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Articles - Marital Problems in the Family - Business

Keeping secrets in your family or business creates a tangled web

Friday, May 05, 2000

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

"It'll just make things worse if I tell him."

Janice was getting more and more anxious as the days and weeks went by. The bills were mounting, the creditors were calling, the first bank note was due in one month, and sales were miserable. Janice and her husband had just begun a business expansion that they had dreamed and planned for over the last five years. They were positive it was a winner and were thrilled when the bank backed them up. While Cary blazed ahead with building, hiring, warehousing and so forth, Janice as CFO handled the creative financing.

Unfortunately Janice was just a little too creative with the financing. Because the dream was too important she stretched things further than they could be stretched. Cary never questioned his wife and was unaware that they were heading for financial disaster. Janice on the other hand kept trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

When Janice first discovered her miscalculations, she was mortified. She was too embarrassed to tell Cary, so instead tried to solve the problem on her own. As the financial problems increased, she started shifting money from one account to another, staying one step ahead of her creditors. She convinced herself that Cary was too busy with the project to be bothered by the financial problems. She rationalized that these problems were temporary because any day now she would find a solution. Janice loved her husband and didn't want to disappoint him either. She felt he would be crushed to discover that not only would he have to halt the expansion, but that the entire business might go under. So she lied and she hid the truth in a variety of ways.

Since Cary was not very computer literate and left all of the number crunching to his wife, the secret was not hard to keep. Until of course, the bank called the loan. Then Cary and Janice had two problems to face. The financial woes were their immediate focus so as business partners they busied themselves untangling the mess that Janice had concealed. But as the dust settled from the financial nightmare, husband and wife had a to face a more serious crisis . . . how to restore the broken trust between them.

"What they don't know won't hurt them."

Even a surprise birthday party may be a secret not worth keeping, if the guest of honor doesn't like them. It is rare that secrets are a good idea and yet they are commonplace in family firms. The major reasons for keeping secrets are (1) to avoid disagreement and confrontation, (2) to protect someone from hurt feelings or even physical distress, (3) fear of punishment or embarassment for a wrong doing, (4) or just because you made a promise not to tell.

Why are secrets so bad if they don't hurt anyone? This is usually a rationalization. If you have to keep a secret, then it obviously affects other people. The content of the secret may or may not affect the other person adversely, but the question is, will keeping the secret affect the other person adversely? As we saw with Janice and Cary both the secret and keeping it powerfully affected the business and the relationship. There is no telling whether the couple could have saved their business had Cary known earlier of the miscalculations. However, by keeping the secret long after she should have told Cary, Janice seriously damaged the trust and the love between the two.

"But he'll get mad at me if I tell him the truth!"

No one likes an argument but it is foolish to think that you can go through life, build a marriage and a business without having disagreements. As compatible as family members may be, they are bound to disagree on some things and sometimes these disagreements escalate into angry confrontations. Therefore it is useful to develop conflict resolution skills, rather than avoid the anger.

The excuse that the other person will get mad if you level with him or her is a poor one. First, you never know if he or she will get mad. Second, even if he or she does get mad, the discussion doesn't have to end. Be brave and venture into conflict resolution. Third, the person may have every right to be upset that you withheld information (or fibbed) that affects his or her life. Think about it. How do you feel when a secret is kept from you, especially if your decisions depend upon the hidden information?

"It would be mean to be honest."

There is often the fear that you will hurt someone's feelings if you tell the truth, or worse that they will have a heart attack and die. The problem is that you have no right to assume responsibility for the other person's life or life decisions. When you keep a secret that affects the life of another, you are robbing them of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own destiny. Because Janice loved her husband, she wanted to insure the success of his dream. But by lying to Cary, she kept him ignorant of the information he needed to make a mid-course correction. He may still have failed had he known earlier what the financial picture looked like, but the success of the business and his own destiny would have been in his hands.

Essentially it is disrespectful to keep secrets. You are treating the other person as if they are incompetent to handle the truth. What makes you better able to handle the truth than the other person? Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it is embarrassing. Sometimes the truth is a powerful leveler without which you would never know you are in over your head. When I received the phone call telling me that my ten-year-old daughter had just missed the cut for the soccer team, I had to tell her the truth. Not only had she failed to make the team, but that she wasn't quite good enough to play with this team. She cried and sobbed and was heartbroken over the failure. She even refused to eat dinner and went to bed early. However, the next day she obviously had learned an important lesson. She asked for new shinguards and went to the backyard to practice for next year's tryouts.

"I won't tell you unless you promise to keep it a secret."

Signs of maturity are honesty and reliability. When we give our word, we feel a strong compulsion to keep it, to be consistent with our image of an honest and reliable person. However, it is important to realize that promising to keep a secret is not a demonstration of maturity, but actually quite childish. As a businessperson, your success depends upon flexibility. Decisions made in 1982, while accurate at the time may no longer fit the business in the year 2000. You would be foolish to hold to old decisions just because you once made a promise. You are just as foolish to keep a secret just because you want to maintain an image of consistency.

Emerson once wrote, "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." To make a promise to keep a secret in the first place is foolish, but you double your foolishness by keeping the secret when the evidence shows how damaging it can be. To cover for an alcoholic in the family business brings destruction on everyone. To withhold information from your spouse because one of the children has asked you is disrespectful of your spouse and the child's ability to handle the problem out in the open.

Oh what a tangled web we weave . . .

There may be short-term gain in keeping secrets, but the long-term outcome is not worth the risk, especially when working with the ones you love. Openness in all things is the answer, even if it is embarrassing, anger-provoking, or hurtful. Don't keep secrets, but if you already have, break them. Admit your failure, apologize to those you have lied to and make a promise you can live with. That is, promise to be responsible for your own actions, and allow others access to their own destiny through the truth.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S. Licensed Psychologist and Family/Business Consultant is the author of ENTREPRENEUERIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black, Palo Alto, 1998). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or

Can competition at work cost you your marriage?

Thursday, March 02, 2000

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

Toni and Vance were really startled by how quickly their marriage was disintegrating after they started their small business together. They loved and enjoyed each other tremendously before they opened their shop but after working together for less than a year their relationship was tense and loving communication had ground to a painful halt. They considered that the stress of a start-up was getting to the two of them. They took a short vacation to the coast to get away from it all and found that they could indeed enjoy each other again. Yet when they returned to work, the tension started to build again. Why couldn't they keep the positive feelings alive?

Working together long hours to make a new business successful certainly can be a reason that a marriage starts to fail, but there's more to this problem than most young or even seasoned entrepreneurs take into consideration. The major reason entrepreneurial couples begin to experience the loss of love in their relationship is that the worlds of work and home are radically different in many ways. Think about it. The world of work is where we kick into high gear; where we drive ourselves to succeed; where we thrive on competition; where we want to express our talents in concrete ways such as producing a sale or a piece of art. The world of home, on the other hand is where we seek comfort, love and safety; where we nurture our loved ones and want their nurturing; where we kick back instead of into high gear.

There are similarities between these two worlds such as the facts that both require attending to details; that both require teamwork; and that both require problem solving. But the essential difference that can lead to marital failure is that work is the world of competition and home is the world of nurturing. All of us look forward to relaxing at home at the end of a hard day of competition in the work world. We want to regale our families with our accomplishments, our "coups," but after that we really want to take off our suits of armor and put on something more vulnerable.

When a couple works together both at home and at work, they can become confused about the roles they should play in both of these worlds. Often the aggressive pull of success and the push of competition eradicate the more subtle pull of love. Only when pushed by a chronic lack of intimacy or the pain of impending divorce, does the couple begin to recognize that they have lost something precious.

How does this problem begin? It's pretty simple really. Most of you picked your spouse because you love her or him, because he or she makes you laugh, because he or she is a "knock out." It is very unlikely that you chose your spouse as you would an employee or a business partner. You probably weren't thinking about money or competition or how to advance your career when you married. And when you set up housekeeping together you probably didn't write up a business plan to make your little love nest profitable.

Neither were you concerned about marketing, designing your letterhead, or the tax ramifications of an LLC. Instead your attention was on how to make the other person happy and how happy they made you feel. You sought affection, emotional support, and intellectual compatibility. Even sharing the household chores was not a major item on your list. Those things got taken care of somehow. And when it came to decision making, sometimes he got his way and sometimes she did.

As marital partners the more easy going style of most American couples will work fine as long as you don't become business partners. When a couple crosses that line into the world of work by becoming business partners, they must be prepared to do some major alterations to the relationship. In marriages where husband and wife both have a career but they don't work together, it is much easier to switch hats from work persona to home persona. You give your spouse a kiss goodbye in the morning and go on your separate ways for the day. You may make a phone call midday to catch up on private matters or just to say hello, but essentially your activities and identity are solidly ensconced in your work world. When you return home, you give your spouse a kiss, change your clothes, do a little catching up on each other's day, and prepare the evening meal together. At home your activities and identity are defined by your home world and your relationships with your spouse and children.

In other words for couples who don't work together, they have an independent identity at work and a partnership identity at home. With career-minded people the work identity is also a leadership one, involving authority for decision making. At home, these same independent leaders switch hats to become equal partners who share in the decision making. This is the norm in most American homes of dual-career couples. The problem arises when these equal home partners go to work with each other, either expecting to be equal partners at work too, or expecting to each be the decision maker as if they worked separately.

When you worked apart you may have enjoyed your spouse's stories of work achievements. You may even have taken pride in how aggressive or decisive your spouse was in his or her career. However, when you work together, that strong aggressive leadership quality may now look like arrogance. The two of you may tangle because you expect to be included in decisions that your spouse has already run with. When you come home at the end of your workday, you may feel that you have had enough of your spouse for one day. You don't desire anymore togetherness if you have to be bullied or ignored.

At least this is how it can go if you don't pay attention to the different roles husbands and wives play in the different worlds of work and home.

The solution first is to acknowledge that these two worlds are very different. Second recognize that daily conscious effort is required on your part to maintain a harmonious relationship with your spouse. If the two of you enjoy being equal partners at home, and wish to try being equal partners at work, then consciously design a work partnership where decision making is equal on at least the major decisions. This makes some things move more slowly, but it can be very effective for keeping love alive. If you are comfortable being home partners, but really prefer one person leadership at work, then acknowledge that too and set it up that way. No sense in trying to be equal partners at work, when one or both of you would gladly defer decision making responsibility to the other spouse. If you are somewhere in between these two styles, play with the structure for awhile until you discover what works in your marriage/business partnership.

Bringing competition home is probably the worst thing you can do for a marriage. Keep competition and achievement needs at work. When you work with your spouse in your own enterprise, keep in mind that you will be crossing the competition barrier daily. It is hard to stay kind and loving with the one you are competing with. We tend to take competition personally. The following are some ways to diffuse the tension of competition between spouses:

  • Set up separate work areas within the business.
  • Reward each other often for your individual successes.
  • Take breaks from each other often. Make a clean break from work at the end of the day. This latter recommendation is vital. Do not discuss work at all at home if your business requires that both spouses be leaders and you are both highly independent and headstrong (sound like anyone you know?).

The most important thing to remember when you work together is why you chose your spouse in the first place. This is someone you love and trust and want to spend the rest of your life with. These qualities are not bad either for the kind of person you want as someone to help you build your dream in business.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Business Consultant is the author of ENTERPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black, 1998). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or

Do your and your spouse bicker at work and at home?

Thursday, January 06, 2000

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

"Oh yeah! I used to work with my wife, but not anymore. All we did was fight."

"We're great business partners, but at home we bicker constantly. What's wrong?"

"Work with my husband? Never! He never listens."

Bicker, bicker, bicker. Is this the price you pay when you work with your spouse? All too often this seems to be the case, but it doesn't have to be. If you understand conflict and develop strategies to de-stress problem situations, you and your partner can have the best of both worlds: a fantastic marriage and a successful business team. Here are some of tips for resolving the bickering.

Remember that the differences between the two of you are probably some of the reasons that made you fall in love with each other.

There may be many reasons for conflict, but a common one for spouses who work together is that you know each other too well. Remember when you first met, first fell in love, decided to get married? You probably didn't focus at the time on everything that you didn't like about your new love. In fact, you may have never noticed anything that big, but instead viewed those differences as thrilling. But over time, the differences between the two of you surface more and more. What once was ignored or even viewed as endearing is now a pain in the neck. Or your spouse may have qualities that worked well in the home when you didn't work together, but in the office they seem to make the two of you tangle.

One way to get past the bickering is to remind yourself that you love and admire this person. Your spouse has many great qualities that contributed to your choosing him or her as a spouse and a business partner. Focus on those qualities, not the behavior that annoys you.

People change over time, so bickering may be a sign that it's time to renegotiate your agreements (martial and business).

You can't possibly know everything about another person before marriage or even before becoming business partners. Who knows what qualities will emerge on a person as they enter new territory (which we are constantly doing throughout life)? Our basic personalities probably don't change that much, but how we apply our personalities to the experiences in life does shape and define us. Your spouse may be showing you a side of him or herself that you never

knew existed. Be careful not to resist this new information because it is different. Give yourself time to adjust to the change. Talk about it with you spouse. Evaluate how to incorporate the change into your marriage agreement and business partnership agreement. Change may be painful, but it is the very nature of living things to change.

Entrepreneurial couples should spend as much time cultivating joy in their relationships as they do focusing on the bottom line in their businesses.

It's just a fact. All of us work more than we would like to. Even when you love the work you do, you should strive to find balance among the other important parts of your life, such as your relationships with your spouse, family, friends and yourself.

Entrepreneurial couples are notorious for being all work and no play, and therefore the relationship suffers. Think about it. If you are bickering with your spouse/business partner, could it be because you have had no quality time lately? Or could it be because you are sleep-deprived? Or could it be that it's been a long time since you laughed?

Take the time to set your priorities and follow them. There will always be another phone call to answer and another deadline to meet that will draw you away from balancing your priorities. But you don't get that many chances to restore a faltering relationship. When the love, trust and respect is gone, it usually leads to divorce.

Be true to yourself and offer the same to your spouse/partner.

Entrepreneurial couples seldom have formal education or training in the art of living their unique lifestyle. So, through trial and error they come up with a system to get the job done, and they do so admirably, but the job is all that gets done. Sometimes the work is not very creative. Often the excitement and challenge that brought them into business wears thin. The result is a successful business that produces a good income for its owners, but leaving no room for personal and professional development. Then the bickering starts again.

It seems to be true that when we are bored, we bicker. When this happens, it is time to take stock of how the business is organized. Is the business truly a reflection of your talents, or is it running you? Are the spouses/business partners really suited to the jobs they currently have, or have they outgrown them?

If you are really being true to yourself and your partnership, duties should be assigned according to the best suited to the task. In other words, fully use your talents. For example, if the founder of the business doesn't have good people skills, perhaps the spouse should be president. That way the founder can keep doing what he or she does best, invent things for example, while the more people-oriented spouse can run the business and manage employees and customers.

Be full-time partners at home and at work.

Husbands and wives who work together often slip into efficiently getting things done, but in a hierarchical, military model. Research shows that copreneurs opt for the husband-boss/wife-employee model more often than other entrepreneurial or dual-career couples. Instead of equal partners, these couples slip into the traditional chain of command by which only one person can be the boss.

One day my husband was particularly exasperated with me and confronted me with this question, "Just who is the boss around here anyway?" I was startled, because I thought he knew! Taking a moment to compose myself I replied, "We both are."

A husband and wife, whether partnering at home as parents or partnering at the business, are both full-fledged adults who contribute to the joint venture. They both should take full responsibility for the outcome of the venture. In other words you are both 100 percent boss and 100 percent responsible.

I believe bickering for these couples is a sign that one partner or the other is feeling powerless in the relationship or business. If the decision-making power is vested with one person, but the other spouse still has major responsibilities but no authority, you have ripe territory for passive-aggressive behavior-bickering.

If you and your spouse are bickering about nothing in particular, or the same argument comes up over and over again, or you are bickering now that you work together but you didn't bicker before, or most important, you bicker but you never remember what it's about, take stock of the relationship and ask what needs to change. The simple answer is not to work together, but then you might be missing the most creative team you'll ever be a part of. Plus, you may miss those early warning signs that the marriage and/or the business plan need to be revamped.

Instead, take the bickering as growing pains and be grateful that you have a spouse who is so important to you that you care enough to get mad about their idiosyncrasies.

Could Your Wife Run The Business In Your Absence?

Friday, June 04, 1999

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

Jay was 28 when he founded his sign business. He and his wife Teddie were thrilled when they opened their storefront and sent out the first announcements. As a young couple, they had a lot of energy and worked long hours getting the office and shop ready, buying supplies, arranging office furniture, developing a business plan, joining the local chamber and greeting their first customers.

Jay took over full management of the operation while Teddie kept her full time job as an account executive for a women's fashion company. But Teddie was there through all of the growing pains of the business too. She helped with billing and emptied the trash. She took messages for Jay at home in the evening when he was working late. The goal was to build the business to a level where she would quit her job and come to work with Jay. In the meantime her job provided a steady paycheck and other benefits such as insurance.

As the business grew, so did Jay and Teddie's family and responsibilities. With the first child, Teddie still managed to work full time because her mother and mother-in-law were willing babysitters. However, with the second baby, Teddie and Jay had to look at a more reasonable plan. It just wasn't possible for Teddie to work full time, care for two daughters, and help Jay in the business. Also Jay's Mom wasn't as healthy as she used to be and wasn't available for childcare anymore. Teddie's Mom was still helpful, but she and her husband had retired and wanted more free time. By the time their second daughter was born, the sign business was doing well enough to support the young family without Teddie's income. It would be tight, but the couple decided to take the plunge. Teddie quit her job to have the flexibility to care for her children and help out at the business.

For years Jay and Teddie ran the business this way. Although they shared equally in the ownership of the business and both worked long hours, Jay was really the manager and Teddie the home manager. Teddie would leave early to pick the kids up from school and get them to soccer practice and piano lessons. On some mornings she would come in late to the office because there was a dental appointment or a school field trip that she helped with. At the office, however, she was fully in charge of her department . . . everything that Jay didn't do, such as the bookkeeping, billing, purchasing and replanting the flowerbeds by the front door. Jay did the management, hiring and firing, marketing, customer service and the technical work. Amid all of this the children got more involved with the business, at first just watching dad build a sign, and later learning complex computer work.

If you are typical of most family business owners, you could probably plug your names into this scenario and change only a few details to make it your own story. Likewise, if you are typical of most small business owners, you do not have a succession plan. You have been so busy establishing and growing your business that you haven't looked that far ahead. You may not even have the confidence yet that your business will be around that long. Or you may decide to sell the business and build several other empires before you retire or die. When you were getting your business underway, it never occurred to you that you were building a legacy; you were just going after your dream.

If you are among the rare few who have considered succession planning, more than likely you and your spouse have discussed which child is best suited to be president or if management responsibilities should be shared by siblings. If you are in partnership with your brother, mother, sister-in-law, or some other family member, you probably have a legal and financial plan for how the partnership will transition should one or the other of you die or wish to be bought out. However, if the family business is a sole proprietorship such as Jay and Teddie have, and the husband is the founder and president, it's highly unlikely that you have considered your wife as a successor to the business leadership. Yet it is the wife who is most likely to be thrown into that position with the death of the founder where no succession plan has been established.

In 1984 McKinley conducted an interesting study in which she found that a widow was more than willing to take over management of the business upon her husband's death, especially if she had been working with her husband. But even among those widows not working in the business side-by-side with their husbands, there was a strong desire to take over the management. These widows reported that the business was very meaningful to them, that it was a part of their identity, that they had psychologically helped build the business. They did not want the business to pass out of their hands, even if they didn't know how to run it. Furthermore, most of the widows studied did not know how to manage their husband's business, because they had not been trained. Their function had been auxiliary.

They provided support such as Teddie has done for Jay. Therefore, these widows, untrained in the ins and outs of managing the family business, had to turn to their attorneys, CPAs and other advisors to educate themselves about the business. This is not sufficient training for the complexity of running a small business, as any business owner knows. But these particular women were determined and they learned as their husbands had done . . .by the seat of their pants.

This seat-of-the-pants training may have been sufficient for the founder, but it seems a waste to have the successor not benefit by her predecessor's lessons. Unless the business is a professional practice requiring college and certification that your wife could not readily get upon your death, preparing your wife to take over the business is a logical and practical step for most business owners. A side benefit is that once she is trained, the founder can turn his interests elsewhere, such as expansion or developing a second business entity. Growth of an empire is possible only when you have the flexibility and freedom to explore uncharted territory. If you are busy manning the helm, your growth will be limited to raising prices on product or adding a new line.

Preparing a wife for the presidency is no easy feat, however. It means acknowledging that the founder may die or wish to move onto something else. It means putting things into writing, such as compensation plans for your wife. It means letting go of control and allowing your wife to know all of the company secrets. It means that the marriage itself will be challenged. As the protégé grows in ability and leadership, the mentor may find himself eased out of power before he is ready. Can your marriage stand the strain of your wife being the boss, for example?

Making your wife your equal partner at work (provided she wants the job) and teaching her everything you know, will provide a solid succession plan. She will most likely be a devoted fan of yours and the business, and therefore a loyal and responsible guardian for the business. She will be a much better prepared widow than McKinley found in her study and less likely to lose the business. However, this also means redesigning the business today to accommodate two owners, two managers, two leaders. The consensus model of marriage that most Americans accept as the standard today will be brought into the business setting. Not only will husband and wife have to adjust to this change, but so will employees, customers and others used to a more hierarchical model. Be prepared to change the structure of management when your wife becomes your management partner. No longer can the founder fly by the seat of his pants. Although you may feel that your style is cramped when there are two of you to answer to, remember that having a well trained successor (and one who loves you) means that the business has a much more bright and stable future.

Family Business / Risky Business

Thursday, November 05, 1998

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

Todd looked at me bewildered, as if to ask, "Can’t you make her see reason?" The tension in my office had been mounting between the couple as they discussed the likelihood of divorce. They had been at odds for years and everyone including friends, family, employees and business associates knew it. This couple never kept their disagreements secret. In fact, they openly fought in front of employees, just like Mom and Dad in front of the kids.

When the discussion got even more heated, I stepped in and tried to offer help to the husband who seemed so confused about his wife’s request for a divorce. "It’s simply that your wife doesn’t want to be your business partner any longer if she files for divorce." "She doesn’t trust you anymore," I said, "as a husband or a business partner." This couple had built a successful business over many years of hard work. But as the business had grown successful, the marriage had foundered. Now the wife wanted out ... out of the marriage and out of business.

Todd again looked at me as if I were speaking in riddles. "What’s trust got to do with it? I know that she wants a divorce. I am OK with that. But can’t she learn to be civil and still be my business partner? We stand to lose a lot of money if we have to split up the partnership."

Unfortunately this scenario is all too common among couples and families who work together. The focus is so much on the business, so much on business success, so much on financial profit, that the family fails to keep tabs on the loving relationships that made the business partnership possible in the first place. As they ignore the signals that their personal life is sinking into oblivion, these couples and families seem to put even more energy into the business. It’s as if they are trying to save the sinking ship by putting on a new coat of paint.

Entrepreneurial families and couples are starting businesses at a phenomenal rate right now. There are powerful incentives to do so.

Not only are there terrific financial and ego rewards from self employment, but couples find that there is great joy in working with the ones you love. Where else can you find a more trustworthy, reliable, confidential business partner than your spouse or close family member? Todd and his wife started out this way. They had a dream and worked hard to make it a reality. They wanted to provide a quality of life for their children that would enable them to achieve even more than their parents had. They wanted freedom to create something out of nothing. They wanted to go beyond the limits employers always placed on them. They wanted to help each other grow as individuals and in their business/professional lives. At first Todd and his wife Laura were ecstatic with their new lives. They looked forward to each new day. They worked long hard hours but they were doing it together. This "togetherness" was inspiring. Somehow, their combined effort was synergistic and they created even more than they dreamed they could alone. Then something happened. It didn’t happen with a bang, but snuck up on them. Inch by insidious inch, Todd and Laura lost track of themselves as individuals and as a married couple. Instead they were business partners only. The business consumed them. Vendors, customers, employees, business associates, the CPA, their attorneys ... all came before Todd and Laura and their love and friendship.

When Todd and Laura came to my office it appeared that all was lost for the marriage. The business was thriving and would carry on under the capable leadership of either one of them. There would be some financial loss, a few employees would quit, perhaps a contract would be lost, but ultimately, Todd and Laura had created a business that produced a quality service and customers were pleased and faithful. Even a divorce would not really threaten the business. Financial problems were not their worry. Rather, it was the value placed upon each of them as individuals and the value placed on their relationship that was suffering. This kind of problem erupts when entrepreneurs focus all of their attention on the competitive world of business and away from the nurturing world of family life and marriage.

When Laura asked Todd for a divorce, she made a bid for freedom from the tyranny of a one-track life. Better to get a divorce than go on living for nothing more than financial profit. Laura felt dead inside, something money could not heal, but love could. If Todd could no longer love her because the business had become his obsession, then she would seek love elsewhere. Laura was willing to admit that she had made the business her obsession too. It was not all Todd’s fault. She ignored the early warning signs just as he did. She too was thrilled with the status of achievement that came with self employment success. She even felt guilty for not doing something sooner so that she wouldn’t have to cause Todd such pain by asking for a divorce. "If only she had put her foot down sooner," she thought.

The problem that Todd and Laura created for themselves is brought on by two major errors. The first error is building your life around the business. Remember the business is there to serve you, not the other way around. The business is a result of your creative energy, your vision. It reflects your personality, but it is not the master. Todd and Laura’s business was a success because it reflected the synergy of their collective talents and energies. Without them the business would have never been.

The second error is failing to confront problems head on when they first appear. Todd and Laura knew that they were spending too much time on the business. They justified it in those start up years as a necessity to get the business going. They justified it as years went by to stay ahead of the competition. They continued to justify it in later years because work is all they knew. But as the business grew under their careful and committed hands, their relationship was left untended and shriveling into a shadow of what it had been when they started the business.

Is it so hard to turn off your pager or cell phone and take a walk with your sweetheart? Couldn’t you squeeze in a little time to read a novel if you put down the trade journal? How about joining an adult soccer league instead of attending more business after-hours meetings? In other words, attend to your life, your whole life, just as carefully and mindfully as you do your business. If you have it in your power to create a successful thriving financial enterprise, can’t you put similar energy toward your emotional- spiritual-relationship enterprises?

Dual - ing Entrepreneurs

Friday, September 04, 1998

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

When I returned to the office a few months ago I found a phone message from Dick Wilsdon indicating he wanted to talk with me about a recent column I had written. He was especially interested in the topic of competition among spouses who work together. Being somewhat of an expert on this topic, having researched the area for years, consulted with many entrepreneurial couples, and written not only countless Vancouver Business Journal articles, but recently published a book on the subject, I felt confident that I could answer Dick’s questions and give him a few pointers to boot! But with his first question I was stumped. "I was just wondering," he said, "if you knew anything about couples who operate competing businesses?"

Dick and Linda Wilsdon are such a couple, believe it or not. Dick owns Western Nugget Transportation and Linda owns All Americas. Both are transportation brokers and quite successful at it. Each has had the honor of being among the INC. 500, an annual award given by INC. Magazine to American companies who have distinguished themselves. The following is a run down on just how Linda and Dick do it.

There is an interesting story behind how this couple found themselves in competition. Certainly they didn’t plan this outcome. It was a natural progression of events. Entrepreneurs are like that. The successful ones allow nature to take it’s course and capitalize on it. Dick has always been an entrepreneur. He has owned several businesses, so it was a natural to move from being a trucker to being a transportation broker.

Linda on the other hand never thought of herself as an entrepreneur. Like so many women, entrepreneurship came as a result of helping out the family. In order to bring their son into the business, Linda started All Americas as a way to prepare their son for taking over Dick’s business someday. Mom and son were to work the business together. As it turned out, the son wasn’t interested after all, so Linda was left with the decision of letting the business go, joining forces with Dick and Western Nugget, or continuing on her own. With her husband’s encouragement and blessing, she took on the task of running All Americas on her own.

Although Linda had no business experience before starting All Americas, she took on the challenge and soon gave Dick a run for his money. While Dick was nominated to the prestigious INC. 500 in 1987, Linda was nominated just six years later because her business was booming. Linda talks about how scared she was to take over All Americas when her son left, but Dick had every confidence. He mentored her during those early years, but acknowledges that she has abilities that he lacks. He says, "This woman is the most fantastic people motivator I know. Watching her motivate people is like a symphony!"

Herein lies the key to the Wilsdon’s success as a competing dual-entrepreneurial couple. They have tremendous love and respect for each other. They consider each other best friends. Although they may disagree heartily about things, they make a point to work the arguments out. And they don't take things personally. When I asked Dick and Linda what advice they would give to other competing dual-entrepreneurial couples, they offered these three nuggets:

  • "Talk a lot.
  • "Be willing to give.
  • "Think of your spouse as a 60% partner ... 10% better than an equal partner."

Over the years the Wilsdons have demonstrated in their behavior that they really believe in this advice. They are early risers and in the morning over coffee the two of them discuss the business, their lives, the kids, etc. Because they enjoy each other’s company they do spend a lot of time together, so talking comes easily. They grocery shop and run errands together too, rather than allow efficiency to divide them up. And they love to travel, so they incorporate lots of play time together. Talking a lot doesn’t just mean discussing business. It’s a time to reconnect with your spouse/partner ... to let each other know that you love and respect the other person.

Being willing to give takes on another meaning for the Wilsdon’s too. Because Dick had already proven himself in business before Linda started her enterprise, he was in a position to mentor her.

He wasn’t really giving up anything by encouraging her to develop a competing business. His business is strong and profitable. Rather he views it as helping his wife be the best she can be. Dick loves having a strong, assertive, capable wife who keeps him on his toes. He admires her strengths and feels that he benefits from them too. After all if Western Nugget loses a bid to All Americas, he still reaps the financial rewards. And the friendly competition spurs his staff on to improve their performance.

The Wilsdon’s do have some rules about competing however. They never go after each other’s existing business. They only compete for new work. Everything is out in the open ... no secrets between them. Although they may enjoy rubbing it in once in awhile when one company has the edge over the other, they really enjoy helping each other win. In other words, I don’t really think they are in competition at all. Rather each has the goal of being the best they can be and encouraging that in their spouse.

The proof of all of this is right there at their company offices. Western Nugget and All Americas are side by side in a Hazel Dell office complex. Each business has it’s own legal identity and separate staff, but employees do cross over sometimes. Once the Wilsdon’s daughter worked for Dad and now she works for Mom. Interestingly Dick has a woman office manager and woman bookkeeper, while Linda has a man office manager and a man bookkeeper. They laugh and tell me that this is just a coincidence, but I wonder if it is just another way the Wilsdon’s keep things balanced.

The Wilsdon’s may be a unique couple in that they operate competing businesses, however, all entrepreneurial couples can benefit by the principles that they live by. It takes a lot of maturity to put your egos aside and encourage your partner’s talents, especially when they might show you up. It takes courage to accept criticisms from your spouse/partner and really hear these criticisms as helpful feedback from one who knows you well. It takes patience to listen and work through problems. Communicating regularly with your spouse/partner is often the last thing busy entrepreneurial couples do, but it is essential to a healthy business and a loving marriage.

Why can't we Communicate now that we live and work together?

Friday, August 07, 1998

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

"She’s so busy I hardly see her at the office anyway."

"I just let him handle things his way."

"We’re not very good at resolving problems, so I let it go."

"I just hate confrontation!"

Listening, talking, communicating, resolving problems, making joint decisions... these are requirements for all business owners, not just entrepreneurial couples. Yet entrepreneurial couples often complain that communicating effectively with each other is the last thing they do. Without good communication skills and quality time dedicated to communicating, relationships (business and personal) soon flounder and fail, especially among couples with the stress of two careers, or a joint enterprise, and a full family life. Moreover, the potential for a breakdown in communication grows as the complexity of the family/business system increases.

Probably the number one reason entrepreneurial couples don’t talk is that they let the business run their lives. In my research and consultation work I have found that these couples are more willing to take time from home for work activities than they are willing to take time from work for home activities. In general these couples are rarely willing to leave for work late; very occasionally they may be late not more than fifteen minutes. However, they are willing to be late getting home one to four times a week by more than an hour each time. As well, these couples are willing to leave home for work more than thirty minutes early one to two times per week. On the other hand, they are willing to leave work early for home only once a month. As long as these tendencies prevail, entrepreneurial couples are giving themselves very little quality time to devote to confront and solve the inevitable conflicts that will arise in their personal relationship.

Work is a major source of satisfaction for adults. There are immediate payoffs with work, unlike with relationships. Likewise, there are problems and crises at work that draw our attention away from relationship responsibilities. Most career-minded Americans admit that their families are more important to them than their work, but that they derive more personal satisfaction from work (i.e., their creative side). This obviously poses a serious dilemma, and one that most entrepreneurial couples ignore, because everyone else does.

The second major reason entrepreneurial couples don’t talk is that they are avoiding conflict and confrontation. There is a common misconception that conflict and confrontation are bad. One of the major reasons entrepreneurial couples have problems is their failure to confront issues head-on. They may fight openly or quietly seethe, but they have a terrible time confronting the real conflict respectfully and honestly. It’s as if confrontation and conflict are impolite. However, conflict and confrontation are natural and healthy components of any relationship. You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.

You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.

As a member of an entrepreneurial couple you are under more stress and potential conflict than others. The worlds of your personal life and work life overlap considerably, creating more intersecting points. This creates a highly complex system of constantly changing roles and rules. Because you cannot really separate home and work, you must learn how to integrate these two worlds better. The tools you used for communicating and resolving conflicts before you worked together may just not be good enough anymore. As an entrepreneurial couple you and your spouse face dilemmas that may have never surfaced before to give you worry. This means you need to enhance your communication and problem solving skills beyond simple linear cause and effect (i.e. blame).

The first place to start is to actually make time to communicate with your partner/spouse. Make time for personal, marital, family and work communication. Give each equal time or at least what they need. Don’t leave this to when you have the time. Make it part of your daily and weekly routine. Informing and clarifying with each other on a daily basis is vital in our crazy, fast-paced lives. Memos and e-mails are OK, but a good face-to-face conversation does more than convey the facts; it keeps the good feelings alive.

Second, practice good communication skills. It wouldn’t hurt to take a class, or read a book on communication. I offer some communication advice in Chapter 3 of my book, ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home. You really may not have to look far for those communication skills, though. You probably already use them in your work, with employees, colleagues, business associates. It’s just that you never thought to use those same successful methods with your spouse. Certainly you realize that communications go more smoothly and solutions are arrived at more readily, when you listen respectfully, establish rapport, and move toward win-win solutions. Why not try this same approach with your business partner/spouse?

Third, do not fear conflict and confrontation. Because of the highly complex and interactive, multi-level system you have created as an entrepreneurial couple and family, conflicts are inevitable and actually a sign of growth. Therefore, avoiding conflict is not the goal. Rather you want to develop the tools to "lean into" conflicts and resolve them early on, so that you can reorganize your lives to include the new learning. Because entrepreneurial couples have a lot at stake when it comes to their business and their relationship, they are prone to avoid conflict or to use ineffective tools to solve the conflict too quickly. Compromising and acquiescing are two of these ineffective tools.

Most couples are shocked when I advise them to avoid compromises at all costs. After all, isn’t compromise a requirement of partnership, both personal and business? The reality is that decisions that are arrived at through compromise usually lack creativity and seldom last. Sure, a compromise now and then may be necessary for the sake of expediency, but if a decision is important, a compromise may cause anger and resistance. Because compromises are usually a result of both people giving up something in order to get an agreement, the decision is a watered-down version of two stronger opinions. While it may be satisfactory to accept compromise decisions for things like choosing a restaurant for dinner, where neither of you gets your first choice but both must accept a third alternative, accepting a third, less-threatening alternative for your business may sabotage your competitive edge.

Compromise is the easy way out when you are trying to avoid conflict and confrontation. It appears that the compromise will smooth ruffled feathers and that both partners can go away happy. What really happens, however, is that each partner leaves feeling as though they have been had. One person may resent having to compromise and will be looking for ammunition to prove that the decision was a bad one. Another person may feel he or she has done the honorable thing by not pushing his or her opinion on the other, only to feel unappreciated later when the compromise plan is dropped. If you stop and think about it, how long have your compromise decisions really lasted?

Acquiescing or forcing your opinion upon your partner are other ways of avoiding conflict. In seeking to avoid conflict, for example, a persuasive person may push his or her partner to acquiesce to a certain point of view, but this does not mean that the partner agrees. It may mean only that the partner actually does not want to fight and so appears to agree, when he or she has only given in. Don’t make the mistake of pushing to win at all costs or to acquiescing to the persuader, when you don’t agree. In either case, if you are the persuader or the acquiescent partner, the conflict has not been resolved and, what’s worse, may have been driven underground.

"Why can’t we communicate now that we live and work together?" The answer to that question is pretty clear for entrepreneurial couples. If you don’t make time to talk, if you don’t consider nurturing your personal relationship as important as nurturing your business, and if you avoid healthy conflict and confrontation, your partnership/relationship will disintegrate into two uninvolved business associates at the best, and into bitterness and divorce at the worst. So take the time now to evaluate your communication skills and your life/business plan. Invest in the time to develop a meaningful, loving relationship with your spouse that enhances your business relationship.

Are You The Entrepreneur Or Supportive Spouse?

Friday, July 03, 1998

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

If you have read my columns in the past, you are aware that I frequently refer to couples in business as entrepreneurial couples. Now that I have bandied the term around for several years, it is probably time to formally define just what I mean. In fact there couldn’t be a better time to present my definition, since entrepreneurial couples are at the crest of the enormous wave of business startups in America right now. Some of you may not even recognize yourselves as entrepreneurial couples because you have always been entrepreneurial, or come from entrepreneurial families, or the style is so common (especially here in the Northwest) that you never considered a definition important. However, defining the type of entrepreneurship that you and your spouse share can be very enlightening. Knowing who you are and why you are that way will assist in problem solving and future planning, as the following case examples will show. Even though there are always exceptions to the rule and entrepreneurs being what they are (e.g., extreme individualists) there are three basic entrepreneurial couple styles to start with. You may be a blend of two or even three and you may have changed your style over time. However, I am sure you will find your bedrock image in one of these styles. They include the solo-entrepreneur with a supportive spouse, the dual-entrepreneurial couple, and the copreneurial couple.

Bob and Carol used to work together in their successful nursery and garden supply business, but Bob has since returned to his old employer leaving Carol to manage the business on her own, as a solo-entrepreneur. Bob has become the supportive spouse. He is employed elsewhere, providing emotional support to his wife’s business, but not really involved in the day-to-day management and headaches of running it. Carol, on the other hand, recognizes her talent as an entrepreneur and is much better suited to running the operation on her own as a sole proprietor. Larry and Dorothy, who for 15 years have worked side by side building their farming enterprises, are a copreneurial couple. Copreneurs share ownership, management and responsibility for their business as full-time partners. The term copreneur comes from the blending of the words couple and entrepreneur and was first coined by the husband -and-wife team of Barnett and Barnett in 1988. Copreneurs are different from dual-entrepreneurs in that they operate a joint venture. One partner may have more of the entrepreneurial spirit than the other partner, but they both are equally committed to the enterprise as owners and managers.

Still another style involves dual-entrepreneurs like Sharon and Dave, who each run separately their respective businesses. Sharon is a realtor and Dave runs several successful small businesses. Dual-entrepreneurs are like solo-entrepreneurs in that each spouse is an entrepreneurial spirit tending to their own sole-proprietorship (or even partnership with a non-family member).

They also may function as a support person to their entrepreneurial spouse. What distinguishes dual-entrepreneurial couples from the others is that they each have the entrepreneurial spirit yet they are not in business partnership with their spouses. There are few couples who fit neatly into one category or another. Jonathan, for example, owned a multi-million dollar national advertising company 10 years ago when he met Brooke, whom he later married. Now Brooke heads up a major division of Jonathan’s company. Jonathan and Brooke are copreneurs but often operate as dual-entrepreneurs because of the size of their international business. Anton and Carrie were each solo-entrepreneurs before they married and merged their respective businesses to become copreneurs. Ross and Nalani over the years have experimented with all types of entrepreneurship. In some ventures they are copreneurs. Still in others, each operates as an independent dual-entrepreneur. All the while they consider themselves supportive spouses.

So what is the real value of knowing your style and that of your partner? Stan and Rhonda didn’t evaluate their entrepreneurial style before they launched their successful retail chain, but they could have avoided many painful bumps in the road if they had taken the time to really talk and learn about each other. For years Stan had worked as a controller, transferring to a new company when he needed another challenge. He was good at his chosen career so his moves always bettered his situation. Still he was restless and at mid-life, tired of helping others make their businesses more successful. He wanted to try his hand at running his own successful business.

Rhonda had married Stan after his divorce from Pat, with whom he had three children. She had no children of her own, nor had she been married before. However, Rhonda was well established in her career when she met Stan at work. As an accountant, Rhonda had always found excellent jobs and was quickly promoted. When Stan began talking about starting his own business, Rhonda agreed that they made an excellent team not only because of their love for each other, but because of their combination of professional skills. She was excited to get started on the venture.

Clearly though, this was Stan’s adventure. True to his organizer style, he researched the marketplace to discover the most advantageous industry and location for his new business. He was not so concerned with the type of business, but whether it would be profitable. He was willing to move to a new town where there was a need for his business. Unlike the entrepreneur who pursues a business because they have a passion for a particular industry or product, Stan is the type of entrepreneur who can take any good idea and make it into a profitable venture.

When Stan discovered the right business for him, a store that specializes in a variety of environmentally friendly products for the home remodeler, the couple began the second phase of development. The plan was for Rhonda to keep her job for the steady income and benefits. Stan quit his job and threw himself into the work of getting the business funded and off the ground. Rhonda helped in the evenings and on weekends with whatever odd jobs Stan could not get to.

In this manner the business grew from one retail outlet to two within three years. At this stage the couple needed to reassess Rhonda’s role. Stan could no longer manage alone and still achieve his dream of building a franchise business. Although Rhonda was ready to quit her job and come to work full time with her husband, Stan had other ideas. He was not emotionally ready to share entrepreneurship with Rhonda. Their relationship worked fine when Rhonda was a supportive spouse, but when she left her job, Stan felt that she was usurping his territory. After a tumultuous year of trying to work together as copreneurs, Stan and Rhonda realized that Stan needed to hire professional management and that Rhonda would continue working in corporate America. They just were not cut out for the challenges of running a family business. What best suited this couple is the model of solo-entrepreneur with a supportive spouse.

Speaking of supportive spouses, he or she is often the "unsung hero." As one wife put it, "My mission is to showcase my husband’s talents." This wife works side-side-side with her husband in their chain of hardware stores. Her daughter and two sons-in-law are also in the business. While she is vital to the welfare of the business in many ways, her husband operates as the solitary leader of the business. He consults her and the children, but as the founder he has the veto power in all decisions.

Not everyone is cut out to be a supportive least not all of the time. Most of us think of marriage as a partnership with give and take, where sometimes we are the leader and sometimes our spouse is the leader. In an entrepreneurial venture, however, this may not always be the case. Entrepreneurs are driven people who can become so consumed with their businesses that they ignore their families. A supportive spouse must do more than stand by and watch. They are often the one holding the entire marriage and family together, so the entrepreneurial spouse can devote his or her undivided attention to the business venture’s success.

Regardless of your style of couple entrepreneurship, all partners eventually must play the part of the supportive spouse. After all, that’s what marriage is about. And the role of supportive spouse is much less complicated if you, as a couple, clearly define the type of entrepreneurship that suits your personalities best. If you are a hard driven, competitive type, probably you will do best as a solo-entrepreneur. If both of you are this type, try dual-entrepreneurship. If you are team players and enjoy sharing the spotlight with the one you love, copreneuring is for you. And if you are the quintessential woman/man-behind-the-scenes, and you don’t really want to be too involved in the daily managing of your partner’s venture, you are well suited to be the supportive spouse.

Can Husbands and Wives be Business Partners

Friday, June 05, 1998

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


Successful business man seeks life partner to share my entrepreneurial dream. Must believe in me and be supportive of the long hours required of a start-up venture. Nothing is too much for you in that you are comfortable juggling the many demands of the wife of an entrepreneur...household, childcare, social obligations and working late hours at the office to meet deadlines. Opportunity to develop your own very satisfying career as you help me build my business. Your rewards are financial security, the opportunity to be part of something big, and the chance to work side-by-side with your husband. At work you are my hard-working right hand person. At home you are the loving support that makes the long hours worthwhile.


Career-minded, college educated woman with entrepreneurial spirit, tired of facing the "glass ceiling" of corporate life seeks like-minded college educated male to share love and business partnership in a start-up venture. Must believe in egalitarian relationships, sharing fully in the household maintenance as well as sharing equally in the ownership, management and responsibility of our joint business venture. Even though you possess creativity and leadership skills which you use to help me create the "American Dream", you’re ego is not bruised by my ability to make decisions and take charge. At work, you are dedicated, aggressive and single minded in your pursuit of success for our business. At home you relax and become playful because you are a loving, sensitive, communicative male, who adores me and takes the time to get to know our children.

The "personal ads" I have written above are of course, tongue in cheek. Yet they represent a classic problem that entrepreneurial husbands and wives bring to their partnership. Each spouse has a very different concept of what they would like in a business/marital partner. Because their expectations are so radically different, husbands and wives become confused and frustrated with a partner that they love. They wonder why they ever asked the other to work with them. Sometimes they wonder even if they should remain married.

As more and more couples consider entrepreneurship, it becomes painfully apparent that they are unprepared for the stress business collaboration will cause their personal relationship. Many career-minded husbands and wives have already achieved some success in the work world before embarking on their own venture. Likewise they may feel that their personal relationship is solid and healthy and capable of taking on the added strain of working together. Yet few of these couples discuss the ramifications of working together. They are totally unprepared for the blurring of boundaries and turf when a spouse becomes one’s business partner. However, clarifying the work/home expectations of each spouse/business partner should be the first thing that any entrepreneurial couple does, even before spending a cent on letterhead, or signing the bank loan.

For example, even though Charlene started the real estate company five years before Ted joined her in the business, she found herself deferring to Ted more and more as the two of them worked together. As a traditional couple, who had two grown children, they were used to Ted being the "head of the household." When they started to work together, they assumed the same roles at the workplace. The problem was that Charlene had nowhere to go with her entrepreneurial spirit and leadership skills. The solution was to redesign the business so that each had their own division to lead and operate.

Frank and Louise had a difficult transition. Although they had a traditional marriage, they operated as equals in the career world, as long as they worked for different companies. When they started their entrepreneurial venture, conflicts arose because they had not discussed expectations at work.

Frank continued to operate as the "head of the house" at work, while Louise designed her work schedule according to the former egalitarian arrangement. Frank started to complain that Louise did not work as hard as he did and that she didn’t care about the success of the business. Louise felt unappreciated because she was working very hard on projects that she felt were important. The problems were (1) that the couple was not talking about work priorities, nor coordinating those priorities and (2) they were using two conflicting models to operate as partners at work. Eventually, the couple decided to maintain the separation of work lives that had worked so well for them in the past. Louise left the business and pursued other interests.

Elise and Aaron were extremely puzzled by the marital conflicts that arose when they decided to move their respective businesses into the same building. They had had a warm and respectful marriage for ten years. Each had built their individual professional practices in that same time and they were thriving. However, when they moved into the same office suite, now seeing each other everyday at work as well as at home, conflicts were happening more often. The tools that the couple had used in the past to resolve problems weren’t working anymore. What was needed was a new set of tools for the changes in the marital/business partnership.

Entrepreneurial couples have a lot of work today to balance the competing demands of home and work. Whatever your style of couple entrepreneurship (a solo proprietorship, co-entrepreneurial couple or dual-entrepreneurs) there are few models to guide you in maintaining a loving marriage and a thriving business simultaneously. There are a myriad of variables to consider. So my advice is to design a model unique to the two of you. Begin by talking with your spouse/partner about the goals each of you has for yourselves individually in life. Then go on to discuss marital goals, family goals and finally business goals. (I have a more comprehensive outline of how to do this in my book ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making it Work at Work and at Home.)Ultimately you are searching for a flexible system of relating that can change with the circumstances of your life, your lives together, and the changing marketplace of your business.

Sex and Infidelity in the Family Firm

Thursday, March 05, 1998

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

Bill and Monica and Hillary and Andy and Cathy and Paula and ... I’m not sure where the connections stop. Obviously infidelity, sexual improprieties and the abuse of power are hot topics right now. With the whole country entranced by the White House sex scandal, you may wonder how I can come up with a column that will take your attention away from the President’s sex life. But SEX just happens to be the subject of this month’s column ... Sex and Infidelity in the Family Firm.

You may wonder, as some of us do, why sex causes such problems for people. After all, the sex drive is a normal and necessary part of human life. The problem isn’t that we have a sex drive. The problem is what we do with that drive. As with most human skills sex can be used in a positive healthy way or it can be used to abuse and manipulate. Sex can lead to pleasure, or a love bond within a relationship. Or sex can lead to pain, suffering and corruption.

There is very little in human life that is instinctual. Although the sex drive may be with us from birth, expression of our sexuality is learned. And unfortunately much of what we learn as we grow up, about appropriate sexual behavior is gathered from unreliable sources such as childhood friends, pornographic materials hidden from our parents, television and movies, or worse, through exploitation by unethical adults. Other than a perfunctory sex-education class in public school, where the emphasis is on health and procreation, where does a child learn about sexual techniques, or the relationship between sex and love, or the subtleties of sex in the workplace? Where do they learn about ethics?

Many parents oppose even the scant sex education offered in the public schools. They maintain that sexuality should be taught by the parents, that it is a private matter, that exposing children to these subjects in school will encourage promiscuity. Regardless of the merit of these arguments, I have met few parents who openly discuss sexuality with their kids. Most parents tell me they are more than willing to answer any questions their kids ask about sex, as if any kid in their right mind will let their parents know they are thinking about sex!

So with that minor digression taken care of, back to sex in the family firm. If most of us get a poor education about how to develop our sexual instincts into a healthy expression of our sexuality, then it’s quite likely that most families experience problems at one time or another such as sexual inappropriateness, infidelity, and even abuse. And if that is true for many families, it is true for many family firms.

Jan and Dale were really scared when I first met them. They had been frustrated for years by the poor work performance of their son, Drake whom they were grooming to take over the business when they retired. Drake just didn’t seem to have leadership abilities and his latest escapade was about to sink everything. A female employee had filed a sexual harassment complaint against Drake. It appeared to be true and well documented.

This was not a simple situation of parents neglecting their sons’ sex education, although they had done that too. Jan and Dale had not dealt with their own unresolved problems regarding sex. In earlier years, Dale had been involved in more than one affair. Each affair ended quietly and the couple never again spoke of the problem. Unfortunately, this lack of communication lead to repeated affairs, rather than resolution of the couple’s marital and sexual problems. While Jan thought she was suffering silently and Dale was always repentant, the couple’s children were being profoundly affected. Drake was angry that his father would betray his mother and he was angry that his mother would let Dale get away with it. What Drake was learning about sexuality as a child is that it is something that should be a secret, that sexual behavior hurts other people but that there is nothing you can do about it, that women are helpless in the face of a man’s advances. It is not surprising that with these mixed up messages, Drake went too far when he propositioned an employee. No one had educated him about how to properly handle his sexual impulses. For Dale and Jan, the sexual harassment lawsuit was a wake up call. Sex was only one area in their marriage that was a problem because of poor communication and inappropriate use of power. But it is not only the marriage that is affected. Employees, vendors, business associates, and customers are all affected when sexual improprieties are hidden in a family firm. Drake’s inability to develop leadership in the workplace was a direct result of having no respect for his father. Dale’s leadership was questioned by employees because his son was so irresponsible. Jan was viewed as a long suffering inept wife rather than the competent chief financial officer that she was capable of being. These are not desirable images and certainly affect the bottom line.

Even if infidelity, sexual improprieties and abuse of power do not affect your bottom line, they certainly affect your sense of self esteem and the health of your relationships with the ones you love. So why do people risk it? Lack of education is one reason, as I have already discussed. But other reasons abound too. Essentially sexual misbehavior is a signal of some deeper problem. With the President it could be that power has gone to his head, that when you’re at the top there is no way to assess what normal is anymore. With Monica it could be that she feels powerless in many ways, except when she is seducing men. With Dale, the affairs represented his lack of confidence in dealing with his well educated wife. For Drake, sexual power over an employee was the only way to feel powerful at all, since he was failing miserably in the family business.

Whatever the reason for the sexual impropriety, don’t keep it a secret. Use the signal for what it is, a message about a much needed change in your life and relationships. Among families in business, because of the need to be supportive, nurturing and protective of family members, sexual improprieties are covered up more often than in other settings. As embarrassing as it is to bring these things out, it is more embarrassing to pass the problem along to the next generation and risk everything you have worked so hard for. Seek professional, confidential help from a psychologist.

The President is about to balance the budget, but what has captured America’s attention is his sexual liaisons. If sex is a problem in your family firm, even if you think it is a tightly held secret, just what do you think your customers, employees and other business associates are talking about?