Of pretence in marriage, politics, Bill and Melinda Gates divorce

Musaazi Namiti

It is not often that I write about relationships in opinion essays I contribute to Sunday Monitor, but Monday brought us news that left many of us astounded and was or is hard to ignore: the Bill and Melinda Gates divorce.

I have decided to write about their divorce because I strongly believe in family values, and I think marriage plays a great role in shaping and fostering those values. 

The divorce also brought home to us the fact that we probably need as much pretence in marriage as in politics, where an unelectable presidential candidate can shout “absolutely” when a reporter asks if they will win an election. 

You have to keep up the pretence that things are going swimmingly even when your marriage is crumbling. That is how people in ‘clinically dead’ marriages manage. And it is what I was able to deduce from the public appearances of Mr Gates and Melinda French, which often led many to think that all was OK.

I received the divorce news late. But I read it with surprise and a tinge of dismay. Mr Gates and Melinda are not yuppies. They are not Hollywood celebrities who sometimes marry for marriage’s sake and public attention. The pair are billionaires, with vast experience of life and the world, for which they have done great things through their philanthropy. 

What is more, they are some of the world’s richest people and both have intellectual stamina. They had been married for 27 years, raising — as they wrote in a tweet announcing their divorce — “three incredible children”. So why were they divorcing? 

It was probably a daft question to ask. Marriages, just like many things with a beginning, have an end. Marriages get old, and some get progressively weaker as they become old and die — just like people. 

Perhaps more importantly, marriage requires and demands behavioural standards that billions of people are incapable of living up to consistently. It demands fidelity, love, honesty, openness and transparency of the highest degree if it is to go from strength to strength. 

That is why I think marriage plays a key role in family values, because children who are raised by parents who have those attributes are likely to end up with the same attributes.

Some unmarried people say that human nature is incompatible with marriage. I do not know if they are right, but what I know for sure is that when people tie the knot, anything can happen. It could be marital bliss or divorce anytime.

Decades in marriage do not necessarily mean your marriage is safe and will only be terminated by death. The worst, which has nothing to do with death, can still happen.

Nelson Mandela’s marriage, for example, survived prison but not freedom. It had endured Mr Mandela’s inability to be in the bedroom. But, two years after he was freed in 1990, Mr Mandela announced that he was filing for divorce from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

We still get surprised when we get news of high-profile divorces, but we probably should not because we already have good examples.

Frederik Willem de Klerk, with whom Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, ended his marriage with Marike after 39 years. Former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba and Vera divorced after 33 years. Russian president Vladimir Putin ended his marriage with Lyudmila after 30 years. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie divorced after a 25-year marriage.

Marriage is not for everyone. And divorce, though devastating, does not always spell doom and gloom. Ask Jacob Zuma and Nkosazana Dlamini.

Mr Namiti is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk

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