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Married, with business: Love alone won't keep you together

Married with businessFor many couples, working together every day might seem like a dream come true. No more capricious bosses, no more office politics, no more employee problems waking you in the wee hours. Just you and your spouse, sharing a vision, working together toward a sound financial future in a stress-free environment of mutual love and support.

That's the dream. Unfortunately, it too often ends up a nightmare.

"When it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad, it's horrific. There's very little middle ground," says Ruth Hayden, family business counselor and author of For Richer, Not Poorer: The Money Book for Couples.

"When it works, you just don't get better. When it doesn't, it can take a business down, and it can take a personal relationship down. It can take a whole family down."

Spouse as partner means more risks
Taking on any partner can put your business at risk for a variety of reasons. When that partner is your spouse, the risks multiply dramatically.

"You always start a business or create a partnership with that wonderful sense of optimism and invulnerability, and that's always an illusion, whether you're a spouse or not," says Craig Aronoff, co-chairman of the Family Business Consulting Group and founder-director of the Cox Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga.

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"The problem in the case of a spouse is the potential emotional boomerang. Usually what happens is, if it doesn't work out, the employee leaves and you never see them again," notes Aronoff. "But in this case, if it doesn't work out, you go home and have dinner together. That's where the problem lies."

Sure, you may be as tight as the Captain and Tennille, but if you think love alone will keep your business together, think again.

Surviving the mom-and-pop shop
The mom-and-pop business model is the heart of American enterprise. More than 80 percent of all the country's companies are family owned in one form or another, from Fortune 500 corporations to the family diner down the street.

And, as nearly every entrepreneurial couple will attest, it isn't as easy as it looks.

There are several great reasons for couples to unite in business. You know each other, trust each other and share a commitment to what you're doing. You already have a communication process in place, perhaps even a good one. You may even have complementary skills, specialized knowledge and experience that combined will help your business run more efficiently.

And because you live together, there may be additional savings in taxes, benefits, child care and other work-related expenses. By owning and operating your own business, you can steer your own course around market downturns and corporate layoffs.

Don't overlook the risks
In fact, combining marriage and business can seem such a natural next step in your life together that you may be tempted to jump in without considering the risks:

  • How will your personal relationship fare in the workplace?
  • How will you react to suddenly being together day and night?
  • How will your roles change?
  • Who will be "in charge?"
  • How will you resolve conflict?
  • Will you be able to separate your personal and business relationships?

"In some ways, the problems are more on the side of what it does to the marital relationship than what it does to the business relationship," says Aronoff. "You get so consumed with your business relationship that you end up talking business all the time at home to where there's no escape from business, there's no relief valve."

Hayden agrees it's all too common for couples to lose themselves and each other in a mom-and-pop shop.

"As a couple is together, the conversation becomes more and more role-based and less and less self-based," she says. "That's not a bad thing except that there's a whole part of them that's not getting nurtured, and if that business should change -- if one of them dropped out to do something else or they closed the business -- they're going to be in trouble because they don't even know who they are anymore. Some of them are flabbergasted; they have no idea what to talk about."

Making marriage and business work
OK, despite the hazards, you and your spouse are still not deterred. How can you increase your chance of success in business together?

Aronoff suggests you start by taking a hard look at your own motivation for wanting to work together.

"Going in, you've got to make sure you're not following the let's-have-a-baby-to-save-our-marriage model," he warns. "Going into business together to try and save a marriage is, generally speaking, a terrible idea. If you don't have a strong relationship going in, don't do it. It's that simple. It's not therapeutic, it is very stressful, it adds complexity and difficulty to the relationship."

Similarly, Aronoff says it's foolhardy to throw in together just because one of you needs a job or your business needs another employee; the risks far outweigh the rewards.

Next, evaluate your strength as a couple.

"Are you strong enough to withstand any contingency that might develop as a function of the business? Make sure you're honest enough with each other to be able to communicate effectively about personal and business issues. Make sure you're able to agree to disagree. And make sure there are clear understandings about who's responsible for what in the business and what their reporting relationships are," he says.

Hayden proposes an additional check: respect.

"In a personal partnership, if a couple doesn't know how to be respectful to one another and how to handle disagreements and compromise, they're not going to make it in a business relationship because they're going to treat each other too rudely and they're going to be too rigid," she predicts. "But if they have a strong relationship and they know how to compromise, there's a much better chance that they're going to make it."

Holding the boundaries
Now comes the tricky part: separating your new work life from your personal life.

"One of the things I look for is whether they can hold boundaries," says Hayden. "Do they know when they're at work? Can they hold that kind of boundary? And do they know when they're not at work and can they hold that boundary?"

She suggests setting aside time for each.

"They have to be able to meet as business partners once a week and have actual, formal meetings that are just as important as if they were going to meet with the president of 3M. There's not personal stuff in there. It has to be handled routinely, systematically and impeccably," she says.

"Then, twice a week, they have to have a period of time, minimum of two hours, where they can't talk about any of their roles. They can't talk about kids, business, money, house projects. They have to find out if they still have anything left of themselves, the things they used to talk about when they fell in love with each other."

As with any business partnership, your chance of success increases the more precisely you nail down the details. Advisers recommend drawing up a formal written agreement spelling out responsibilities, authorities, financial commitments, expectations and contingency plans should one partner want out, or in the event of death or disability.

Aronoff says that's a good way to try on your "business hats."

"Be aware of what hat you're wearing when," he says. "You've got to be very clear about husband and wife roles. I think there should be an agreement that you leave your husband and wife hats at home when you get to the office."

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Florida.

-- Posted: May 25, 2001


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See Also
QUIZ: Will you and your spouse make a good business team? Take this quiz to find out.
Picking the perfect business partner
Love and money quiz: how do you and your mate relate?
Choosing a business structure for your small business


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