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The Bezos divorce, explained

Today, being a power couple doesn’t end when your relationship does.

Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Bezos.
Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Bezos attending an Amazon Studios Oscars party on February 26, 2017, in West Hollywood, California.
Jerod Harris/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

“We want to make people aware of a development in our lives.”

So began the joint statement issued on January 9 by Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, and his wife MacKenzie Bezos, announcing the dissolution of their 25-year marriage.

Something stood out in the Bezoses’ statement, posted on Bezos’s Twitter account: The couple really wanted everyone to know that they are staying friends.

“After a long period of loving exploration and trial separation, we have decided to divorce and continue our shared lives as friends,” the statement read. “We’ve had such a great life together as a married couple, and we also see wonderful futures ahead, as parents, friends, partners in ventures and projects, and as individuals pursuing ventures and adventures.”

On Thursday, MacKenzie Bezos announced that the divorce was final, saying she was “looking forward to the next phase as co-parents and friends.”

The couple’s repeated assurances of their ongoing closeness were somewhat called into question a few hours after they released their January statement, when the National Enquirer teased a story claiming that Jeff Bezos was having an affair with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez. Soon after that, the National Enquirer released what it said were “sleazy text messages” sent by Bezos to Sanchez, and claimed to have seen “a cache of lewd selfies” sent by the Amazon CEO as well.

The placid narrative took another turn in February, when Bezos made headlines with a blog post on Medium saying the publishers of the National Enquirer tried to extort him by threatening to publish explicit selfies between him and Sanchez. In a statement, the National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, said it was investigating the claims made in Bezos’s post.

The Enquirer drama complicates the narrative of the Bezoses as “cherished friends” and business partners who just happen not to be in a romantic relationship anymore. And the fact that the Bezoses decided to present that narrative may be telling.

In recent years, the aggressively amicable celebrity divorce has become commonplace — so much so that high-profile couples seem almost expected to trumpet their friendliness after their marriages dissolve. The “conscious uncoupling” of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin in 2014 is the most famous example, but others abound, from Larry and Laurie David sharing family dinners after their split to billionaire Tom Steyer pledging to work together on the “dream of justice” with his wife, even as they began living apart.

Remaining close can work for some divorced couples, and consciously uncoupling celebrities can serve as models of a less-acrimonious way to split up. But there’s also an incentive for high-profile couples to portray their relationship as friendly even when it isn’t, especially if there are shared business or charitable ventures involved.

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos recently started a $2 billion anti-homelessness fund, and speculation about what their divorce will mean for Amazon is already swirling. Their announcement also sparked immediate questions about the potential division of their vast fortune: Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, with a net worth estimated at $137 billion. Regardless of the details of their relationship, they have every reason to portray themselves as friends and partners for the sake of shareholders, grantees, and the millions of Americans watching their every move.

At this point, the story of the Bezos divorce has become a political one, with allegations of extortion by a company linked to President Trump. But it’s also a story about relationships, and how they form and dissolve in America today — especially when the people involved are rich and powerful.

For the Bezoses, an acrimonious divorce might be bad for business

We do not know why Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are getting divorced, or what role, if any, Jeff Bezos’s relationship with Lauren Sanchez played in the split.

A source close to the Bezoses, who asked to remain anonymous, told Vox that they had separated before Jeff Bezos began dating Sanchez. TMZ also reported that Bezos and his wife were already separated when his relationship with Sanchez began.

“He and Mackenzie have been working on this for a long time, and they worked very hard to fix it,” the source close to the couple told Vox. “Then they became separated, and then Jeff started dating Lauren.”

The Bezoses wrote their statement together, the source said, and it should be taken at face value.

“Jeff remains focused and engaged on all things Amazon,” Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesperson, told Vox.

Still, the couple did have an incentive to present a united front. MacKenzie Bezos was, by many accounts, instrumental in the founding of Amazon. As Vox’s Gaby Del Valle notes, the two met when they worked at New York hedge fund D.E. Shaw. When they drove to Seattle to start Amazon, MacKenzie Bezos was reportedly behind the wheel. According to a 1999 Wired interview, she negotiated Amazon’s first freight contracts — from the in-house Starbucks in a Barnes & Noble.

“I was there when he wrote the business plan, and I worked with him and many others […] in the converted garage, the basement warehouse closet, the barbecue-scented offices, the Christmas-rush distribution centers, and the door-desk filled conference rooms in the early years of Amazon’s history,” MacKenzie Bezos wrote in an Amazon review of the book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

In recent years, the Bezoses had also embarked on charitable ventures together. Last year, they established the Bezos Day One Fund, a $2 billion fund aimed at making grants to existing nonprofits fighting homelessness and establishing preschools in low-income areas, according to CNN. Separately, MacKenzie Bezos, a novelist, is the founder and executive director of the anti-bullying group Bystander Revolution, which has done work with celebrities including Monica Lewinsky.

As Del Valle noted, the Bezos divorce had potential implications for Amazon. Under the law in Washington state, where the couple live, MacKenzie Bezos could have been entitled to half her husband’s assets. Dividing those assets would have required that Bezos sell some of his stock in Amazon, which would dilute his control of the company as well as changing its public image — as Del Valle pointed out, “he’s been the face of the company since its founding in 1996.”

Meanwhile, Amazon was facing a storm of bad press in the wake of worker strikes and the company’s announcement that it was establishing new headquarters in New York City and Arlington, Virginia — in February, it announced it was pulling out of the New York City deal. As Vox’s Rebecca Jennings noted, 2018’s holiday season came with numerous guides to canceling Amazon Prime subscriptions. It’s not at all clear that negative coverage hurt Amazon’s bottom line, but it also wasn’t a good time for Amazon’s public face to be seen as a bad husband — or a bad ex-husband.

Especially embarrassing for Bezos were text messages released by the National Enquirer on in January, which the publication claims he sent to Sanchez months before the divorce announcement.

“I love you, alive girl,” one reads. “I will show you with my body, and my lips and my eyes, very soon.”

“I want to smell you, I want to breathe you in,” says another.

Meanwhile, there’s another wrinkle in the story of the Bezos divorce: President Donald Trump. Trump has long expressed his antipathy for Bezos and Amazon, even asking the US postmaster general to increase Amazon’s shipping costs.

Trump is also a noted ally of National Enquirer chief executive David Pecker, as Adam K. Raymond writes at New York Magazine. The National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, entered into a “catch and kill” agreement with former Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep her from talking publicly about an affair she says she had with Trump, the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and others have reported.

Because of these connections, some are speculating that the Enquirer may have pursued the Bezos story to curry favor with Trump. An AMI spokesperson denied this to New York Magazine: “The National Enquirer has been doggedly investigating this story for four months and the extraordinary details and evidence uncovered by our team, and presented to Mr. Bezos’s representatives for comment early this week, underscores the kind of investigative reporting that the publication has long been known for.”

Whatever the case, Trump seemed to enjoy the news of the Bezos divorce, telling reporters “it’s going to be a beauty.”

All these threads came together in February, when Bezos published a blog post on Medium accusing AMI of trying to extort him. After the National Enquirer published its story, he said, he launched an investigation to determine how the tabloid got the texts and why they decided to publish them. AMI then threatened to publish risque selfies sent between him and Sanchez unless he called off his investigation and issued a statement saying that he had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces,” Bezos wrote.

In response, AMI issued a statement saying that the company had been “in good faith negotiations” with Bezos prior to his Medium post. The company also said it was launching an investigation into Bezos’s claims.

The political intrigue around the Bezos sexts continues, but the divorce is now final. And MacKenzie Bezos put an end to speculation about the fate of Amazon on Thursday, when she tweeted that she would be giving Jeff Bezos 75 percent of her Amazon stock, along with voting control of her shares. One chapter of the story, at least, is over.

The Bezos divorce fits into the history of “conscious uncoupling”

The story of the Bezos divorce is deeply enmeshed in the strange political and media climate of America in 2019. But it also says a lot about contemporary relationships and their dissolution.

The timing of the Bezoses’ joint statement suggests that they knew the Enquirer story was coming. If that’s true, it’s notable that they chose to get out in front of the story, not just with a boilerplate request that the media respect their privacy at this difficult time, but with an affirmative statement that they remain close.

While the nasty celebrity divorce has long been the bread and butter of tabloids, friendly splits have gained increasing media attention in the past decade. In 2009, Arianna Huffington wrote a blog post at the Huffington Post, where she was then the editor-in-chief, about vacationing in Crete with her ex-husband and their children.

“We have gotten to the point where there is really nothing left to work out,” Huffington wrote, “and it feels completely natural to be able to sit on a beautiful beach or stroll through the lovely streets of Agios Nikolaos together.”

The following year, the Huffington Post launched a whole section on divorce, led by Nora Ephron. Ephron’s divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein was famously acrimonious, and Ephron didn’t sugarcoat it at the Huffington Post. But other writers at the divorce section offered a rosier take on splitting up. Laurie David, in particular, wrote about the family dinners she shared with her ex-husband, comedian Larry David.

“To this day I enjoy the surprised look on people’s faces when they recognize Larry and realize he is having dinner with the kids and me,” she wrote. Her piece, excerpted from her 2010 book The Family Dinner, included a recipe for “Marina’s Divorce Brownies.”

The friendly divorce got an enormous boost in attention in 2014, when Paltrow announced on her Goop website that she and Martin were separating.

“We are, however, and always will be a family, and in many ways we are closer than we have ever been,” the actress and lifestyle guru wrote. “We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and coparent, we will be able to continue in the same manner.”

At the same time, Goop posted an article by Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami, practitioners at the Be Hive of Healing Integrative Medicine Center in Agoura Hills, California, explaining conscious uncoupling.

“To change the concept of divorce, we need to release the belief structures we have around marriage that create rigidity in our thought process,” they wrote. “When we understand that both are actually partners in each other’s spiritual progress, animosity dissolves much quicker and a new paradigm for conscious uncoupling emerges, replacing the traditional, contentious divorce.”

Conscious uncoupling wasn’t new. Marriage and family therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas coined it a few years prior to the Paltrow-Martin split, inspired by her own divorce. That experience was “very beautiful and it was quite different from many dramatic breakups that I had had in the past,” she told the New York Times in 2014, and she began offering an online course to help others learn to consciously uncouple.

“I felt really thrilled that Gwyneth popularized the term,” she told the Times. “That’s my goal: to have that term out in the world and to really create a blueprint for people who aspire to a better way in ending their unions.”

Paltrow’s announcement was widely mocked, and in 2018, the actress told the Times’s Taffy Brodesser-Akner that the backlash surprised her. “What people heard, she thinks, was that even her divorce was going to be better than theirs,” Brodesser-Akner wrote. In fact, Paltrow said, “I was really saying we’re in a lot of pain, we failed at this; we’re going to try and do it in a different way.”

Despite the mockery that “conscious uncoupling” initially received, other celebrities have released optimistic divorce or breakup announcements in recent years. Anderson Cooper said in March 2018 that while he and his boyfriend had split up, “we remain the best of friends, and will continue to share much of our lives together”; meanwhile, billionaire Tom Steyer said in November that even though he and his wife were going to live apart, “Kathryn loves me, and I love Kathryn.”

Upbeat statements like these may reflect a lessening of the stigma around divorce, which could be beneficial for ex-couples and their families. If divorce is no longer seen as shameful, more couples may be able to weather it without bitterness — and be open about that fact.

Still, celebrity statements like the one issued by the Bezoses can raise eyebrows. “I still get perplexed when I read announcements such as that one,” Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins who studies marriage and divorce, told Vox. “You wonder, if the relationship was that great, why are they getting divorced?”

Of course, it’s possible that the Bezoses are still very close, even as their marriage is ending. And their statement has the potential to help some couples.

“These kind of announcements are very positive for people who are thinking about divorcing and also for people who are going through divorces and having a much more contentious adversarial experience,” said Lauren Behrman, a therapist and the author of the book Loving Your Children More Than You Hate Each Other: Powerful Tools for Navigating a High-Conflict Divorce.

What this message really says to their children and to the world is that you don’t have to hate each other to divorce,” she added.

If Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos join the ranks of celebrities who have divorced while in the public eye without becoming enemies, they may help further reduce the stigma around divorce and provide a template for other families. But regardless of the circumstances of their personal relationship, their professional relationship dictates that they remain cordial as long as they can. The same is true for many celebrity couples who split today.

Decades ago, a divorce could seriously threaten a celebrity’s career — and one way to avoid professional damage was to cast oneself as the wronged party, as BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen lays out in her exploration of actress and singer Debbie Reynolds’ split from Eddie Fisher. Today, with divorce more normalized, it’s more common for celebrities to claim that nobody’s in the wrong and everybody loves each other just as much as when they were still married.

Overall, that ideal might be better than mudslinging. It also might be emblematic of a culture in which happiness, increasingly, is seen as not just a goal but almost an obligation — there may be more pressure than ever to project an image that, even after a divorce, everything is just fine.

Whatever the case, Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are now embarking on a distinctly American, distinctly early-21st-century journey. Today, being a power couple doesn’t necessarily end when coupledom does, and high-profile spouses may have to maintain a relationship — or at least the semblance of one — to maintain their status.