It even has a name: grey divorce.
When an older couple divorces, everyone from family to co-workers struggles to make sense of what went wrong. Rumours and old tropes abound: the midlife crisis, the other woman, a sexual identity awakening.
Rarely is it theorised someone just wanted a new emotional and intellectual journey after raising kids or living with one person most of their adult life. That they realise they have decades ahead and don’t want to be unhappy anymore.
For the Gates, knowing they’re now part of a movement may be cold comfort.
Their acknowledgement that they put “a great deal of thought” into their decision probably means years in a couple therapist’s office.
Parked with a box of tissues, they would have gone endlessly over childhoods and attachment styles and that time Bill couldn’t fake he liked Melinda’s haircut and how Melinda didn’t understand why Bill was always away for work.
They’ve done some heavy lifting. They were invested. And in a different way to what most of the reports focused on: the fortune at stake.
While the financial implications are not immediately known, Bill Gates was listed fourth on the Forbes Worlds’ Billionaires 2021 list with a net worth of $US124 billion ($A159.8 billion). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also has over $US51 billion ($A65 billion) in assets.
Yes, that’s an unimaginable pile of real estate, investments, you name it. But I can guarantee you neither Bill nor Melinda is thinking right now about whether or not they’ll get their favourite house.
Their personal love story had a starting point no more startling than anyone’s. They met in 1987 at a Microsoft dinner in New York. Bill was the 31-year-old CEO and Melinda, 25, a product manager. In 1994 they wed in Hawaii.
Since then, imagine all the stuff they’ve talked about in dark bedrooms, the anxious looks over a baby’s feverish head, the laughter playing Uno on a family holiday. Strapping little feet into ski boots, fighting about Christmas logistics, being bored on road trips and with family menus.
Seeing each other like nobody else ever can.
That’s the precious commodity Bill and Melinda Gates will know they are dividing – not the stupid money, not even the memories they already have, but the future memories.
No matter whether someone wanted the divorce more than the other, whether there’s anybody else involved, both will grieve for the loss of the life they thought they would have.
When my first husband and I divorced after 23 years of marriage – and 29 after we met at age 17 on Surfers Paradise beach – it was packing up our linen and toy cupboards that nearly destroyed me.
The kids’ novelty single doona covers, the Lego, the well-read copy of Avocado Baby we were keeping for when our future grandchildren stayed over. The loss of that felt like a rat eating my heart, and that’s what Bill and Melinda will grapple with.
What does life look like now? Who do I go on holiday with?
My (outgoing) husband was incredible. He boxed up everything with a ‘Future grandchildren’ label, promising we would still be in it together somehow when the time came.
I wish that for the Gates – a divorce navigated with the same love that brought them together in the first place. Telling someone you don’t want to be married anymore takes huge courage, and is hopefully rewarded with an enriching second act.
Kate Halfpenny is the founder of Bad Mother Media.