“I now pronounce you business partners.”
When you stood up on the altar to say your “I dos,” you likely didn’t hear this sentence mumbled after your marriage was complete. “I dos” don’t come with a side dish of business collaborations. But even though it may not have been a planned part of one’s relationship, anything is always possible.
Most business partners aren’t relationship partners as well, however personal and professional lines are regularly blurred when it comes to family businesses and couples may find an expected stress as a part of the pairing. Many often think of “work couples” as people who met in the office and formed a deep, romantic connection. But this isn’t always the case; sometimes it’s the couple that comes first, and the work follows. In fact, it’s natural that sometimes a couple will end up in business together because they have shared interests, and sometimes that shared interest is related to business.
Whether you and your partner planned on being in business together or it organically developed after one of you found a passion and invited the other along for the ride, if you find yourself developing and nurturing a family business, you are in for a fulfilling and successful endeavor as long as you are also prepared for unique challenges ahead.
As one would expect, the honeymoon phase can dwindle and challenges ensue.
Honeymoons are delightful. But once the excitement of newness wears off, partners that embark on a business together experience many of the same pitfalls any family business experience bubbles up, only potentially more extreme.
- That frustration brothers in business together may feel when every family get-together devolves into irritating shop-talk? Imagine that issue, but experiencing it seven days a week every waking hour.
- Upset at your adult child for a management decision they made that you didn’t agree with in the business? Now imagine that this decision was made by your spouse, and you have to have dinner together and sleep beside them that night.
- And of course, if one spouse joins the business to help the other spouse out, then often the couple will need to navigate that unique power dynamic as well.
While work-life balance is important to all professionals and those in a family business, business-running couples should pay special attention to maintaining it in order to not only keep their relationship healthy but ensure their business is smooth sailing as well.
There are some tried-and-true tactics that I like to share with all family businesses (as highlighted from Dr. Amit Sood, MD, and his powerful insights) but especially find these relevant for those being run by couples.
Create a communication plan.
Communication is pivotal to all relationships, and especially important to family businesses. Creating a plan around communication allows you to set emotional boundaries and rules for communicating about work before the need arises.
- If you have a conflict at work, how will you agree to address it so it doesn’t come home with you?
- If one of you is stressed about work, do you have other people than each other to whom you can vent frustrations?
Business couples that feel comfortable discussing work casually are often the ones who can benefit the most from a more rigid communication plan and structure. Advice I was given years ago remains true here: a bad plan is better than no plan. A communication plan can always evolve, but it needs to start somewhere.
Set physical boundaries.
Often, business families (and especially business couples) can find great benefit in setting physical boundaries as well. A “no work talk at home; save it for the office” rule is common, but takes practice to maintain. The pandemic created unique work spaces where many spouses found themselves working at home at the same time, and that in and of itself created challenges.
- It may sound like a TV-sitcom solution, but I’ve seen couples find great success by setting a (metaphorical) “do not cross” line for work talk between their home office and the rest of their house. When that line is crossed, shop talk isn’t welcomed.
- Intentionality is a great piece of advice for marriage and family businesses alike. Be intentional about making time with one another outside of the business. While this is easier said than done, it’s worth prioritizing date nights, dinner times, or other moments where you can carve out time to intentionally spend time focused purely on the relationship, and not the business.
Physical boundaries will offer a win-win to the family business and the relationship, offering both the chance for longevity and success.
What to do when your spouse isn’t involved in the business.
As much time is spent focusing on business couples, we must also recognize the challenges that come from being a spouse married to a family business that doesn’t involve them. When someone’s spouse and seemingly their entire family are part of a business and the spouse isn’t, it’s incredibly easy for them to feel left out, separated, and like they can’t connect.
All the same rules outlined above (communicating effectively, setting boundaries, and planning intentional family time) will help prevent these feelings of exclusion and help maintain a happy, healthy dynamic for both those involved in the family business and the family members outside of it.
Family businesses can be incredibly successful, incredibly fulfilling, and a huge part of the personal identities of everyone involved. They offer opportunities to deepen relationships in ways you never dreamed possible. But this same deep commitment and involvement can make for more stressful family or spousal dynamics than those who can simply leave work at the office.
For more insights into managing these unique challenges, enjoy my tips and recommendations in my book, The Soul of the Family Business. Through personal anecdotes, real-world case studies, useful tools and frameworks, and more, I offer an in-depth look at the challenges faced, strategies employed, and successes achieved by all sorts of family businesses.