as a product manager, it seemed he had found the perfect match — she was attractive, very smart and very hard-working. In later years, I was struck by their mutual desire to give so much wealth away; for all their billions, they gave the impression of an unassuming couple I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have over to my modest house for dinner. I was charmed by how closely their values aligned. My husband and I have a similar age difference, and I always cheer for couples who make that work. The Gateses, obviously, made it work.
But now I am forced to face facts, because their marriage stopped working. They are not perfect, and they were not perfectly happy. They are human, with messiness and struggles, even if their wealth and standing gives those struggles a different look from the outside. Their troubles are none of my business, and the end of their marriage does not in any way negate the great good they do with their fortune in the world.
An increasing number of middle-aged couples these days are splitting up after many years of marriage and raising children. It often comes as a shock, with no infidelities or other betrayals to easily explain why. In many cases, they merely grow apart, and without young families to focus on, they lose what it was that kept them together as a couple in the first place. A healthy proportion of these individuals remain friends, and go on to live happy and fulfilled separate lives.
My grandparents endured a long and dreadful marriage because, being Catholic in the mid-20th century and not people of means, divorce was off the table entirely. I often wished they could have had some happy years apart, but they died miserably yoked together. Considering the complexity of that situation, I should question my own tendency to project a black-and-white fantasy of either perfection or complete dysfunction on total strangers.
But of course, my disappointment in the failure of a famous storybook romance should be tempered by a realization that there really are no unclouded happily-ever-afters. My grandparents would have been far better off had they been able to separate — for them, the end of their marriage would have been a much healthier outcome.
We often put famous people in neat and tidy boxes, and expect them to follow a certain script for their lives, as if they are little more than convenient tales for us to tune into and out of now and then. Sometimes, we react with indignity when they dare to break out of that narrative. It’s unsettling. And during a pandemic when this particular couple feels like they’ve been front and center, it can be politically as well as personally disorienting.
Yet perhaps I can just wish Bill and Melinda Gates well, and continue to admire them as people. And perhaps I can recognize the complicated humans we all are, and give us all — even the rich and famous among us — some grace.