What Gives with Grey Divorce?

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Bill and Melinda Gates and the Explosion of “Gray Divorce”

The divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates is sad. Here was a couple who seemed, for all their wealth, pretty normal. They raised three kids. They established a foundation that has saved the lives of countless people, especially in Africa. They regularly appeared together at events. They named their foundation after the two of them.

And then… poof! What day, they up and announced that they’re getting divorced.

What gives?

On the one, nobody seems especially surprised given how widespread divorce is today. On the other hand, there is surprise that they decided to divorce after 27 years of marriage. But that’s become the fastest growing segment of divorce. People who have been married more than a quarter century who decide, after the kids are grown and out of the house, that they’ve had enough. They will no longer stay in dead marriages that are bereft of romance, where they feel invisible, where they rarely hear a compliment, and where all sense of adventure has departed.

Before, even people in loveless marriages might have decided that, after spending a life together, companionship was still more important than being alone. No longer. With people living, thank God, longer than ever before, many decide they’d rather be alone on their own rather than lonely in their marriages. 

Just think about this for a moment. Western countries put a huge amount of emphasis on retirement. Everyone needs a 401k. Pensions are planned decades in advance. People buy homes in the home their equity will provide a nest-egg for retirement. But no one seems to think that they should invest the same amount of effort into their marriages so that by the time they retire they actually have someone to retire with.

Marriage has become expendable. We believe that it can exist on autopilot. Raising our kids and making sure they get into an Ivy League school? Yeah. We know that takes tremendous effort, sitting with them every night with homework, helping them to prepare for tests. But demonstrating to our children a healthy example of a loving relationship which they can hopefully emulate? Sure, sure. Doesn’t that happen automatically now that we’re married?

Like our 401ks, marriages require constant investment. And unlike our 401ks, they don’t simply grow on their own. The grass is always greener where it is watered and fertilized. The same is true of marriage. 

I am not here to judge Bill and Melinda Gates. On the contrary, I am in awe of how many lives they have saved and how they have devoted themselves to the poorest people on earth. But there is something to be said about how often we men and women set out to save the whole world and sometimes overlook the home front. 

It was a sentiment that was expressed by Julian Lennon about his dad, John Lennon. Yes, all we are saying is give peace a chance, he preached. Yet he had little to no relationship with his son Julian and left his wife for another. Again, I am not judging. Simply commenting on how, sometimes, it seems easier to save the world rather than hold together your own family.

And here I want to say something surprising. For decades now I have heard people castigate Bill and Hillary Clinton as having a sham marriage. Why didn’t she leave him, endless people have asked, after he humiliated her? And aren’t they together simply out of political convenience? But who were we to ever judge them? Why are we condemning people who’ve actually decided to stay together rather than applauding their commitment to see their marriage through? 

And don’t get me wrong. Adultery and unfaithfulness destroy a marriage utterly, and no woman, or man for that matter, should have to live through the humiliation of their spouse’s infidelity, especially if it’s public. But in the final analysis, it’s for that married couple to decide for themselves what their marriage ought to be.

I want to be clear that we in the Jewish religion do not believe that marriage should ever be a prison nor that a relationship should be a penitentiary. Unlike our Catholic brothers and sisters who can only annul a marriage, divorce is in our system of law and is expressly in the Torah. No man or woman should have to live in a dead or loveless marriage. But who says a marriage has to end up dead and loveless in the first place.

Many young people today believe that lifelong love is a fairy tale invented by the likes of Walt Disney or Hallmark cards. We invest these fantasies in order to sell product. 

But I know, from counselling countless married couples, that loving marriages can continue for decades and decades so long as they live by the simple rules of constant romantic gestures, appreciation, compliments, apologies when hurt is caused, physical intimacy, time spent alone together, and continued spiritual growth. 

Do we really believe that marriages and relationships are radically different to anything else that requires investment? If Apple does innovate with a new IPhone every year, will it still retain market dominance? If Elon Musk doesn’t build newer and most powerful rockets, will NASA still contract him to get astronauts to the moon? And if Ralph Lauren doesn’t offer new  styles every season, will men and women still buy his fashion?

Our marriages are worth more than all these things. It’s high time we began to invest our deepest elves into them. 

And as for the Gates’ and the end of their marriage, one need not be hitched to do good in the world. Individual men and women are just as capable of “perfecting the world in God’s name” as married people. No doubt Bill and Melinda will continue to save lives, develop vaccines, and provide remote regions of Africa with clean water. I’m also assuming that the name of the foundation will mostly stay the same. And I’m also sure they will continue to be loving and devoted parents. But it is still just a little bit sad that all the good they do in the world will no longer be something they do as a married couple. 

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