Bill and Melinda Gates seemed to have the perfect life and relationship - so what went wrong?

·8 min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

After 27 years years of marriage, three children and the creation of the world’s largest philanthropic foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates announced to widespread shock that they are divorcing this week.

The longtime couple announced their intention to end their marriage on Monday, writing in a joint statement shared to social media: “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,” the Gates’ statement continued. “We continue to share a belief in that mission and will continue our work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”

Bill and Melinda concluded the statement asking for space and privacy as they “begin to navigate this new life”.

While the announcement sent shockwaves through the worlds of philanthropy and technology, it also came as a surprise to the general public, which has responded with questions considering the couple’s seemingly happy - and productive - marriage.

From how they met, to what they’ve said about their relationship, to what may have gone wrong, this is what to know about the rise and fall of the marriage of one the world’s wealthiest couples.

How did Bill and Melinda meet?

Bill and Melinda met through Microsoft, the technology company that he’d cofounded, where Melinda had gotten a job as a product manager in 1987.

According to Melinda, their first real introduction was at a business dinner in New York City, with the 56-year-old recalling in her 2019 memoir, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes The World, that they’d sat next to each other.

However, it wasn’t until a few months later that Bill asked his future wife out, when he ran into her in the Microsoft parking lot and asked if he could take her out two weeks from then.

The offer was initially declined by Melinda on the basis of lack of spontaneity, with the philanthropist recalling how she’d told the tech founder that he’d have to ask her out closer to the date and gave him her number.

According to Melinda, who reflected on the moment during Netflix’s three-part documentary Inside Bill’s Brain, Bill called her hours later the same day and asked her to dinner.

What was their early relationship like?

Of all the years spent together, it was perhaps the couple’s earliest that raised the most cause for concern, as they were filled with uncertainties about their future together.

For Bill, the uncertainty stemmed from his dedication to building Microsoft, with the billionaire aware of the commitment the company would take, while noting that Melinda also had other “boyfriends”.

“When we first met, she had other boyfriends and I had Microsoft. We were like: ‘Hey we’re not really serious about each other are we? We’re not going to demand each other’s time. But after about a year of that, sort of to our surprise, certainly my surprise, we said: ‘Hey, I love you,’ and she said she loved me and then it was like, wow. Now, what’s going to happen?” Gates recalled in the documentary.

He eventually relied on a pros and cons list to help him decide whether he was ready for marriage.

According to Melinda, her future husband “had to make a decision,” and “wanted to be married, but he didn’t know whether he could actually commit to it and [run] Microsoft”.

“You know, we cared a lot for each other and there were only two possibilities: either, we were going to break up or we were going to get married,” he said in the documentary.

Interestingly, Bill also sought the advice of his former girlfriend Ann Winblad, with whom he also reportedly vacationed with after he was married, before proposing to Melinda, revealing in a 1997 Time profile: “When I was off on my own thinking about marrying Melinda, I called Ann and asked for her approval.”

Despite the lingering concerns, the couple did eventually marry in a Hawaii ceremony in 1994.

However, years on, Melinda revealed that she never did expect to marry her husband.

In a Valentine’s Day Instagram post in 2019, she wrote that she would “never have imagined Bill and I dating, let alone falling in love and getting married” but that it was “one of the best surprises of my life”.

What happened when they had children?

When Melinda and Bill’s eldest child Jennifer arrived in 1996, the couple faced another hurdle, of Melinda’s decision not to go back to work.

According to the mother-of-three, who also wrote in her book that she had considered not telling Bill after she’d found out she was pregnant with their first child because they were about to embark on a trip to China, her husband was “stunned” by the decision.

“He was stunned,” she wrote, adding that her husband had asked her: “What do you mean, you’re not going back?”

During an interview with CBSSunday Morning in 2017, Melinda said her decision had come down to wanting to raise the couple’s children herself, and that their wealth meant she didn’t have to return to work.

“He was surprised, he was definitely surprised,” she said. “But I said to him: ‘You know, it just doesn’t make sense. You can’t be the CEO and go as hard as you’re going and - somebody has to be at home, right? We didn’t want our children raised by somebody else. I said: ‘You know, if we want them to have the values we have, somebody has to be home.’”

In addition to Jennifer, 25, the couple went on to have two more children, Rory, 21, and Phoebe, 19.

While speaking with The Sunday Times in 2019, Melinda had reflected on some frustration with her husband during their children’s younger years, recalling one instance when she was struggling to pack up the car and get the three children ready while her husband was reading a book about Winston Churchill.

During the interview, she also said: “I can remember some days that were so incredibly hard in our marriage where you thought: ‘Can I do this?’”

But Bill wasn’t always focused elsewhere, as Melinda recalls in her book another time when her husband inspired other fathers to begin driving their children to school when he began bringing one of their daughters to kindergarten.

The tech guru also previously expressed an affinity for doing the dishes, revealing that he does the chore himself each night.

According to Melinda, despite the struggles, the marriage worked because it was a “partnership of equals”.

How did their foundation factor into their relationship?

In recent years, the couple’s commitment to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has taken the forefront, which has seen Bill and Melinda pour billions of dollars into the fight against “poverty, disease, and inequity around the world”.

In a statement, the foundation said that the former couple would continue to work together on the non-profit.

“They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues, and set the organization’s overall direction,” the statement said.

What have they said about one another and what ultimately went wrong?

Despite the occasional ups and downs documented by the couple, for the most part, they have spoken only positively of one another.

In a 2018 blog post, Melinda revealed in response to a question about what happens when they disagree that Bill has a “kind heart” and is “very open-minded”.

“Bill is very open-minded, which isn’t necessarily how people perceive him. I love Bill because he has a kind heart, listens to other people, and lets himself be moved by what they say,” she wrote. “When I tell a story about what I’ve seen, he feels it. He might ask me to gather some data for good measure, but he doesn’t doubt the reality of my experiences or the soundness of my judgment.”

Melinda has also publicly expressed her admiration and love for her husband on social media, with the mother-of-three writing in a Facebook post for Bill’s birthday: “Bill, after two amazing decades together, your humour, drive, intelligence, curiosity, thoughtfulness, optimism - and, yes, your spontaneity - are as wonderful as ever. On land, at sea, and everywhere in between, I’m glad you’re by my side.”

More recently, Melinda celebrated her husband in an anniversary post, in which she referred to Bill as “the man who keeps me dancing through life”.

The Microsoft founder has positively reflected on his partnership with Melinda as well, revealing in the Netflix documentary that if he had one regret, it would be not thanking his wife of 27 years enough.

Overall, the couple’s decision appears to be one made out of continued love and support for one another, with some noting on social media that, just because the marriage is ending, does not mean that it was not successful.

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