Monday, April 22, 2024

How to Run a Business with Your Spouse and Remain Happily Married

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It’s a story as old as time. Two people marry. They decide to go into business together because, hey, why not? They’re already each other’s best friend, trust the other implicitly and presumably share the same professional goals for their future.

Given how relatively common marital mergers are, much has already been written on the topic: some call it a science more than an art; some deem it magic, and many married co-owners have shared tips and tidbits about this particular life situation.

So I’m not sure I’ll have much new to add to the discussion. All I can say is that every married couple is different. So maybe my own personal perspective will be of interest to other romantic partners making a go of a business partnership right here, right now, at this unique point in history: in post-pandemic America at the first-quarter mark of the 21st century, in a largely WFH workplace.

Advantages and disadvantages of a spouse-run business

My husband and I have learned a lot about balancing (more like juggling) our various roles as parents, romantic partners and business partners as we live atop a mountain together day in and day out in Upstate New York. We share five kids, a mortgage payment, too many college funds than I care to count, even more to-do and task lists, and in-laws flowing in and out of our lives like waves on the beach.

Sometimes, it all gets a little overwhelming, and that’s when the disadvantages of our arrangement reveal themselves, such as:

  • Getting on each other’s last nerve because we’re the only one there to annoy the other
  • As a result, undeservedly taking our frustrations out on each other, again because of the proximity factor
  • Letting “work talk” creep, even seep, into our after-hours discussions too much and too often
  • Not having an outside, objective business partner to bounce ideas off of or counter our arguments when we need countering
  • Not having separate “work families” to hang with during the day, separate from our “home families” we return to when the workday is done
  • The power struggle that can sometimes arise when one partner dominates a little more than the other in certain areas
  • Both being dependent on the same source of income

But mostly, we’ve established a nice give-and-take equilibrium that we maintain with fairness and mutual respect. On our good days, the advantages of a spousal business partnership are most apparent, including:

  • We’ve totally got each other’s backs — there’s no one we rely on and trust more, and so there’s no one to whom we’d rather entrust the fate of our business.
  • Heightened empathy: we share our joys and sorrows together, really share them — not just commiserate with each other over the dinner table — because they happened to both of us.
  • We equally hold responsibility for your wins and losses, which makes for a more equal partnership.
  • It’s much easier to coordinate busy schedules and endless family chores when we’re splitting them up together in real-time, based on who’s more available that day to take care of the home while the other is mired in work.
  • All business finances and decisions are fully transparent and accessible to the other.
  • Every day, all the time, we’re working toward the same end goal — we do not have competing interests or priorities.

We didn’t just wake up one morning and get to this happy place. Over a number of years, we’ve had to negotiate many points of contention and iron out many wrinkles. Here’s what we’ve come up with as “5 Rules of the House” that make our partnership hum and our business thrive.

Rule #1: Formally schedule work time

If you don’t erect firm time boundaries, you will never truly get away from the office and into your personal relationship space. Sometimes, you can combine the two, being both a couple spending time together and business partners using that time productively. For example, at least once a week, my husband and I will schedule a 20-minute walk during which we hold hands and enjoy the outdoors, but we also agree to go over work issues.

Rule #2: Work in separate spaces

This is really important — you each need your own space to talk freely, organize things the way you want them, play music or insist on silence, remain immovable at the desk for hours or pace the floor nonstop. My husband and I don’t just work in separate offices; we work on separate floors! Although I realize not everyone has the square footage for two individual offices, you can devise a configuration of two distinct workstations in separate areas of your overall workspace. In my opinion, you have to. It’s the best way to work together, but not in a stifling way.

Rule #3: Plan date nights and date days

You must have couple time, not just co-partner time. I cannot stress this enough. Before my husband and I agreed to designate time on the calendar just for us, not our business at all, the business was all-consuming and overpowering, threatening to destabilize our union. We were forced to wrestle back control over our daily planners. Don’t let things get to that point: set aside time to be a couple from the start.

Rule #4: Accept that you will disagree, but do so in private

Because Mom and Dad are always work partners, even at the soccer game or camping with the family, your children are bound to overhear some of your shop talk. Inevitable as that may be, you must strive mightily not to argue about work in front of the kids. They will feel the tension and sense the discord that has nothing to do with the two of you as a couple and everything to do with you as coworkers. When we need a facilitator or referee, we bring in our business manager to mediate. Do not use your children or other family members as sounding boards for your own sides of an argument.

Rule #5: Divide and conquer

As mentioned above, when you’re right there with each other all day, it makes it much easier to determine who’s more accessible at that moment to go pick up the kids, to run this one to play practice or to pick up tomatoes for tonight’s salad. My husband and I don’t keep a formal tally sheet, but we have a very good sense of when one of us is picking up more of the slack, and we make a concerted effort to even things out in the long run.

We don’t resent the other for being able to leave the office when we’re stuck on an endless conference call because they’re leaving the office to take care of something for our joint life. Everyone wins when we divvy up the duties as housemates and officemates.

Running a business with the person you’re closest to in the world isn’t for everyone. If you need a lot of alone time, if you’re more of a solo act than a team player and if the two of you just jibe better when you spend some time apart each day, I wouldn’t advise it.

But for couples who are comfortable with each other’s work styles, who work in the same industry and bring separate but equally valuable skill sets to the enterprise, it’s a wonderful option to go through life together feeling even more connected and conjoined. Not only can you navigate the challenges, but you will — because you’re in it together, every single step of the way.



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