Married, with business: Love alone won't keep
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,"
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
Taking on any partner can put your business at risk for a variety
of reasons. When that partner is your spouse, the risks multiply
"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.
"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
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
- How will you react to suddenly being together day
- How will your roles change?
- Who will be "in charge?"
- How will you resolve conflict?
- Will you be able to separate your personal and
"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
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
"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
"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