A cascade of recent high-profile divorces of the very rich and famous has presented new questions for the divorce industry – and offered a voyeuristic thrill-ride for millions of the less well-known.
Some of the divorces of recent years have apparently been amicable or pseudo-amicable, such as the tech billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, and Mackenzie Scott. The same is largely true of the split between the reality star billionaire Kim Kardashian and singer Kanye West. But other splits have been decidedly less so, such as the long-running epic divorce and now custody battle between two of Hollywood's A-listers, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
Central to the interest the splits generate is the reason behind such turmoil in the lives of wealthy, seemingly successful people. As ever, speculative questions return speculative answers.
Now people are living longer, healthy, working longer, they don't want to be with this person, they want to start a new chapter even when they're in their 70s
Theories abound as to why such powerful unions crack. To some people, Bezos's ex, Mackenzie Scott, has made the divorce option more attractive. She walked away with $61 billion in Amazon stock and, shortly thereafter, a new husband in the shape of high-school teacher Dan Jewett, who former pupils recall as a "genuinely good person".
But many of the reasons these power couples split are just as parochial as the reasons behind the divorces of lesser mortals.
Laura Wasser, a Los Angeles go-to attorney who has represented Jolie and Kardashian, describes divorce as "the great equaliser". Wasser recently launched an online business It's Over Easy aimed at providing divorce education.
"We have to do it in a way so that you don't get emotionally and financially destroyed in the process," she told the former Merrill Lynch chief executive Sallie Krawcheck during an online Ellevest forum last week.
The increase in divorce among older couples is a growing phenomenon – and not just the rich and famous, Wasser told the forum. “Baby-boomers don’t feel divorce is so taboo because most of their parents have maybe got divorced, the first generation to do so. When people only live to 40, until death do us part was easier. Now people are living longer, healthy, working longer, they don’t want to be with this person, they want to start a new chapter even when they’re in their 70s.”
Wasser confirmed that with the kind of high-profile and Hollywood divorces that have hit the headlines there has been a trend toward mediation and working it out amicably.
“For celebrities, the more you do it by virtue of settlement, the less public it is. They want to keep it all on the DL. What always happens in society is people look at the wealthy and the movie stars and emulate them. If so-and-so ‘consciously uncoupled’ or mediated, I can do that too. It’s a great trend,” she said.
“Letting some guy in a black robe decide your future and your kids’ future is not the best way to go, especially now our courtrooms are so congested as a result of underfunding and all the cases coming in as result of the pandemic.”
Raoul Felder, aka New York's "Dean of Divorce" and subject of a 2004 New Yorker profile, The Misery Broker, believes there is an uptick overall in divorce rates that is Covid-related as the pandemic eases in the US and people are seeking to move on with their lives – sometimes alone.
“It’s the pent-up energy of being cooped up all this time. It’s like the dry spell is over and the heavens have opened up,” he said. “Can you imagine being trapped in a home for a year with someone you didn’t want to be with in the first place? The dam has burst. The courts are open. It’s not just people with money, but happening across the spectrum.”
I know if you run around in divorced circles, you're more likely to get divorced than if you're around intact marriages. It can be contagious
While lawyers may welcome the new business – Felder says business is up by 20 times – it’s unlikely to last: divorce rates are subject to the same laws as gravity – what goes up must come down.
Nor, echoing Wasser, are high-profile separations ever likely to make it to court and into the gossip columns.
“They have an agreement so all they’re doing is sandpapering the rough edges. It’s like two corporations breaking up – a lot mechanicals. Same with movie stars breaking up,” Felder said.
"No one knows why the Gates are splitting up, but like all divorces I'm sure it is fantastically personal," said the LA divorce attorney Kelly Chang Rickert. "I suspect that anytime you marry someone very wealthy they tend to play by their own rules. The more money you have the less tied you are to your commitment."
Rickett says she hasn’t seen the same post-Covid divorce bounce, but doesn’t discount the notion of copycat divorcing.
“I know if you run around in divorced circles, you’re more likely to get divorced than if you’re around intact marriages. It can be contagious. If most of your friends are divorced, you’re probably going to get divorced.”
The very rich have better options than most when they end their marriages. After the Wall Street Journal broke news of Melinda Gates's unhappiness with her husband's connections to Jeffrey Epstein, it was reported that Gates was holed up at a luxury California golf resort. He reportedly told friends the 27-year union was loveless.
Jeff Bezos, who split with his wife to take up with a helicopter pilot, Lauren Sanchez, is on a post-divorce spending spree, most recently in the shape of a $500 million super-yacht.
Reading the runes on mega-divorces, as any divorce, is unlikely to provide clear answers for what remains a uniquely personal experience for every couple no matter their wealth or career or social status.
Rainie Howard, a relationship strategist, said the pandemic is indeed a factor. “If they were miserable before, the pandemic just magnified what was wrong and had been swept under the rug. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to address the mess you’ve been trying to avoid,” Howard said. – Guardian