The announcement was concise and respectful. It included language such as “we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple” and, ”After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage.” In that way, Bill and Melinda Gates protected their privacy as well as acknowledging that their high visibility meant that a public statement was necessary.
Given the choice of a surgically unemotional statement versus tear and vitriol-filled videos, I certainly opt for the former. It is none of my business, or that of millions of others who recognize the Gates’ name, exactly what led to this decision. However, it would be hard to deny that this divorce affects more than the couple and their children.
A few years back, one of our young daughters was in a bookstore when she noticed a display table featuring Audrey Hepburn videos. She commented to her friend, “Oh, I love Roman Holiday,” at which point an older woman near her said, “You know Roman Holiday? You’ve given me hope for the future.”
Roman Holiday (1953), along with movies like Casablanca (1942), were among the limited titles we shared with our children. This message in both those movies was that there are responsibilities in life that are more important than the pursuit of personal happiness. Love does not eclipse everything.
In the days before no-fault-divorce there was something tawdry about hiring private detectives to catch one’s spouse in an affair, sometimes even faking such an event so that a divorce would be justified. It is distasteful when drunkenness, abuse and intimate details are plastered on the front page. But, there is something unsettling, too, about treating the dissolution of a marriage as an almost prosaic matter.
Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and even Spiderman made statements along the lines of, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Like other high-profile couples including Al and Tipper Gore who divorced over a decade ago, Bill and Melinda Gates’ actions inevitably reinforce the idea that marriage is a losing game. When famous people celebrate 40th and 50th and 60th anniversaries, it might receive a nice, small write-up on the social page. Divorce, especially those of celebrities whose marriages featured in their fame, makes the headlines. And too many young people, many of whom have no role models of successful marriage add one more brick to the wall of cynicism and negativity which surrounds their view of wedlock.
The Gates’ Foundation’s policies or the couple’s political views are immaterial to this Musing. I simply wanted to note how in the real world, marriage—or the dissolution or avoidance of it—is never a truly individual matter.
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