I was surprised a couple of days ago to learn that Bill and Melinda Gates are divorcing. I don’t keep up with celebrity marriages and I’d never had any great interest in the Gates family. But I’d always had the impression they were a happy and stable family.
Marriages break up for all sorts of reasons and I have no idea what happened with the Gates family. But their announcement has had me thinking about why so many relationships that start like fairy tales end up like nightmares.
It seems to me that our desires often mislead us. When we’re looking for someone to date, we have a list of things we want — conscious or unconscious — but those aren’t necessarily things that will keep people together for good.
As I’ve gotten more mature — in life and in relationships — I’ve noticed that my own standards have unconsciously changed.
About 10 years ago, I casually dated a woman for about a year. Someone later asked me what I meant by saying we had dated “casually.” I wasn’t sure how to explain it at first. Then the truth dawned on me — and I understood something about myself.
When I had said — to myself and to others — that this woman and I were casually dating, what I really meant was that she wasn’t someone I would want to marry. I was never going to have a serious relationship with her — and that wasn’t what she wanted from me, either.
She was an impressive young woman. She was a beautiful blue-eyed blonde who was bright and accomplished. She was trying to start a new business while we dated. We had a good time together for about a year. She and I had both gotten out of serious relationships not long before that, so we each needed someone to spend time with and to trust.
But I wasn’t the guy she wanted for the long term and she wasn’t what I wanted for the long term. We never said that out loud, but I’m confident that she knew it as well as I did.
When I was younger, I saw everyone I dated (or wanted to date) as potentially the right partner. I had standards, of course, but I was more interested in short-term qualities than what a woman would be like as a partner — as a mother, as a wife, as a business partner, as a friend.
I was talking with a college student a few days ago about a new guy she is excited to have started dating. I happen to know the guy — and he’s not someone I’d recommend to a friend. He’s rude. He’s pompous. He appears to think only of himself. He speaks of other women in very disrespectful ways that make it clear what he’s interested in. By my standards, he’s a jerk.
I gently mentioned to this woman that I questioned whether he would be a good partner for her, but she wasn’t interested in my concerns.
This young woman likes the man’s tough image. She said it makes him “mysterious” and “exciting.” She loves it that he has a motorcycle and an expensive car. She likes it that he makes a lot of money already and will probably make a lot more with what he’s working toward. She said she could see herself married to the guy — and she said all her friends would be jealous of her.
I asked her whether she thought he would be a good friend to her, whether he would take care of her when she was sick, whether he would be a good father.
She looked at me blankly. Then she said something that explains the thought process of a lot of people in similar situations.
“I guess so,” she said. “But I’m just thinking about what it would be like to marry him — not have to spend the rest of my life with him.”
She’s thinking for the short term. I probably did the same thing when I was 21. (I almost married a woman when I was in college, for instance, who would have been a horrible long-term fit for me.) And I think what she’s doing is just one form of something that a lot of people do.
Many people have a set of short-term traits that attract them to a person. They start dating. One thing leads to another. At some point, it often leads to marriage.
Then it turns out they don’t really like each other. It turns out that he has no interest in taking care of her when she needs help (or maybe vice versa). It turns out they want different things. It turns out that he’s a terrible father. Or maybe she’s a terrible mother.
And then these people who had been so excited about one another when they married find they have absolutely nothing to keep them together. With many of them, there’s nothing between them anymore except contempt. And they’re often stuck for life with someone they don’t like — because they stay together for children who silently know there’s something wrong in their home.
I have no idea what happened in the Gates marriage. They’re both smart people who certainly gave a lot of thought to what they were doing before they married. But if they’re like many of the other bright people I know, they might have discovered that the exciting things that brought them together — and that made them happy in those wedding photos — weren’t the things they needed in a partner for life.
The things that attract us to a person aren’t necessarily what we really need in a long-term partner, but that’s hard to see when we have stars in our eyes.