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Perspective: If rich people can’t make marriage work, can the rest of us?

Research suggests that wealth and education are not significant predictors of a marriage’s success

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Melinda and Bill Gates are interviewed in Kirkland, Wash. The couple announced Monday, May 3, 2021, that they are divorcing.

In this Feb. 1, 2019, photo, Bill Gates looks to his wife Melinda as they are interviewed in Kirkland, Wash. The couple announced Monday, May 3, 2021, that they are divorcing. The Microsoft co-founder and his wife, with whom he launched the world’s largest charitable foundation, said they would continue to work together at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

If people who have all the money in the world can’t make a marriage work, what hope is there for the rest of us?

That thought crossed more than a few minds in recent weeks as the relationship between Bill and Melinda Gates unraveled. Money is one of the major things that couples fight about (along with how they spend their time and how they raise their kids).

But the Gateses were probably not bickering over who would wash the dirty dishes left in the sink or who is going to bring the kids to soccer practice.

As it turned out, their marriage had other problems — Bill had at least one affair a couple of decades ago and seems to have made advances on other women at Microsoft. His associations with the notorious sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein are enough to raise eyebrows.

Some might speculate that having too much money actually makes infidelity easier. All those resources would presumably make a person more attractive to potential partners and he or she could hire a whole army to cover his or her tracks.

When it comes to being unfaithful to a spouse, there are certain factors that put couples at greater risk, but overall, it turns out, wealth is not one of them. Nor is one’s level of education. So we can’t blame Bill’s dropping out of Harvard for this one.

According to Wendy Wang, director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, “having a college degree is not linked to a higher chance of cheating.” She notes that “almost equal shares of college-educated adults and those with high school or less education have been unfaithful to their spouse (16% vs. 15%), and the share among adults with some college education is slightly higher (18%).”

But, men and women who don’t attend religious services regularly are a little more likely to be unfaithful. And so are Democrats. Both of those probably apply to Bill and Melinda.

Perhaps even more interesting than questions of who cheats is how the other spouse views this indiscretion and whether the marriage can last. From what we can tell about Bill and Melinda, they stayed married for a long time after his infidelity was discovered, waiting for their youngest child to leave home. A 2013 study of the “major contributors for divorce” found “the most often cited reasons for divorce at the individual level were lack of commitment (75.0%), infidelity (59.6%), and too much conflict and arguing (57.7%).”

Of course there is probably significant overlap and connection among these factors. And we don’t know how long after the infidelity was discovered that a divorce was filed.

Most Americans are not willing to forgive a spouse’s infidelity, according to a Gallup Poll. Only about 1 in 3 Americans say they would forgive their spouse for marital infidelity, including just 10% who say they would definitely forgive him or her. Democrats turn out to be more forgiving than Republicans, which I guess seems fair given the fact that they’re more likely to cheat in the first place.

Though it seems like as a country infidelity is becoming more acceptable — in the media we regularly celebrate polyamory and polygamy now — younger people actually seem less likely to cheat.

Nicholas Wolfinger points to a growing age gap in infidelity. While the rates used to be the same across generations, by “2016, 20% of older respondents indicated that their marriages were nominally adulterous, compared to 14% for people under 55.” He suggests that one reason for these differences might be the times during which people were growing up. If you watched a lot of instability in your own family and other adults around you, maybe you’d try something different for your own marriage.

But there’s also the possibility that as the pool of people getting married shrinks, it’s only those who really value the concept of fidelity who will continue to marry. Wolfinger also notes that as many Americans have grown more forgiving of infidelity, certain groups — men and women in their 50s, and to a lesser extent, their 40s — have grown less approving. Which means that any infidelity that does happen may be more likely to end in divorce.

For years researchers have been looking at the strange effects of the new “capstone” marriage, the idea that marriage is something you do after you have finished your education, found your financial footing, bought a house or even had a child. And if you’re going to go to all the trouble to have a wedding and make the whole thing official, spending tens of thousands of dollars to celebrate finding your soulmate, well, there better be some payoff at the end. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.