When Hillary joined her husband Jake’s business, they both thought it was a great idea. They couldn’t wait to work together and spend more time together.
And, then they spent the next six weeks arguing constantly. Each distrusted the decisions of the other. They couldn’t get anything done, and their relationship suffered significantly.
It got to the point where, according to Jake, they realized that “either we need to get a divorce so we can work together, or we need to stop working together to stay married.”
Leah and Tim had a similar experience. Their business partnership was fraught with tension, which eventually erupted into a huge argument. By the end of that argument, Leah was done. “I still don’t know if I was fired or I quit,” she said, laughing.
It doesn’t always happen this way. For many couples, becoming co-workers makes their relationship thrive. They enjoy a shared purpose and complementary schedules. They grow in respect and affection for one another as they partner in the business.
After interviewing dozens of co-preneurial couples, I’ve found that the difference between those who work well together and those who don’t often boils down to two issues: a clear division of labor and full empowerment on the job.
Have clear lines between your roles
Entrepreneurs are used to wearing many hats and taking on many responsibilities, especially in the early stages of the business.
If you and your spouse want to work together, it’s important to make sure the two of you are not wearing the same hats. Without these clear divisions, you will experience confusion at best, intense conflict at worst, and you will certainly both be less effective.
Of course, splitting up the many responsibilities in a nascent company can in and of itself be challenging. A good place to start is to consider the training and experience you each have, your natural gifts, as well as the type of tasks you are most excited about. You will each have a much better chance of sustaining the intensity of start-up life if you do tasks that are a good fit for you.
Exactly who does what depends entirely on you, your partner, and what your business needs, but having as little overlap as possible between your areas of work will help reduce conflict and make it easier for you to collaborate.
Having such clarity on your roles will help immensely with the second key issue: empowerment on the job.
Trust, respect, and empowerment for your spouse
Many couples who fight about the business fight because one of them isn’t fully able to trust the other in his or her responsibilities. One spouse questions the decisions made by the other, or nags him about getting something done, or takes on a task that is within the purview of the other.
Unsurprisingly, such tensions at work are often brought home. As one woman who ran a real estate company with her husband told me, “If something goes wrong at work and you blame your spouse for it, you’re not going to want to be all snuggly with the same person you’re mad at.”
If you and your spouse want to partner together in the business, make sure to answer these questions honestly: Do I trust my spouse in his role? Can I let her make her own decisions? Am I comfortable with letting him complete his tasks in the way and on the timeline that he thinks is best? Can I let go enough to give my spouse complete ownership in her role?
Allowing your significant other to be fully empowered is harder than it sounds. This requires relinquishing some control, something most entrepreneurs struggle with. If you can’t release control, your partner will experience your intrusion as disrespect—and that could kill any business relationship.
If you’re not sure you can fully trust your significant other, it’s probably worth thinking through why this is the case and what, if any, processes, procedures, or supports you can put in place to help honor each other’s roles. Or, it may be the case that this just isn’t the right decision for your relationship, and the two of you will do better on separate career paths.
The reality is that there will always be risks to working with your partner. You will disagree, argue, and hurt one another, probably more frequently than spouses who don’t work together. But, if you manage this conflict well, through listening, respecting, and empathizing, there’s a good chance the tension will strengthen your relationship over time.
And, then both your business and your marriage can thrive.
Have you and your spouse considered partnering together in the business? What has helped you work together well? What have you learned about your relationship and what you each need to thrive professionally?
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