How Hidden Power and Influence Can Help Us Understand the Gates Divorce


By now, you probably heard already that Bill Gates and his wife Melinda French Gates are getting divorced.

Divorces can be incredibly painful even when both parties agree it’s the best solution. Having every gory detail plastered on every media outlet can make things even more difficult than they already are.

Nobody really knows what goes on behind closed doors in a marriage and we can’t tell for certain whether media reports are accurate. I can only speculate about the reasons for their divorce. From some reports, it might appear that Ms. French Gates, despite being one of the most powerful women in the world and an advocate for women’s economic empowerment, may have had some difficulty being able to influence her husband in their personal relationship.

Can You Really Change a Man?

You might be able to shape a man’s behavior if he’s into you—maybe. Unfortunately, many of us possess the dangerous belief that we can change a man. The reality, though, it’s a bit different. It’s more like pruning a shrub in your garden – you might be able to shape his behavior a little, but you can’t change his basic nature. That’s why it’s very important to figure out in the early stages of your relationship whether he will let you influence him. If he won’t, you may not be a good match.

The media report that before their marriage Ms. French Gates agreed that Mr. Gates could take a yearly beach vacation with his ex-girlfriend Ann Wegland. We don’t know the truth of this story, but it begs an interesting question: Did this kind of agreement signal that she allowed Mr. Gates to have more power in their relationship?

Letting your husband spend a yearly weekend with his ex is not particularly ideal. Allowing a third person into your marriage can sabotage it. Women may look the other way when their husbands stray, but was Ms. French Gates truly comfortable with their arrangement? If the story is accurate, Gates had already made a billion dollars by the time they married. Did she agree because she was afraid to lose him and/or his money? Or is it just one more way that women let men take advantage because we do not see our value? We can still sell ourselves short.

Power Dynamics in a Relationship

I have no way of knowing their motivations, but many women are afraid to say “no” to a man, and that trouble saying “no” might set the stage for the power dynamic for the marriage. Both could have felt their marriage was “equal,” but on some level did he have more power? She may have felt insecure or resentful, while he felt like he could get away with certain things because he had the upper hand.

Later in their marriage, something might have changed for her. In late 2012, Ms. French Gates asked to help write the annual letter for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, rather than letting Mr. Gates alone recap the previous year and set the agenda for the next as he had done in the years before. She wrote in her book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, “I thought we were going to kill each other,” “I felt, ‘Well, this just might end the marriage right here.’” But it seemed they had worked things out. Maybe she just wanted to have more power in their relationship.

That was not the only area of conflict between them. She was reportedly “furious” about his acquaintance with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein because Mr. Gates continued to see him despite the knowledge that he was a convicted sex offender. Apparently the three of them had a meeting in 2013 and she was very uncomfortable. Reports say she consulted divorce lawyers in 2019 when news came out about Gates’ meetings with Epstein.

Don’t Stop Fighting for Power and Equality

They made their choices and you can make your own. In our culture that glorifies wealth and power, it can be easy to minimize the importance of being able to influence your partner.

Most of us will never know the wealth that Melinda French Gates has enjoyed, but we may be able to marry a man we can influence and live happily ever after. Don’t minimize your importance in fighting for women’s equality and power if this is your contribution to the cause. You are providing a model for your children and your friends and neighbors of true equality.

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