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Articles - Stress in the Family 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?