By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo May 20: The recent divorce of business magnates Bill and Melinda Gates after 27 years of an apparently happy marriage, brings out, in some ways, the state of the institution of marriage and gender relations in the United States.
Melinda (56) has been quoted as saying that Bill (65) had been having difficulty in balancing work and family and that he was reluctant to grant equality to her in work situations where, as equal partners in their joint business, equality of treatment was called for.
Both had outgrown the joint responsibility of parenting their children as they attained adulthood. In the absence of joint parental responsibility, both needed to relate to each other in other spheres of mutual interest to keep the relationship going meaningfully. Apparently, they found no common ground. Melinda was more and more into women and family welfare work, but these were areas which were of little or no interest to Bill. And with both being passionately committed to the pursuit of their interests, they did not want to be trammeled by conjugal demands and restrictions.
Writing in the TIME magazine date May 4, Belinda Luscombe says: “ Bill, a noted workaholic, announced in March 2020 his intention to step back from the boards of Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway, and his hope to spend more time on his work at the global-aid behemoth he and his wife started. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would seem to offer a “collective adventure”. But even within the foundation, the two have developed different interests. Bill focuses on climate change and health. Melinda has been increasingly active in issues affecting women and girls. When she turned 50, she told TIME she was no longer going to meetings about science and medicine at the foundation. “I trust Bill has those,“ she said. “I’m taking more meetings about women’s and girls’ issues and the cultural behavior-change pieces of that.”
Melinda has had her own philanthropic foundation, Pivotal Ventures, since 2015. Significantly, she had said: “The world is finally waking up to the fact that none of us can move forward when half of us are held back. The data is clear: empowered women transform societies.”
Research reveals that such interpersonal gaps are faced by an increasing percentage of middle aged or ageing American couples. The divorce rate among the greying generation is going up. They are now dubbed “Silver splitters.” People in their late 50s and 60s are now splitting when, as per traditional wisdom, they ought to seek comfort in their familiar, long lasting relations and not go out of their “comfort zones” and be adventurous.
But with increase in life expectancy going deep into the 80s, and with the guarantee of a healthy body well into the 70s or 80s, many seniors see unexploited potential in themselves which could be tapped if only they are not burdened with existing commitments. Either one or both the parties might want to seek the freedom to explore fresher pastures without being held back.
This is so when a couple have no common ground to work on as they get older. In this context, the Gates’ statement is revealing: “We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.”
This is in sharp contrast with the past when the appetite for change in a man or women gradually vanished by the time he or her she reached mid-fifties or 60s. Couples of an earlier generation looked forward to a quiet retired life away from the hurly burly of the fast and fiercely competitive world. But not now.
Therefore, marriage problems no longer trouble only young couples. Older couples are also afflicted. And not just in the US but in the UK and other European countries too. A well-known London-based marriage counsellor Dawn Kaffel has been quoted as saying that she sees two or three times the number of over-60s compared with 20 years ago. “I think it’s something about getting towards another stage in life and people thinking it’s their last chance to find happiness,” Kaffel reasons. “People are going to want to get re-energized and move on,” she adds.
Belinda Luscombe writing in Time in May says that absence of sex in older age could lead to disillusionment with a marriage. She quotes Ian Kerner, author of So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex as saying that couples: “We crave touch, we crave intimacy and we crave a romantic gleam in our partners’ eyes where we feel safe and held.” But these cravings are not met as they should be.
In this situation, older men even fancy marriage after 60 and that with younger women. According to available statistics, men are more likely to remarry later on in life than women, and older men marry younger women. 56% of men aged 65 and over who tied the knot in 2014 married a woman under 65, whereas for women the figure was much lower.
Some marriage counsellors say that divorce of older couples tends to be more amicable because they would have developed some degree of understanding over the many years of living together. But Kaffel says that this is a bit of a misnomer because financial settlement could be acrimonious no matter how old or young a couple may be.
Overall Progress of Women
There are several other factors which have a bearing on the stability of marriage in the US. One is the greater participation of women in the US labor force and also the near closing of the gap between the sexes in wages. In the US, in 1979, women earned 62% of what the men earned. But in 2010, it was 81%. But women surpass men on educational attainment among those employed aged 25 and over: 37.1% of women hold at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 34.9 % for men, according to the Department of Labor. Thus, today’s women are qualified and earn well enough not to bow to the whims of men.
Decline of Male breadwinner
Steven Ruggles in his work : Demography 2015: Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 says: “ The decline of male-breadwinner families led to an equally profound upheaval of gender relations as men lost control over their wage-earning wives and daughters.”
Going further, Ruggles says: “The dramatic retreat from marriage over the past half-century could never have occurred without the loss of patriarchal control and the shift in attitudes that accompanied it.”
“Today’s families are far more humane and egalitarian than anything that came before. Corporal punishment of wives is universally condemned, and wife-beating is illegal in every state. Women are no longer legally subordinate to their husbands. Wives can work for wages, they can keep their earnings, and they no longer need their husband’s permission to open a checking account or sign a contract. Time-use data show that families are becoming more and more egalitarian with respect to housework and childcare.”
Galloping egalitarianism is not only leading to women’s empowerment in the choice of their marriage partner, but also to a fair amount of freedom to chalk out her duties as a wife, mother and wage earner and the liberty to continue or sever a marital bond.
The freeing of the women has had the effect of freeing the man too. The loss of patriarchal authority has been compensated by the acquisition of freedom of action including the power to end a unsatisfactory marriage.