For seven years, my husband, Ned, and I enjoyed an unusually placid relationship. We rarely argued. Any disagreements we had were quickly resolved or forgiven.
Then, shortly after we married, Ned started working on a graduate school project that quickly blossomed into a burgeoning business. And our placid relationship evaporated.
We began fighting about the amount of time we spent together—or rather, the amount of time we no longer spent together. We had tense discussions about our personal finances, our priorities, the dwindling romance in our relationship. We even argued about how we argued.
I worried that this was our new normal, even as I fretted that we were abnormally prone to conflict. In my worst moments, I wondered if Ned’s entrepreneurial endeavors would destroy our marriage.
But when I interviewed more than 70 entrepreneurial couples for my book on start-ups and marriage, I learned that the tension between Ned and me was pretty typical. While all couples have conflict, it turns out that entrepreneurial couples tend to have more conflict than average.
Much of the blame can be placed on stress. Company founders tend to experience higher levels of stress than the average employee. According to one study, 45 percent of entrepreneurs reported being stressed, and 36 percent said they were worried. And since stress is as contagious as the common cold, the spouses of entrepreneurs also tend to be stressed.
Stress exacerbates our worst traits. It shortens our fuse. We have less patience and tolerance. We can’t analyze or evaluate as clearly.
The challenges of building a business from the ground up cause stress, but so do the circumstances that the start-up life creates. Being an entrepreneur can lead to uncertainty, unpredictability, and financial instability for the entire family system.
The entrepreneurial journey has a tendency to press urgently upon any questions of control, identity, and quality of life we may struggle with. When we feel uncertain about who we are or what agency we have, we’re more likely to lash out at those closest to us.
No wonder, then, that entrepreneurial couples tend to argue with particular intensity and frequency.
Fortunately, there is plenty you can do to reduce conflict with your spouse, or move you toward constructive ways of disagreeing that can strengthen your relationship. Here are four practical approaches you can try:
Work on yourself.
As much as we’d like to, we cannot change our partners. You can encourage and affirm and speak truth, but ultimately, your spouse will not change unless he wants to.
It’s most effective, then, to focus on yourself. What more can you do to help your significant other feel more loved and secure? How can you express your perspective in a way that’s easier for him to hear? What behaviors can you change to reduce tension and hurt?
The healthier and more mature you are as an individual, the better equipped you will be to deal with conflict in your relationship. And, more likely than not, when your partner sees your personal development, he will feel a nudge to pursue transformation in his own life.
Choose your battles.
Renowned marriage researcher John Gottman has found that the majority of ongoing arguments in a marriage cannot be resolved. He writes, “Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind—but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, and values.”
It’s essential to know what matters most to you and what you can let go of. Be clear about what you most need for this relationship to be healthy, and what actions you and your partner can pursue to make this happen.
As for everything else—pet peeves, minor irritations, differing perspectives—learn to accept them as part of the idiosyncrasies of your partner and your relationship.
How you fight matters.
Gottman warns against four relationship-killing communication styles: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (or disengagement and avoidance). Your disagreements are far more likely to end well when you can treat one another with respect, engagement, and empathy.
Remember that you are on the same team. According to relationship expert Dr. Ty Tashiro, couples should invite one another to problem-solve together. When you work through tough situations and decisions together, your relationship will likely grow more resilient over time.
You can both be right at the same time.
The vast majority of arguments with our significant others are not over issues that have an objective right and wrong; they are instead about differing perspectives, emotions, needs, and desires. It is completely possible for you to have clashing but equally valid viewpoints.
In talking through disagreements, the goal should not be to win or prove that you are right. It is instead about understanding what you each need and how you can provide that for one another.
According to psychologist Dr. Les Parrott, empathy is key in relationships. When we are able to truly sympathize with our partners, when we understand how they feel and why, 90 percent of our arguments tend to dissipate.
Having conflict with your spouse, especially when you are both under intense stress, is to be expected. But you can hope for far more than simply surviving your arguments. With the right approach, you and your significant other can emerge from these disagreements with greater trust, affection, and empathy for one another.
Has the frequency and type of conflict in your relationship been affected by your business? What strategy has helped you and your significant other work through disagreements? What strategy would you like to try?
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