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Articles - Entrepreneurial Couples

Beat divorce statistics: Communicate as mate, not business partner

Friday, July 07, 2000




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

I got a call this week from a journalist (Business Week) wanting information on entrepreneurial couples who face divorce. When journalists call for an interview I get a queasy feeling in my stomach. I'm not worried about a Sixty- Minutes-Expose where I'll say something so embarrassing that the whole nation will think I'm ignorant. My concern is that there are the inevitable questions about statistics. As we all know statistics are often about as confusing and useful as software manuals written by Korean engineers and translated into English.

It's not that I can't reel off statistics with the best of them. I am a researcher after all. I have graduate degrees . . . two of them! But when it comes to statistics about families in business, or entrepreneurial couples, the numbers are thin. The SBA does not keep statistics on these populations. The National Association for Women Business Owners reports on women-owned businesses, but not on couple-owned businesses. The most fascinating thing about this lack of information is that it is estimated that over half of the gross national product comes from family owned firms and half of American works in them! So where are the numbers?

To make matters worse this particular journalist wanted statistics on divorce rates among entrepreneurial couples. Further she wanted to know the statistics on those couples who get divorced and still choose to stay business partners. This is a pretty narrow segment of the population. As exasperating as these requests are for statistics (i.e., I get requests for such interviews about once a month) what this tells me is that there is a rapidly growing interest in the subject. Not just the media, but the public wants to know more about entrepreneurial couples . . . how they do it, how they survive it, how they prosper, how they keep love alive in the fast-paced cutthroat world of the national/international marketplace.

If you also want statistics, I will disappoint you too. I just don't know how many entrepreneurial couples out there get divorced or avoid divorce. However, I can confidently tell how to manage it either way.

First, if your marriage/business partnership has already disintegrated to the point of divorce and you really feel there is no turning back, seek the advice of a competent matrimonial attorney. Your business attorney cannot help you here. A marriage is unlike any other business contract you have entered. Most sophisticated business people are shocked to discover the entanglements created by being married and business partners. Your matrimonial lawyer will help with the marital and business division. But it will be costly and take more time than you could possibly conceive; certainly more time than it took to sign your marriage license at the courthouse.

But let's assume that things have not gone this far awry. In fact, let's assume that you two are happily married and the business is thriving and you would just like to prevent trouble. Simply, the best insurance against divorce is to attend to the relationship first, the business second. Sadly, the opposite seems to be what most entrepreneurial couples do. The pull of the business is strong, immediate and concrete. The pull of the marriage is strong too, but not as immediate and certainly fuzzy. Because it is easier to react and answer the phone call rather than remember to say something loving to one's spouse, the typical entrepreneur opts for responding to business needs first. But the truth is it is pretty simple to maintain a relationship and much more complicated to run a business, so it seems the average entrepreneur could work both into their hectic schedule.

Business is about competition and marriage is about love. In business the goal is to compete, to win, to make a profit. In marriage there is no goal, but rather a process . . . that of exchanging love. Being loving and receiving love are the basics of a healthy marriage. How much work is love anyway? How much effort is there in telling your spouse he or she is loved? How hard is it to carve out one night a month to go on a date? Is it such an extravagance to bring home flowers for your sweetheart or treat him or her to basketball tickets? Along with all of the other e-mails you respond to each day, would it take so much of your precious work time to send an e-mail of appreciation to your spouse too?

It's not that entrepreneurial couples don't have time for their loved ones. It's that the goal orientation of the business takes over. Always in the competitive mode from dawn to dusk, the entrepreneur ticks one item after another off of their daily agenda. Being loving is not on the list. Accomplishment is. In business the point of any conversation is the bottom line or the close. In a marriage the point of the conversation is rapport, staying emotionally connected with one another, or feeling loved. When there are not only one but two entrepreneurs in the marriage, such as with entrepreneurial couples, the focus can be so much on the business, and on the business mode of communication, that love is left in the dust as the couple races to out distance their competition and create financial independence. With this approach, however, they also risk total independence from each other as well. One day there may be statistics on the number of entrepreneurial couples who end their marriages. But if you don't want to be one of those divorce statistics then immediately implement this simple plan. Put the marriage first by doing one loving thing each day for your spouse. You can do battle and conquer all day long in the business world, but at the end of your day, switch modes and have a conversation about nothing at all with your spouse. Don't search for the bottom line. Don't anticipate the close. Instead hold her hand, look into his eyes, talk a little, and congratulate yourself on how lucky you are to have a business partner who is the love of your life.