Bill and Melinda Gates just announced via Twitter that they are ending their marriage. Details are scarce but one thing is clear: The couple have done a stellar job of working together toward a common goal and presenting a united front, two things that are essential to any long-term relationship. Their breakup is raising questions about finances–they have pledged to give most of their fortune to philanthropic work but have not yet done so. But I predict whatever happens next will be handled calmly and thoughtfully. And that the couple will be careful to do the least harm to all concerned.
“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” the announcement begins. It goes on to say that they will continue to work together at their foundation but, “we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”
Bill Gates and Melinda French met in 1987, shortly after she started working at Microsoft. He was in his early 30s; she was in her early 20s. She wrote in her 2019 book Moment of Lift that when he first asked her out, it was for a date more than two weeks in the future. “I laughed and said, ‘That’s not spontaneous enough for me. Ask me out closer to the date,'” she wrote. At the time, both were in the Microsoft parking lot, about to go home for the evening. A couple of hours later, he called her and asked her out for that same night, adding, “Is this spontaneous enough for you?”
The couple dated for seven years and only married after Bill had written out the pros and cons of marriage on a whiteboard. In the 2019 Netflix documentary series Inside Bill’s Brain, Melinda talked affectionately about his thought processes and what she termed both the complexity and chaos inside his mind. “But when Bill stills himself, he can pull ideas together that other people can’t see,” she said.
As for Bill, when he introduced Melinda at a Seattle event for her book in May 2019, the audience could see his eyes fill with tears when he said, “My gift to Melinda is simply to tell her that the moment we met was my moment of lift.”
And less than a year ago, in a lengthy podcast interview, Gates said this about his marriage: “I’m super lucky. This is the most profound partnership of my life. I had a partnership with Paul Allen to found Microsoft, I had one with Steve Ballmer to turn it into an amazing company. With our Foundation, with our kids, with our marriage, I’ve got this amazing person.”
A $49.8 billion foundation.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched in 2000 and has endowments from its founders and from their good friend Warren Buffett. It currently has $49.8 billion in its trust and is thought to be the largest private foundation in the world. Both Bill and Melinda are clearly extremely proud of the foundation’s work and are highly committed to continuing that work–together. In their joint statement, they note that they had together built a foundation “that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives.” The couple continues to share a belief in that vision and will continue to work together at the foundation even as their marriage ends, they say.
What happened? One can never really understand a marriage from the outside and the couple has asked for privacy during this time. It’s a credit to their emotional intelligence that there had been no indication of their relationship fraying as far as the outside world was concerned–for example, they jointly released their 2021 annual letter in January right on schedule. (With 20/20 hindsight, it’s worth noting that in the accompanying image of them, each is at his or her desk in two separate photos.)
Beyond a doubt 2020 was a particularly rough year for the couple. In February, the world began hearing about a growing pandemic that Bill had predicted six years earlier. The following month, he left his position on the Microsoft board to devote himself full-time to the foundation which, among other things, was gearing up to battle that pandemic.
His work on vaccines, combined with the polarized and conspiracy-laden nature of our nation, led to awful conspiracy theories about Bill, which he has–wisely–refused to discuss. In September, Bill Gates senior died. Bill’s dad was a huge influence on his life and this was a devastating loss. That kind of loss can sometimes be tough on a marriage.
The Gates divorce is also part of a national trend. A 2017 Pew Research Center report noted that divorces among people over 50s had roughly doubled since 1990, and roughly tripled for those over 65. (Bill is 65 and Melinda is 56.) With the pandemic straining relationships, those numbers have likely risen since.
Whatever the future holds for this powerful and philanthropic pair, this was obviously a thoughtfully made decision and a carefully crafted announcement. The fact that they appeared in public as a united pair and are continuing together at the foundation suggests that they remain friends. That’s the best possible outcome when a decades-old marriage has to end.
Here’s the full text of their announcement:
After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage. Over the last 27 years, we have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives. We continue to share a belief in that mission and will continue to work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives. We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life.
-Melinda Gates and Bill Gates