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Articles - Marital Problems in the Family - Business

Can Husbands and Wives be Business Partners

Friday, June 05, 1998




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

MAN SEEKING WIFE/BUSINESS PARTNER


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.

WOMAN SEEKING HUSBAND/BUSINESS PARTNER

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.