The Secret to a Strong Marriage: Never Go in Business Together
Having just separated from my husband of nearly 20 years, I was taken aback by the question and said, "You do know I'm getting a divorce."
"Of course," she said, "That's why I asked you. I thought I could learn from your mistakes."
"In that case," I replied, "Don't go into business with your husband."
Today, I would also add, have separate bathrooms, but that's off-topic.
In the past fifteen years, I have given that advice to several lovely couples who were thinking about going into business together. I don't think they paid attention. We wouldn't have either. Despite the alleged benefits, I would say the cons of working with your spouse definitely outweigh the pros. But, who's asking me?
During the 1980s, the number of businesses run by married couples increased more than 90 percent, according to the Small Business Administration. These weren't just mom & pop shops, either. In 1995, a full one third of the fastest growing private companies on the Inc. 500 list were owned and operated by husband and wife teams.
The biggest con is that owning a business in effect makes your marriage divorce-proof. While technically you can get a divorce when you both own a business, it's just that it makes for a much messier divorce than your standard split. Maybe it's not an issue for people who are financially independent, but in the case of myself and my former husband, we were financially co-dependent.
For several years before my marriage ended, I knew I wanted out. When I thought about getting a divorce, my biggest concern was not my kids -- I believed they would be better off in a home with less tension. My biggest concern was how in the world would we untangle our business, not harm our employees and clients, and still earn a living.
Every time I thought about it, I got dizzy. And, I never came up with a good solution. So I did nothing.
While my former husband and I did the traditional marriage counseling, it always felt as there was not enough at risk to motivate us to change. After all, what would we do, get a divorce? It was obvious that we wouldn't. The business became a guarantee that the marriage would stay intact regardless of how bad the marriage got, and that gave both of us permission to be very lazy about the relationship.
Of course, in 1980 when we started our business, all we could think about was how much fun it would be and how our talents complimented each other. In those early years, we focused on audio visual production, doing multi-media slide shows for corporations. We had a ton of fun. I did the writing; he did the producing. It was a great team.
But, businesses, like people, grow and change. There came a time when corporations were no longer interested in the multimedia slide shows; they wanted video tape. Instead of writing scripts, I was being asked to do more strategic work. The evolution of the business was great for me, not so great for my former husband.
Looking back, that was a huge mistake. I was so intent on growing the business, that I didn't realize we were losing the part of the business that my husband enjoyed the most. And, if you can't do what you love in your own business, what's the point?
What we couldn't know in the beginning of the business was that the success of the business became more important than the success of our relationship. It happened so gradually, that it wasn't until we had lost the "us" that we realized what was gone.
Early on, we thought we were being smart by deciding to spend the majority of our free time apart. After all, we saw each other all day; we wanted to have our own lives.
So, after work, we took turns. I went to aerobics class three days a week, and he played cribbage with friends on the other days. We did go out on the weekend, but usually it was with other couples, rarely by ourselves.
Despite our best intentions of not talking about business at home, business became the number one topic of our conversations. It was pervasive. It was the thing we shared and cared about the most. Not sure when I realized the business had become more important than the marriage, but it definitely happened, years before we legally ended our union.
Being in business together meant vacations together were few and short. It was really tough for both of us to be away together for an extended period of time. And, even when we were on vacation, we were still tethered to the business.
Ultimately, the marriage ended because the business ended. In the early 90's, my husband became an early adopter of the World Wide Web. He was a visionary, seeing how the medium would change how people interact. In those early days of the Internet, he threw himself into creating an online grocery store. This was before Paypal, before shopping carts, before Google. At the time, there were just about 100,000 web sites.
Obviously, the project failed, and with it, because of circumstances too personal to discuss here, the business went with it. The official end was a Friday the 13th.
Within a week, I was offered a position at a national marketing firm. While it was definitely a transition to become an employee, I relished not having to meet payroll every two weeks, and being able to take days off and really take the days off. Most of all, I loved not having my husband as my business partner.
Eight weeks after our business closed, my husband moved out. We said it was a trial separation, but I knew that it was going to be permanent. 15 years of letting the business supersede our personal relationship had taken a fatal toll.
Over the years, I've wondered if we had been more mature, if we had better communication skills, if we had been more diligent about spending the time on our personal relationship, if we could have survived everything that owning and closing a business entails. The truth is, our business was a jealous mistress that neither one of us wanted to share or let go.
And, like many mistresses, the business eventually ruined the marriage.
BlogHer Contributing Editor: Business & Career