Family Business / Risky Business

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Todd looked at me bewildered, as if to ask, “Can’t you make her see reason?” The tension in my office had been mounting between the couple as they discussed the likelihood of divorce. They had been at odds for years and everyone including friends, family, employees and business associates knew it. This couple never kept their disagreements secret. In fact, they openly fought in front of employees, just like Mom and Dad in front of the kids.

When the discussion got even more heated, I stepped in and tried to offer help to the husband who seemed so confused about his wife’s request for a divorce. “It’s simply that your wife doesn’t want to be your business partner any longer if she files for divorce.” “She doesn’t trust you anymore,” I said, “as a husband or a business partner.” This couple had built a successful business over many years of hard work. But as the business had grown successful, the marriage had foundered. Now the wife wanted out … out of the marriage and out of business.

Todd again looked at me as if I were speaking in riddles. “What’s trust got to do with it? I know that she wants a divorce. I am OK with that. But can’t she learn to be civil and still be my business partner? We stand to lose a lot of money if we have to split up the partnership.”

Unfortunately this scenario is all too common among couples and families who work together. The focus is so much on the business, so much on business success, so much on financial profit, that the family fails to keep tabs on the loving relationships that made the business partnership possible in the first place. As they ignore the signals that their personal life is sinking into oblivion, these couples and families seem to put even more energy into the business. It’s as if they are trying to save the sinking ship by putting on a new coat of paint.

Entrepreneurial families and couples are starting businesses at a phenomenal rate right now. There are powerful incentives to do so.

Not only are there terrific financial and ego rewards from self employment, but couples find that there is great joy in working with the ones you love. Where else can you find a more trustworthy, reliable, confidential business partner than your spouse or close family member? Todd and his wife started out this way. They had a dream and worked hard to make it a reality. They wanted to provide a quality of life for their children that would enable them to achieve even more than their parents had. They wanted freedom to create something out of nothing. They wanted to go beyond the limits employers always placed on them. They wanted to help each other grow as individuals and in their business/professional lives. At first Todd and his wife Laura were ecstatic with their new lives. They looked forward to each new day. They worked long hard hours but they were doing it together. This “togetherness” was inspiring. Somehow, their combined effort was synergistic and they created even more than they dreamed they could alone. Then something happened. It didn’t happen with a bang, but snuck up on them. Inch by insidious inch, Todd and Laura lost track of themselves as individuals and as a married couple. Instead they were business partners only. The business consumed them. Vendors, customers, employees, business associates, the CPA, their attorneys … all came before Todd and Laura and their love and friendship.

When Todd and Laura came to my office it appeared that all was lost for the marriage. The business was thriving and would carry on under the capable leadership of either one of them. There would be some financial loss, a few employees would quit, perhaps a contract would be lost, but ultimately, Todd and Laura had created a business that produced a quality service and customers were pleased and faithful. Even a divorce would not really threaten the business. Financial problems were not their worry. Rather, it was the value placed upon each of them as individuals and the value placed on their relationship that was suffering. This kind of problem erupts when entrepreneurs focus all of their attention on the competitive world of business and away from the nurturing world of family life and marriage.

When Laura asked Todd for a divorce, she made a bid for freedom from the tyranny of a one-track life. Better to get a divorce than go on living for nothing more than financial profit. Laura felt dead inside, something money could not heal, but love could. If Todd could no longer love her because the business had become his obsession, then she would seek love elsewhere. Laura was willing to admit that she had made the business her obsession too. It was not all Todd’s fault. She ignored the early warning signs just as he did. She too was thrilled with the status of achievement that came with self employment success. She even felt guilty for not doing something sooner so that she wouldn’t have to cause Todd such pain by asking for a divorce. “If only she had put her foot down sooner,” she thought.

The problem that Todd and Laura created for themselves is brought on by two major errors. The first error is building your life around the business. Remember the business is there to serve you, not the other way around. The business is a result of your creative energy, your vision. It reflects your personality, but it is not the master. Todd and Laura’s business was a success because it reflected the synergy of their collective talents and energies. Without them the business would have never been.

The second error is failing to confront problems head on when they first appear. Todd and Laura knew that they were spending too much time on the business. They justified it in those start up years as a necessity to get the business going. They justified it as years went by to stay ahead of the competition. They continued to justify it in later years because work is all they knew. But as the business grew under their careful and committed hands, their relationship was left untended and shriveling into a shadow of what it had been when they started the business.

Is it so hard to turn off your pager or cell phone and take a walk with your sweetheart? Couldn’t you squeeze in a little time to read a novel if you put down the trade journal? How about joining an adult soccer league instead of attending more business after-hours meetings? In other words, attend to your life, your whole life, just as carefully and mindfully as you do your business. If you have it in your power to create a successful thriving financial enterprise, can’t you put similar energy toward your emotional- spiritual-relationship enterprises?

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