Can competition at work cost you your marriage?

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

Toni and Vance were really startled by how quickly their marriage was disintegrating after they started their small business together. They loved and enjoyed each other tremendously before they opened their shop but after working together for less than a year their relationship was tense and loving communication had ground to a painful halt. They considered that the stress of a start-up was getting to the two of them. They took a short vacation to the coast to get away from it all and found that they could indeed enjoy each other again. Yet when they returned to work, the tension started to build again. Why couldn’t they keep the positive feelings alive?

Working together long hours to make a new business successful certainly can be a reason that a marriage starts to fail, but there’s more to this problem than most young or even seasoned entrepreneurs take into consideration. The major reason entrepreneurial couples begin to experience the loss of love in their relationship is that the worlds of work and home are radically different in many ways. Think about it. The world of work is where we kick into high gear; where we drive ourselves to succeed; where we thrive on competition; where we want to express our talents in concrete ways such as producing a sale or a piece of art. The world of home, on the other hand is where we seek comfort, love and safety; where we nurture our loved ones and want their nurturing; where we kick back instead of into high gear.

There are similarities between these two worlds such as the facts that both require attending to details; that both require teamwork; and that both require problem solving. But the essential difference that can lead to marital failure is that work is the world of competition and home is the world of nurturing. All of us look forward to relaxing at home at the end of a hard day of competition in the work world. We want to regale our families with our accomplishments, our “coups,” but after that we really want to take off our suits of armor and put on something more vulnerable.

When a couple works together both at home and at work, they can become confused about the roles they should play in both of these worlds. Often the aggressive pull of success and the push of competition eradicate the more subtle pull of love. Only when pushed by a chronic lack of intimacy or the pain of impending divorce, does the couple begin to recognize that they have lost something precious.

How does this problem begin? It’s pretty simple really. Most of you picked your spouse because you love her or him, because he or she makes you laugh, because he or she is a “knock out.” It is very unlikely that you chose your spouse as you would an employee or a business partner. You probably weren’t thinking about money or competition or how to advance your career when you married. And when you set up housekeeping together you probably didn’t write up a business plan to make your little love nest profitable.

Neither were you concerned about marketing, designing your letterhead, or the tax ramifications of an LLC. Instead your attention was on how to make the other person happy and how happy they made you feel. You sought affection, emotional support, and intellectual compatibility. Even sharing the household chores was not a major item on your list. Those things got taken care of somehow. And when it came to decision making, sometimes he got his way and sometimes she did.

As marital partners the more easy going style of most American couples will work fine as long as you don’t become business partners. When a couple crosses that line into the world of work by becoming business partners, they must be prepared to do some major alterations to the relationship. In marriages where husband and wife both have a career but they don’t work together, it is much easier to switch hats from work persona to home persona. You give your spouse a kiss goodbye in the morning and go on your separate ways for the day. You may make a phone call midday to catch up on private matters or just to say hello, but essentially your activities and identity are solidly ensconced in your work world. When you return home, you give your spouse a kiss, change your clothes, do a little catching up on each other’s day, and prepare the evening meal together. At home your activities and identity are defined by your home world and your relationships with your spouse and children.

In other words for couples who don’t work together, they have an independent identity at work and a partnership identity at home. With career-minded people the work identity is also a leadership one, involving authority for decision making. At home, these same independent leaders switch hats to become equal partners who share in the decision making. This is the norm in most American homes of dual-career couples. The problem arises when these equal home partners go to work with each other, either expecting to be equal partners at work too, or expecting to each be the decision maker as if they worked separately.

When you worked apart you may have enjoyed your spouse’s stories of work achievements. You may even have taken pride in how aggressive or decisive your spouse was in his or her career. However, when you work together, that strong aggressive leadership quality may now look like arrogance. The two of you may tangle because you expect to be included in decisions that your spouse has already run with. When you come home at the end of your workday, you may feel that you have had enough of your spouse for one day. You don’t desire anymore togetherness if you have to be bullied or ignored.

At least this is how it can go if you don’t pay attention to the different roles husbands and wives play in the different worlds of work and home.

The solution first is to acknowledge that these two worlds are very different. Second recognize that daily conscious effort is required on your part to maintain a harmonious relationship with your spouse. If the two of you enjoy being equal partners at home, and wish to try being equal partners at work, then consciously design a work partnership where decision making is equal on at least the major decisions. This makes some things move more slowly, but it can be very effective for keeping love alive. If you are comfortable being home partners, but really prefer one person leadership at work, then acknowledge that too and set it up that way. No sense in trying to be equal partners at work, when one or both of you would gladly defer decision making responsibility to the other spouse. If you are somewhere in between these two styles, play with the structure for awhile until you discover what works in your marriage/business partnership.

Bringing competition home is probably the worst thing you can do for a marriage. Keep competition and achievement needs at work. When you work with your spouse in your own enterprise, keep in mind that you will be crossing the competition barrier daily. It is hard to stay kind and loving with the one you are competing with. We tend to take competition personally. The following are some ways to diffuse the tension of competition between spouses:

  • Set up separate work areas within the business.
  • Reward each other often for your individual successes.
  • Take breaks from each other often. Make a clean break from work at the end of the day. This latter recommendation is vital. Do not discuss work at all at home if your business requires that both spouses be leaders and you are both highly independent and headstrong (sound like anyone you know?).

The most important thing to remember when you work together is why you chose your spouse in the first place. This is someone you love and trust and want to spend the rest of your life with. These qualities are not bad either for the kind of person you want as someone to help you build your dream in business.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Business Consultant is the author of ENTERPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black, 1998). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or

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