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In Business With Your Spouse

According to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, 43% of small businesses are family businesses (defined as two or more family members managing a venture that at least one family member owns). Of those businesses, 53% of managers identify a spouse as the family member who is sharing day-to-day management.

For many entrepreneurs, being married to their business partner is an asset to both their professional success and personal relationship, according to Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management. “It can be exciting to share the joys of accomplishment together. The trust you have is likely greater than any other business partnership. You’re apt to learn more and faster, and to see different perspectives better.”

Yet the headaches associated with starting and running a company are ever-present, and they can be exacerbated when the business partners are also life partners. Some couples find it hard to separate what happens in the business from what happens in their relationship. In her book, For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and their Families, Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, cites the potential for work issues to crowd out everything else as the hardest thing about starting and running a business with a spouse.

For business couples who thrive under pressure, this is less of a problem, but many struggle, after working together all day, to create some semblance of intimacy at home. Connecting with a partner, Hirshberg points out, is made harder by the fact that, in the workplace, communication styles are frequently more hurried and abrupt. At home, couples want to use more subtle and nuanced communication. “The biggest issue has to do with boundaries,” notes Friedman, “how consciously and deliberately the couple manages those, and how mindful they are at tending to the different roles they’re in.”

Nancy Rothbard, a professor of management at Wharton, has researched the extent to which people integrate family into their work lives. She says that successful husband and wife business partnerships tend to be led by couples who “like fluidity,” are “very integrative” and happily blur the lines between work and home. According to Rothbard, couples who do this successfully tend to have a very strong marriage and share enthusiasm for both sides of their lives. “Even though they are spending all their time together, they’re both really interested in what is going on at home and with the business. It makes for an incredibly strong marriage. And it can also make for an incredibly strong family.”

Then there’s the possibility of hierarchy issues creeping into the relationship. “Theoretically, you’re in a marriage of equals,” Hirshberg adds. “But in the workplace, generally one person is in charge.” The thing about marriage and the separation of duties is that it’s never really 50-50, and that reality carries over to co-managing a business. “Sometimes it’s 70-30, and sometimes it’s 60-40,” says Friedman. “There are times when one is doing most of the hard work, and for a while the other one has an easier ride. You need to be flexible. You need to be OK with carrying the other person sometimes, and you have to be OK with letting the other person carry you.”

“When it works, it is a beautiful thing,” notes Hirshberg. When a couple’s personalities and skills are well suited and complementary, working together has the potential to add richness and romance to a marriage. Spouses come to respect and admire each other in new ways. Working together provides spouses with an opportunity to see their significant other do something they’re good at and passionate about. This can enhance and invigorate the relationship. “These entrepreneurial couples get to see each other in action, which makes them proud of one another,” says Wharton’s Friedman. “This usually doesn’t happen — at least not in the same direct way — when spouses work in completely separate domains.”

Every marriage is different, just as every company is different. But, according to experts and co-preneur couples in the trenches, there are several best practices for successful husband and wife business partnerships.:

  • Communication and listening are essential: discuss business and personal decisions and goals frequently.

  • Understand how time and financial risks are going to impact your relationship and lifestyle.

  • Divide and conquer: Determine and respect roles and responsibilities based on strengths.

  • Have separate workspaces so you’re not with each other 24/7.

  • Don’t talk about work 24/7.

  • Don’t bring personal issues in to work.

  • Be supportive - even during tough times.

  • Seek outside counsel to broaden your perspective.

  • Purposefully make time for your relationship.

  • Enjoy the ride

Trisha Harp, founder of the Harp Family Institute (HFI), has dedicated her career to studying the effects of entrepreneurship on relationships. Harp has spent the last decade interviewing hundreds of entrepreneurs and their spouses to learn about best practices of the most satisfied couples. Harp's data showed:

  • Entrepreneur spouses who set shared business goals were 17 percent happier than those who didn’t; and 27 percent who set shared family goals reported higher levels of satisfaction. Of those who set shared family goals, 98 percent reported being still in love with their spouse.

  • When entrepreneurs shared both positive and negative aspects of the business on a regular basis, the other spouse's trust and confidence in the entrepreneur actually increased.

  • Specifically and directly showing appreciation is one way to ensure both spouses know how meaningful their role is to the family, the business and each other.

  • When entrepreneurs and spouses were asked to choose from a list of 50 characteristics to describe one another’s personality, four of the top six characteristics from each showed up on both lists: loving, fun, intelligent and honest.


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