Bill and Melinda Gates aren't like most couples. But their split highlights a broader phenomenon in American relationships.
Divorce after the age of 50, often called "gray divorce," has risen in recent decades, bucking an overall decline in divorce among younger couples. The reasons for older-age divorces are often different than for younger ones: It's not necessarily acute conflict, but rather starting a new chapter -- the children leave home, or retirement feels closer -- that prompts reassessment in a marriage, counselors say. And people living healthier lives at older ages means they have more time to start over in a second act.
During the past year, many couples stuck it out as they hunkered down in crisis, but lawyers say they expect more split-ups among all age groups as the pandemic recedes. For couples over 50 in particular, counselors say, the pandemic has amplified the soul-searching that often hits people at this age.
Before Covid, empty-nesters or new retirees had other activities to distract them from an unfulfilling relationship, says Susan Brown, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University who studies marriages and divorce. "The pandemic made them think differently about their own mortality and goals in life, what they are willing to accept and not accept," says Dr. Brown. "People are less willing to stay in these empty-shell marriages that are not conflictual, but also not happy."
Longer, healthier lifespans are also playing a role, says Jocelyn Elise Crowley, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and author of a book on gray divorce. "We have better access to medical care, the quality of lives in terms of overall health is improving," she says. The sense of duty to marriage prevalent in previous generations is less pervasive now, she adds.
The upshot: "People are saying, 'I'm 50 years old, I have 30 more years on this planet, how do I want to spend those years?' And they look at each other and stare."
Bill and Melinda Gates's announcement Monday that they were ending their 27-year marriage alluded to a next chapter: "We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives," said part of the statement posted on both their verified Twitter accounts. It's not known what caused their split more specifically. Mr. Gates is 65; Ms. Gates is 56.
The Gateses, who have three children together, jointly formed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which oversees the charitable ventures to which the billionaire philanthropist couple have devoted their fortune. They will remain co-chairs and trustees of their foundation and "no changes to their roles or the organization are planned," according to an emailed statement from the foundation.
The Gates announcement followed the split of another high-profile tech couple, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott, who divorced in 2019 after a 25-year marriage. Ms. Scott recently remarried.
In recent decades, the divorce rate in the U.S. has declined overall, but has more than doubled for those 50 and older, says Dr. Brown, who co-directs the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State. In 2019, 15 out of 1,000 currently married people divorced compared with 19 in 1990, according to an analysis of federal data by researchers at Bowling Green. Over that same period, 11.4 per 1,000 currently married individuals ages 55 to 64 divorced in 2019 compared with 5 per 1,000 in 1990.
Dr. Crowley at Rutgers studied the impact of gray divorces on both men and women, and found that while women suffered a greater financial burden, men typically face a greater social cost. "Their wives were the social directors," she says, and often arranged gatherings with friends and planned holiday celebrations. Often, common friends and children side with her. "Men face an extreme sense of loneliness while women get hit economically," she says.
The Bowling Green center's research suggests that the pandemic suppressed divorce rates last year. Completed divorces in five states -- Arizona, Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire and Oregon -- fell 18% in the nine months ending in November compared with the year-earlier period, according to Bowling Green researchers.
Nationwide divorce statistics aren't yet available for the past year but some family lawyers say they are seeing consultations pick up this spring. Sodoma Law, a family law practice based in Charlotte, N.C., says the firm is now seeing record numbers of inquiries: There were 87 consultations in April compared with 50 in April last year. Founder and managing principal Nicole Sodoma says she expects the pace to rise more in the months ahead, as courts become more fluent with new technologies and processes and families use the summer months to settle into separate households.
Divorce attorneys say couples held off on split-ups during the last year for many reasons, including financial anxiety and worries for children facing their own upheavals. "There was a fear factor when they called to inquire," says Susan Myres, owner of Myres & Associates, a divorce and family law firm based in Houston. "Now they're starting to get back to me."
New cases in the last two months are up one-third from the year earlier period, Ms. Myres says. "People are starting to say, 'OK we are ready to go.'"