- Low socioeconomic status drives stress that strains relationships. It has a well-established association with divorce.
- Money should be a stabilizing factor for relationships, but wealthy celebrity couples divorce at an unusually high rate.
- Wealthy celebrity couples face a set of daunting relationship challenges, including regularly spending time apart and high work demands.
- Americans also place high expectations on their marriage partners, expecting a partner to help them grow, which may lead to disappointment.
Bill and Melinda Gates's divorce comes as a surprise to many people who have followed their partnership over the decades. To the public eye, they seem a well-matched, loving, grounded team. Their unique position as one of the wealthiest couples on the planet recalls Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos's recent divorce and the separations of other power couples (Kim and Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez).
This begs the question: What is the role of wealth in these and other romantic separations?
Money typically enhances relationship stability
Do Bill and Melinda Gates fight about making dinner, cleaning the house, or doing laundry? Probably not.
With wealth comes the luxury of outsourcing so many of the annoyances that lead couples to bicker and argue. Wouldn't life be easier (especially in pandemic living) if you had a full-time nanny when the kids were little, a chef, a cleaning service, a lawn service, and someone to seamlessly manage all your household maintenance? You could outsource the mental load of managing your daily schedule, responsibilities, and obligations to a personal assistant and, heck, you could give your personal assistant a personal assistant!
But you can't outsource being a partner.
We know money cannot create a healthy relationship, yet from a scientific standpoint, money should be a stabilizing factor for relationships. It's low socioeconomic status (SES) that scholars highlight as driving the kind of stress that can strain relationships (Karney, 2021). Consider the stress of being unemployed or working multiple jobs, worrying about rent or food, feeling overwhelmed by financial demands, or feeling frustrated that you just can't seem to get ahead.
Financial stress can deplete the emotional resources that people need to nurture their relationships. It's hard to be attentive, responsive, and affectionate when you're stressed, exhausted, and barely keeping it together.
Financial strain can also trigger romantic conflict (Hardie & Lucas, 2010). While not all conflicts are problematic, some conflict styles are associated with greater risk for divorce (Birditt et al., 2010). When partners differ in their views on saving or spending, or how much they need in their bank account before they feel "safe," they may end up in difficult high-stakes conflicts.
Among some of the wealthiest couples, divorce rates are sky-high
If money supports relationship stability, we should see a general trend in which people of higher SES have more stable marriages. We do.
American marriages are more likely to stay together when they are among partners who are educated and affluent than when they are among partners who are less educated and are financially poor (Wilcox & Wang, 2017). Keep in mind that these are associations; other factors linked to SES may ultimately be the drivers of divorce (e.g., stress, age of first marriage, etc).
Oddly enough, however, celebrity couples buck this trend. Celebrity couples are often among the wealthiest, yet they tend to divorce at an unusually high rate. A study comparing "ordinary" couples to celebrity couples found that celebrity couples' divorce rate was double that of the average couple, with an especially dramatic difference in the first year of marriage (Benson & Azim, 2016).
Wealthy celebrity couples face relationship challenges
Couples who have amassed considerable wealth and celebrity status typically endure an array of challenges that might not be so unusual, but cumulatively, they may help explain their higher rate of divorce.
- Time apart. Couple well-being is often defined by interdependence: a belief that your own outcomes are tied to the other. Wealthy, celebrity partners travel independently, regularly: to give talks, attend international meetings, perform, film on location somewhere, etc. On account of their work obligations, partners are sometimes forced to learn how to live apart. This is not necessarily problematic, but it can reduce interdependence. It can also reduce an obstacle for divorce: partners already know what it's like to live separate lives. Their lives are less intertwined when they experience weeks apart on a regular basis.
- Work-life balance. Work-life balance doesn't come with wealth; in fact, an all-encompassing obsession with one's work or creative passions may be the very reason some individuals have their wealth and celebrity status. For Bill and Melinda Gates, this was identified early on as a potential source of challenge in their marriage. In a 2019 interview with The Times, Melinda confessed, “‘When he was having trouble making the decision about getting married, he was incredibly clear that it was not about me, it was about ‘Can I get the balance right between work and family life?”’ (Pullman, 2019).
Work demands put pressure on people's time, freedom, and energy. Many couples (regardless of wealth) experience the problem of spillover stress, when a person's work stress bleeds into their relationship. We all know what this looks like: Someone has a frustrating day and they bring that negative energy home. When people can't detach from their jobs, they can't be present for their partner. This may be a particular problem for individuals who reap status and fulfillment from time-consuming, high-stress jobs.
- Stress as a separating force. Stress interferes with people's ability to give the kind of assurances to their partner that would help their relationships thrive, and they also become more susceptible to the allure of attractive other people (Lewandowski et al., 2014). In other words, stress is a dysregulator. It reduces people's readiness to engage in behaviors that support their relationship and lowers their ability to refrain from behaviors that could harm their relationship.
- Financial freedom and self-growth. Traveling, trying new things, learning new skills... these types of self-expanding activities can improve relationships when couples engage in them together (Aron et al., 2000). Money can help make these opportunities possible.
Money can also, however, create opportunities for independent self-growth. When people engage in self-expanding activities alone, outside of the relationship (e.g., they start new ventures, work projects, or hobbies that do not include their partner), they can begin to feel less close to their romantic partner (Carswell et al., 2021). If couples are in a situation where they spend a lot of time apart and they can afford exciting self-growth opportunities, they may grow apart, rather than together.
- Available alternative partners. When we think about relationship stability, its driver, commitment, is often conceptualized as an outcome of relationship satisfaction, investment, and available alternatives (Rusbult, 1980). When you're a celebrity and/or have exceptional wealth, you may discover that you have more possible partners than just the person you're with: People flirt with you and attempt to steal your attention. Your status and wealth can make you highly desirable in the "mating market," a force that can reduce relationship commitment.
Wealth and status may allow some people to see more possibilities for themselves outside of a long-established relationship, and older adults today are less inclined to stay in a less-than-satisfying relationship. Bill and Melinda Gates join a growing group of older adults in long-term relationships who are ending their marriages. So noticeable is the upward tick in divorces among older adults, it has its own name: "grey divorces." The grey divorce rate today is double what it was in the 1990s (PRC, 2017).
Americans ask a lot (too much?) of their spouses
Bill and Melinda Gates state the reason for their divorce as "we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.” The focus on growth in this statement is aligned with an emerging cultural trend in American marriages. Beyond helping us meet our basic needs (which used to be the expectation), for a marriage to work, we now expect our spouses to help us grow (Finkel et al., 2014). This requires considerable time and emotional investment, and while happy relationships today might be happier than they were years ago, relationships that might have been judged as "good" before are no longer meeting people's expectations.
It's a high bar to expect spouses to recognize our deepest needs and accelerate our ability to self-actualize. Yet, for many of us, this is what we expect.
Couples with money, status, and privilege may be especially oriented towards higher needs, having the resources to readily satisfy more basic needs. Of course, the reasons for Bill and Melinda Gates's divorce are ultimately their business, and just like any couple, they are the only one's privy to the daily inner-workings of their relationship. If nothing else, their divorce is a good reminder that ample resources are not enough to sustain a happy relationship.
Money can't, as they say, buy you love.
Facebook image: buritora/Shutterstock
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Halliday Hardie, J., & Lucas, A. (2010). Economic factors and relationship quality among young couples: Comparing cohabitation and marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 1141-1154.
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