Is it really a good idea to work with your spouse?

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

Most of the time I am extolling the virtues of entrepreneurial couples, or at the very least, discussing how to successfully solve problems that come up for families in business. The lifestyle can be extremely rewarding when you work with the ones you love. As I have said often, “Who better to trust with your business than your spouse?” However, there is another side that should be looked at if you are considering the entrepreneurial couple life. That is, just what are you missing in your marriage and your work life by working with your spouse?

One of the major complaints I hear from practically all entrepreneurial couples is that they no longer have enough quality time together for romance and friendship. Oddly enough, working together for many couples turns out to be the only thing they do together. It is very easy to slip into work, work, work with your spouse at your side. You may not make a break for lunch to meet your spouse, because she’s sitting right next to you. You may not pick up the phone to call him at the office, when you can just toss a note on his desk. When you get home, you may have talked about work all the way home in the car and continue the discussion through dinner . . . if you even have dinner.

So one of the really great reasons not to work together is to keep your worlds separate so that you get to come home to each other every night. When you have to leave work each day in order to reconnect with your family, you will actually make more of an effort to do so. When your family members are working by your side in a family business, you may make the mistaken assumption that you don’t need to reconnect. But without that important psychological reconnecting, love starts to fade and fun with each other becomes a memory.

Another stressor for entrepreneurial couples is competition between them. This goes for other family members too. We have a strong need for recognition and approval from our spouses. We also have a strong need to feel like powerful, accomplished adults. Competing in the workplace with non-relatives can be like playing a game of tennis with a worthy opponent. Even if you lose to the competition, you can still feel OK about yourself because you did your best and your spouse can support you. But how do you feel about competing with your spouse? Who’s the boss? Who defers to whom? Can you gloat about an accomplishment when you just bested your spouse?

When couples work separately either as solo entrepreneurs or as executives in separate organizations, they have the opportunity to be as competitive and goal oriented as they wish, with all of the support at home they need. They can be leaders in their respective fields with no fear of hurting the pride of their spouses. A side benefit of separate work environments is that with competition removed, each partner may actually be in a better position to hear feedback from their love partner.

Separate work environments create other advantages as well. Many members of family enterprises complain that their world is small. In other words they don’t get out much, especially the women. When you work with family members, the only feedback you get is from family and this can be limiting. Working separately enables each partner to learn about the outside world more. They get feedback from colleagues other than family members and the feedback may be more honest. The research confirms that family firms grow more slowly than non-family owned firms for this reason alone . . . lack of creative feedback.

As important as it is to reconnect with your loved ones at least once a day, it is also important to have time to yourself. Seldom do I hear entrepreneurial couples complain that they have too much time with their spouses, but they do complain that they have no time to themselves. This is probably related to the overwork that results from running your own business. And it is probably related to the fact that they don’t have a spouse calling them to come home or arranging a special evening out. Working separately means that your worlds have better defined boundaries. This doesn’t mean that you will schedule much needed time at the gym, or call a friend for an outing, or steel some work time to play a round of golf, but defined boundaries do make us more organized. With organization comes a sense of importance about sticking to priorities. Taking care of your personal health and mental health should be a top priority for all of us.

There are many other benefits to working separately from your spouse, just as there are benefits to being an entrepreneurial couple. What is important in making life and career choices is to examine the whole picture. Choosing wisely means evaluating the downside with the upside. If you love your spouse and think you will be great business partners, you may be well suited to the entrepreneurial lifestyle. On the other hand, you might want to examine what you will be losing before you take the plunge. You may be brave enough to take some financial risk in order to achieve a career dream, but what level of risk are you willing to take with your marriage?

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