Bill and Melinda Gates’ decades-long relationship began with a shared passion for puzzles, problem-solving and math games – however it seems the riddle of how to save their 27-year marriage it one that neither could solve.
The couple, who wed in 1994, seven years after they first met, announced on Monday evening that they are divorcing after more than two decades of marriage, revealing in a joint statement posted to Twitter that they ‘no longer believe they can grow together… in this next phase of their lives’.
Their marriage, which they only decided to embark on after Bill had completed an extensive pros and cons list on a whiteboard in his bedroom, seems to have come to an end in much the same way that it started – with a measured discussion about the positives and negatives.
In their statement, Bill, 65, and Melinda, 56, noted that they have done ‘a lot of work on their relationship’ – during which they welcomed three children together, launched a charity foundation, and amassed a shared fortune of $130 billion, largely through his technology company Microsoft.
The end of the road: Bill and Melinda Gates have announced that they are divorcing after 27 years of marriage, and more than 30 years together
Happier times: The couple wed in Hawaii in 1994, having first started their romance in 1987, when Melinda, 56, took on a role at Microsoft. However the decision to marry was not easy for Bill, 65, who made a pros and cons list about it on a whiteboard
Family: Bill and Melinda welcomed their first child, Jennifer, now 25, two years after they married, and they went on to have two more children, a son, Rory, now 21, and a second daughter, Phoebe, now 18
Statement: The Gates shared the news of their split on social media, explaining that they ‘no longer believe they can grow together as a couple in this next phase of their lives’
It was that same company that brought the two together in the first place, after Melinda was hired as a product manager in 1987 – the only woman to be chosen from the company’s first intake of MBA graduates.
The couple’s romance began after they were seated next to each other at a business dinner in New York City. According to Melinda, they ‘talked over dinner that evening’ and she could ‘sense he was interested’, and a few days later when they bumped into each other in the company parking lot, he asked her out – although his initial offer wasn’t up to her standards.
‘He struck up a conversation and asked me out for two weeks from Friday,’ she revealed in her 2019 book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.
‘I laughed and said: “That’s not spontaneous enough for me. Ask me out closer to the date,” and gave him my number.’
Refusing to be deterred by her initial rebuttal, Bill phoned Melinda two hours later and asked her to go out with him that same evening, jokingly asking whether such a short-notice date was ‘spontaneous enough for her’.
Melinda recalled how the couple bonded over a shared love of ‘puzzles’ and their competitive natures, writing: ‘We found we had a lot in common. We both love puzzles, and we both love to compete. So we had puzzle contests and played math games.
‘I think he got intrigued when I beat him at a math game and won the first time we played Clue, the board game where you figure out who did the murder in what room with what weapon. He urged me to read The Great Gatsby, his favorite novel, and I already had, twice.
‘Maybe that’s when he knew he’d met his match. His romantic match, he would say. When we got engaged, someone asked Bill: “How does Melinda make you feel?” and he answered: “Amazingly, she makes me feel like getting married.”‘
However Bill’s proposal was not a decision that he took lightly – quite the opposite in fact – and it was not one that either of them had expected him to have to make so soon after that first date.
During a 2019 Netflix documentary about the Microsoft founder, Inside Bill’s Brain, the couple revealed that they were not entirely serious about their romance in the first few months; Melinda actually dated several other people in the early days of their relationship, while the ‘other woman’ in Bill’s life was his beloved computer company.
‘She had other boyfriends, and I had Microsoft,’ Bill said. ‘We were like, “Hey we are not really serious about each other, are we? We are not going to demand each other’s time.”‘
Where it all began: Bill first asked Melinda on a date in 1987 after they were seated next to one another at a company dinner
Bond: The couple later revealed that they first clicked over a shared love of puzzles and math problems – and their similar competitive edges
Changes: Melinda learned that she was pregnant with the couple’s first child shortly before they were due to take a trip to China in 1995 (pictured)
Melinda agreed: ‘I was new to Microsoft, there were a lot of men there and… you are still looking around.’
Both admitted that they were somewhat surprised to realize that they had fallen in love, however it was in that moment when they professed those feelings for one another that they knew they had to make a decision about whether or not their relationship would lead to an engagement and marriage, or whether they should simply end it then and there.
‘Sort of to our surprise, certainly my surprise, we said, “Hey, I love you,”‘ Bill recalled of the moment, which occurred one year into their relationship. ‘And she said she loved me and then it was like, “Wow, and now what is going to happen.”‘
For Bill, it was not a question of whether or not he wanted to be with Melinda, but more a question of whether he was actually capable of becoming a husband, while also remaining focused on building his tech empire.
‘[He] wanted to be married, but he didn’t know whether he could actually commit to it and [still run] Microsoft,’ Melinda explained in the Netflix documentary. ‘He had to make a decision…’
Referring back to the problem-solving skills that had first sparked his interest in Melinda, Bill decided to pursue the most logical solution to that question – by completing a pros and cons list, laying out all of the negative and positive aspects of a potential marriage on a whiteboard in his bedroom, which Melinda actually caught him filling in.
Although neither have divulged the exact specifics of Bill’s list, it seems the pros outweighed the cons, and they got engaged soon after – although they didn’t actually tie the knot until several years later, in a beautiful ceremony held in Lanai, Hawaii.
Even during the wedding, Bill’s logical side took over, with Melinda recalling on Instagram when marking their 25th anniversary how he ‘did some astonishingly quick math to calculate’ how they should cut the cake so that all of their guests got the same size slice.
Less than two years after their wedding, Melinda discovered she was pregnant with their first child – daughter Jennifer, now 25 – and she found herself faced with a similar question that her husband had answered with his pros and cons list: could she, and would she want to, balance her career at Microsoft with her role as a mother.
At the time, Melinda says Microsoft was a ‘huge part’ of the couple’s ‘life together’ – so much so that she actually considered not telling her husband about their pregnancy until days after she found out about it, because they were about to leave for a rare vacation, and she wanted him to be able to relax.
Commitment: Melinda was determined to give their children as normal an upbringing as possible, and revealed that she even registered the kids at school under her maiden name so people wouldn’t make the connection with their wealthy family
Life lessons: Bill has repeatedly said that his children will receive a $10 million inheritance each – a relatively small portion of the couple’s $130 million fortune – because he doesn’t think that leaving them huge amounts of money will be good for them
Under the radar: Melinda enrolled all three children in school under her maiden name – French – so that people wouldn’t immediately make the connection between them and their famous father
‘In 1995, after Bill and I had been married nearly two years and were about to leave on a trip to China, I discovered I was pregnant,’ she wrote in her book. ‘This China trip was a huge deal for us. Bill rarely took time off from Microsoft, and we were going with other couples as well.
‘I didn’t want to mess up the trip, so I considered not telling Bill I was pregnant until we came back. For a day and a half, I thought, I’ll just save the news. Then I realized: “No, I’ve got to tell him because what if something goes wrong? And, more basically, I’ve got to tell him because it’s his baby, too.”
‘When I sat Bill down for the baby talk one morning before work, he had two reactions. He was thrilled about the baby, and then he said: “You considered not telling me? Are you kidding?”‘
Melinda shocked her husband even more when she announced that she would no longer keep working after giving birth – a decision that she says left Bill horrified.
‘He was stunned,’ she recalled, revealing that he simply responded: ‘What do you mean, you’re not going back?’
‘And I said: “We’re lucky enough not to need my income. So this is about how we want to raise a family. You’re not going to downshift at work, and I don’t see how I can put in the hours I need to do a great job at work and raise a family at the same time.”‘
Over the next decade, the couple welcomed two more children; their son Rory, now 21, followed by a second daughter Phoebe, now 18.
Although Melinda did not return to work at Microsoft, the couple did put their heads together professionally again in 2000, when they set up their non-profit, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is now said to be the largest private foundation in the world.
The focus of the foundation is to improve healthcare, increase education, and tackle poverty across the globe.
When the non-profit was set up, Bill stepped down as the CEO of Microsoft and moved into a director role, giving up his control of day-to-day operations so that he could focus more of his energy on the couple’s philanthropy.
But while the relationship might have seemed idyllic on the surface – courtesy of the couple’s sprawling homes, lavish vacations, and many public charitable endeavors – behind the scenes, Melinda admits that they had to work incredibly hard to make their marriage work, and to ensure that their extravagant wealth didn’t negatively impact their children.
Shortly after giving birth to Jennifer, Melinda says she felt incredibly ‘alone’ because her husband was spending so much of his time working, leaving her to take on the majority of the parenting duties by herself, and she admits she questioned whether he was actually invested in fatherhood.
‘When we first had Jenn, I felt very alone in our marriage,’ she explained in her book. ‘Bill was CEO of Microsoft at the time. He was beyond busy; everyone wanted him, and I was thinking, “OK, maybe he wanted to have kids in theory, but not in reality.”‘
Over the years however, the couple worked together to carve out ‘equal’ roles – and to turn their marriage into a ‘partnership’, that saw them both taking on their fair share of childcare, including Bill offering to drive their daughter Jennifer to school several days a week, because it meant spending more than two hours in the car every day.
Philanthropy: The Microsoft founder has said that the majority of his fortune will go to charity when he dies – however that fortune will likely now have to be split between the couple. It is not known if they had a prenuptial agreement
Final days: One of Bill and Melinda’s final public appearances was at a digital charity event on April 18, 2020, when they took part in the One World: Together at Home fundraiser in support of frontline healthcare workers
In a 2019 interview with The Sunday Times, the mother-of-three confessed that there were days in her marriage when she questioned whether the couple could keep going – however she said they worked at it, and finally managed to reach a place where they ‘could laugh about most things’.
‘I think I laugh because, I mean, it’s funny, we’ve just gotten to a point in life where Bill and I can both laugh about more things,’ she explained. ‘And, believe me, I can remember some days that were so incredibly hard in our marriage where you thought, “Can I do this?”‘
Both Bill and Melinda went to great lengths to ensure that their children would have as normal an upbringing as possible, given the family’s incredible wealth – and all three were enrolled in school under their mother’s maiden name so as not to draw attention to their background.
The Microsoft founder revealed in 2017 that he banned his children from having smartphones until they were 14, a decision that sparked much annoyance from his three kids.
‘We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier,’ he explained at the time.
Bill has also said on several occasions that he will not give his children vast portions of his wealth as inheritance, instead limiting them to $10 million each – a relatively paltry piece of his $130 billion fortune. The majority of the couple’s money will go to charity; they are both part of The Giving Pledge, a collective of some the world’s richest people who have vowed to give at least half of their fortunes to charity.
But their children’s upbringing has been far from modest; the family owns multiple properties across the US, including their one-of-a-kind mainstay in Washington, a $125 million compound called Xanadu 2.0.
The 66,000-square-foot mansion overlooks Lake Washington in Medina, nine miles out of downtown Seattle – where The Gates Foundation has its headquarters.
Xanadu 2.0 has an indoor-outdoor pool with an underwater music system and fossil designs on the floor, plus an ancient fossil imprint of a palm frond behind the diving board. In the five-acre plot, there is an artificial stream stocked with salmon and cut-throat trout, and a beach with sand imported, according to some, from the Caribbean.
Inside the seven bedroom mansion, with a reported 18 bathrooms, is an art deco home cinema with seating for 20, and a 1,000-square-foot dining room with seating for 24.
Public: All three of Bill and Melinda’s children are incredibly private, however eldest Jennifer has done a few interviews in the past, the majority of which see her praising her parents
Fan: The talented equestrian, who is currently a med student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, issued a statement about their divorce on Instagram Stories hours after the news broke
Looking ahead: Jennifer, who announced her engagement to Egyptian showjumper Nayel Nassar last year (right), said that her family is going through a ‘challenging time’
For larger gatherings, the 2,300 square-foot reception hall can seat 150 people for dinner, or 200 for a cocktail party.
The 2,100-square-foot library includes two secret pivoting bookcases, one of which contains a bar.
A special nook has been constructed to display one of Gates’s most prized possessions – a scientific notebook kept by Leonardo da Vinci in the early 1500s, called the Codex.
The Gates also own a $59 million ranch in Wellington, Florida, the Irma Lake Lodge, a $9 million, 492-acre Wyoming ranch, and two homes in California.
Despite their famous last name, all three children have managed to cultivate very private lives, and oldest daughter Jennifer is the only one whose personal affairs have been made in any way public, thanks in large part to her career as a professional equestrian.
She is the only one of the Gates children who has commented publicly on their divorce so far, issuing a statement on her Instagram Stories, where she wrote: ‘I’m still learning how to best support my own process and emotions as well as my family members at this time and am grateful for the space to do so.’
It is not the first time that Jennifer has spoken about her parents publicly; in June last year, she did an interview with Sidelines magazine, in which she praised her parents for helping to encourage her love of learning, and for ensuring that she knew how to use her privilege for good.
‘I was born into a huge situation of privilege,’ said Jennifer, ‘and I think it’s about using those opportunities and learning from them to find things that I’m passionate about and hopefully make the world a little bit of a better place.’
Having been brought up primarily at their home in Washington, Jennifer went on to study biology at Stanford University, before enrolling in medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, where she is still a student.
Last year, Jennifer revealed that she got engaged to fellow horse lover Nayel Nassar, an Egyptian showjumper who she met during her time at Stanford.
Her younger brother Rory has avoided the spotlight for much of his life – however reports suggest that he is currently studying law at a university in Chicago, while youngest Gates sibling Phoebe went down a much more creative route.
She is understood to have attended the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, however she is currently thought to be living at her family home in Washington.