James Dobson’s (2004) book entitled ‘Marriage under Fire’ readily came to mind when I read the news of the impending collapse of Bill and Melinda Gates’ marriage.
Dobson argued that ‘civilisation’ trends constitute fire against the institution of marriage. He wrote, particularly from the perspective of liberality in American popular culture, including the gay movements and other developments that undermine the value of marriage and family life. Writing from a Christian perspective, he did not envisage the possible impact of workism on marriage. Sociologically speaking, marriage and family are not just social institutions; they perform critical functions of societal preservation, moral framework, and social control.
For a couple that had, in the last 27 years lived, slept, ate, travelled, sung, quarreled, celebrated, and even cried together, one is taken aback at the announcement of their impending divorce. The Gates had what it takes to afford the luxury and comfort that anyone on earth could aspire to. They had successfully projected a happy marriage and family life all along. Marital breakdown, in their case, is a global rude shock. It indicates that material comfort, wealth, class, or status does not create the conditions for marital bliss. Bill and Melinda could not find happiness in and with each other. This calls for an interrogation of what possibly could have happened over the years, from the perspective of their work and family.
Could work be complicit?
The work-family intersection is volatile, as everyone seeks fulfillment and actualization in the home and work spheres, in the midst of the associated stress and strains. However, the pursuit of livelihood, comfort, and wealth, through work, needs to be united with adequate attention for the emotional, social and spiritual demands of a successful family.
Evidence abounds that the intersection between work and family, the associated conflicts, and management challenges constitute major predictors of marital outcomes. The inability to manage this all-important divide between work and family constitutes a major threat to life-long marital bliss. This article, therefore, adopts the dimension of work-family dynamics in exploring the Gates’ marital breakdown.
The American culture seems to consider ‘work’ as all and all of everything. The Gates’ Microsoft has been able to build and protect an almost monopoly – globally, due to the sheer hard work of Bill and Melinda.
Liberal democracy and capitalist culture in America tend to enthrone work to the detriment of the family. Melinda, for instance, has been promoting women’s empowerment which is a noble course. This, among other reasons, is to enable women to also participate in economic activities in the pursuit of wealth, power, and prestige. Women are encouraged and supported to de-responsibilize the performance of family roles and expectations which they ought to jointly perform in love, or shared as deemed fit, with other family, depending on the uniqueness of the situation. The giant stride of building a mega-philanthropic organisation, alongside a fortune of USD127 billion is no mean feat. Bill Gates must be a workaholic human.
While this may not be bad, question arises as to what happens to the domestic front and family lives of women and men in such situations. What adjustment mechanisms are there in the men and the children, who, together with women, constitute the family? How do they fittingly adjust to meet their new reality? Every member of the family necessarily must adjust to the emerging culture of workism – a term defined by Derek Thompson (2019) as “the belief that work is not only necessary for economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
On a final note…
Workism is prone to producing work-family conflicts through burnout, and the gradual weakening of the emotional base by which spouses are bonded to each other. Effective communication and the quality of relationship between spouses can be threatened by workism; and this portends grave consequences on family outcomes, through unfulfilled, rising expectations of one spouse or both. Incidentally, these effects may not be felt in the short term. The family may not be able to manage for too long.
However, no pinnacle of success in a business or career outside the home will bring as much joy as nurturing children. As a mother, a father, grandparent, aunt, or uncle figure, all the difference we can make in a world with too many broken lives is less than the world of difference we can make in the life of a child. More than ever, the impact of work stressors is real on families. Work-family integration principles and strategies have become more indispensable in today’s world.