Bill and Melinda Gates divorce: an aspie perspective

For many of us “on the spectrum”, Bill Gates is our “cover boy” and an inspiration: “One of us”, who had managed to be successful in all fronts. His divorce came as a blow to all of us.

As I was reading the various “memes” and “fun” of others about the sad news, I found myself compelled to write my own explanation with the hope that it may be relevant to others “on the spectrum”, as well as to neurotypicals.

Like you, I know Bill Gates via the impact of his work towards the improvement of my everyday life. To that end I know much less of Melinda; though I am sure that millions around the world have benefited from her charitable efforts.

However, I always had a strange affinity for Bill. Possibly because he was as… uncomfortable in his presentations as I was. Possibly because he too was obsessed with computers at an early age (in my case I started with computing back in 1980 (aged 11) when Sinclair ZX80 was made available) and kept my passion ever since. This may explain why, back in 1996, when I was working as a “webmaster” for Greece’s leading Financial Daily, I opted to dump Netscape Enterprise Server and give a go to the untested “Microsoft Internet Information Server” becoming the first major user of IIS in the media sector in my native Greece.

Somehow, I wanted the best for this guy. Back in 1997 I presented in Greece J++ at the Athens TechDev. I was also a member of a group of volunteers that built the first .net based Forums platform (to host the asp.net forums as it was a shame to have forums for asp.net to run on php) — yes the first ever forums software for Microsoft was developed in an open-source fashion by a team of volunteers with the participation of just two MS employees!

What I try to say, is that although I was never employed by his companies, I always felt him as my partner. Possibly, it was this hidden realization -at a time that we didn’t even know what Asperger’s is, never mind that we have this condition- that this guy is, somehow, exactly like me that kept me at bay from any direct work.

Like his, my marriage was a conscious decision. I thought I had found a woman tough enough to tolerate me. After all, Marina, my ex, found me in the context of work: Back in 1999, the team at Oracle were trying to sell their databases, in the first greek Digital TV station. I was the key decision maker. They knew I was a “Microsoft boy” so they dispatched Marina from their EMEA HQ in Dublin to talk to me about it. She was to leave Oracle and her IT career to pursue studies in Organisational Psychology and this call was her last one — a favour to her colleagues in Greece who knew they couldn’t “handle me”. She manages to trace me and I realised that I was on the phone to her for three hours for a product that I will not buy. So I said, “for her to make the time fly so fast, it may be worth meeting”. So, I may didn’t get those Oracle servers, but we got each other.

Soon, very soon, the difficulties became apparent. I was working too hard. Many things that were so easy for me, for her they were a struggle. We relocated to England for her to study at Warwick (and myself in the University of London) and she was always complaining how she was getting in her coursework (for which she was working for weeks) 55–65%, whereas I was getting over 70% in mine that I was usually writing during my commute to London (at Warwick I was immersed in another topic of research more interesting than the syllabus of my Masters).

My behaviour was “erratic” and “unpredictable”. From 100% involvement to 0 involvement and back on to 100% involvement. In all aspects of the relationship.

Marina was warned by my friends, that Dimitris is peculiar, cannot be trusted that will meet the social demands of a relationship or the “normal” expectations that wives have from their husbands. She opted to marry me, regardless. Actually, she wanted to have children with me, with my genes so to speak. We ended up having two.

The first born, Yiannis, a boy, had been diagnosed with Asperger’s very early on (I was diagnosed via his diagnosis). A gifted boy — by age 6 he will complete 2000 piece puzzles in a weekend or so — but suffering in social contexts. Hated school and had very few friends in his age. Always keeping company with elders. Always self-teaching himself as he will be obsessed with one topic, learn as much as he could as fast he could, to then move to another topic. In school he can be the best student in one class and the worst in another; his relationship with his teachers was always a challenge. To handle his discomfort he opted for aggression. Unlike his classmates -who opt for casual dress, tattoos and even piercing- he dresses extremely conservative (as long as the fabric does not annoy him).

The second, Angelina-Fanny, is a girl. She has been the “perfect child”. Always top on her class, with limited, if any, support. When aged 12 she moved with her mother in Dublin she adapted so quickly that a few semesters later she was “head girl”. She also had to deal with the envy and the aggression of her older brother.

Marina opted to divorce me in the 10th year of our relationship. She felt that I was not understanding the difficulties she was going through. She just couldn’t explain that lack of empathy in her struggles. My focus on my work, was considered by her an inherent weakness; even accusing me of megalomania. Obviously, she was unable to comprehend that my work is my life. For, it was exactly because of my involvement with computing that I maintained some relative sanity and reached some of the levels of “success” that it is usually reserved only for people who just communicate better than others, irrespective of what they are communicating. She forgot that she even loved me for this (i.e. impressing her with my knowledge on the domain and demolishing Oracle in our first ever conversation)

So, who is responsible?

Obviously both, but if you want to know, for gossip reasons, who instigated it, I can comfortably say from my own experience, that the divorce request came from Melinda. I am sure that Bill, like myself, would have opted to “hung in there” till the end of time.

To that end, we owe a lot to our partners for taking the initiative to divorce us. In my case, after my divorce, I did what I always wanted to do: study Theoretical Computer Science; soon enough I matriculated at Oxford. Nowadays, I enjoy the fact that -in spite of my age (52)- I can remain relevant in my field and even make contributions to the AI Data initiative of the Linux Foundation. I am sure that Bill will manage to do much more!

The good thing is that Melinda, hung in there until her children grew up, so they could enjoy as much of a balanced upbringing as possible. In spite of the fact that she knew that a genius is not the optimal father; and this is a credit to her. Sadly, my own kids were not that lucky.

The opportunity

It will be great if these “failures” will be a motivator to think and work on how we can ensure lasting happiness of other Aspies, and particularly their neurotypical “partners”, that were less fortunate that us.

To open the discussion on how we can communicate with each other better in a more tolerant society. From experience I realized that teachers are ill prepared to deal with us.

Like it or not, we will always rely on “misfits” for innovation and progress and it will be sad if we cannot ensure that they can lead their lives in relative peace and harmony.

It will be great if their Foundation decides to dedicate more resources on related work.

Ageing researcher of Theoretical Computer Science trying to model & quantify opacity based at Exeter College, Oxford

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