I spent much of the last six months helping my wife with a rare professional opportunity. When friends heard how many days, nights and weekends we spent in the same room, they had the same reply: “Whoa! When are you getting divorced?”
It reminded me of when my mother, an art teacher by training, helped my father, a real estate developer, build houses when I was young. She described the experience as “the worst years of our marriage.”
People who don’t work with their spouses look at those who do in the same way that casual fans often look at professional hockey: Sure, it’s fun for a while, but when is the fight going to break out?
One reason for this hostility may be decades of negative examples. There are some high-profile couples who work together successfully. Bill and Melinda Gates run their foundation, as do Bill and Hillary Clinton (along with Chelsea). Nina and Tim Zagat built their restaurant-guide empire together, as did Kate and Andy Spade in fashion. Joel Coen has directed his wife, Frances McDormand, in four films; Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz are performing together on Broadway now.
But the list of famous couples who worked together and flamed out is even longer. In Hollywood: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton (and later Allen and Mia Farrow), Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
In music: Sonny and Cher; James Taylor and Carly Simon; Tammy Wynette and George Jones; the two couples in Abba, both now divorced. And elsewhere: Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker; Rupert Murdoch with both his second wife, Anna, and his third, Wendi; Frank and Jamie McCourt, whose split forced them to sell the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s a wonder anyone says “I do” and then sets foot in the same office as their spouse.
Exact numbers of collaborating spouses are hard to come by. For almost 20 years, Glenn Muske, a professor at North Dakota State University, has studied couples who start businesses together. He calls them co-preneurs and said his research found that two-thirds of businesses in the United States are family owned, and a third of those are run by couples. Other arrangements include romantic partners who work in the same organization but not alongside each other and sole proprietors who get casual, often unpaid contributions from their spouses.
So what can a working couple do to avoid disasters? I reached out to some of those who have researched the matter.
• Don’t compromise
Kathy Marshack, a psychologist in Vancouver, Wash., and the author of “Entrepreneurial Couples,” said that couples working together was the norm for most of human history, from family farms to mom-and-pop shops. Blaming the arrangement for an increase in fighting is wrong, she said.
“This real issue is that, with increased time together, you have more time for conflict,” she said.
Lots of people experience an uptick of fighting on vacation, she said. “Suddenly you’re spending every day together,” she said. “You’re having fun, but you’re sick and tired of the fact that the other person leaves the towel on the bed or whatever.”
Marshack said that the biggest problem she sees is that the skills it takes to succeed in a relationship, like accommodation, are often destructive in business.
“Most Americans expect their love relationship to be between consenting partners,” she said. “But at work it’s different.”
To accomplish things in the workplace, she said, someone needs to be in charge, or, even better, each person needs to have control over separate things: Say, one person controls strategic decisions, and the other financial ones.
“At work I always tell people never compromise unless you absolutely have to,” she said. “When you’re working with your spouse, you’re going to be tempted to compromise, because that’s what you do at home. But that’s not good for business.”
Too much sensitivity to others is the primary reason family companies grow slower than nonfamily firms, she said.
• Don’t set boundaries
One problem my wife, Linda, and I have faced is that when you’re living, working and raising children together, a disagreement about one aspect of your lives quickly descends into an excuse to bring up everything else that’s bothering you. “You don’t like that decision I made about that project?” “Yeah, but you never finished the dishes last night.”
Researchers call that phenomenon “spillover.” The easy response is to create clear boundaries: no business in the kitchen, and no talk about the children during office hours. But Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied working couples for decades, said that approach was outdated.
“These days, everyone experiences blurring of boundaries because of new technologies,” she said. Co-working couples have an edge, she said: The partners understand the reason for the interruption and are right there to help solve it.
“Otherwise, pressures at work get translated to stress at home, and no one understands why,” Moen said.
Her advice: When issues pop up at inappropriate times, dispense with them quickly, then get back to what you’re focusing on, like negotiating your office lease or playing Monopoly with the kids.
• Don’t fear conflict
Joshua Wolf Shenk, a best-selling author, has spent the last few years studying creative pairs for his forthcoming book, “Powers of Two.” His subjects include nonromantic partners like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as well as romantic ones like Marie and Pierre Curie, and Giancarlo Giammetti and Valentino. He said that, instead of viewing conflict as threatening, co-working spouses should view it as elemental to their success.
“A lot of people mean conflict as bouncing up against someone in a way that is not pleasurable,” he said. “But the core experience is that bouncing up against someone.”
To have chemistry, he said, you have to have rapport and a unity of vision.
“But there have to be fundamental differences, or else the two people have nothing to add to each other,” he said.
Shenk likened conflict between partners to a tennis match where you’re both hitting the ball as hard as you can. “You have a net, you have a perimeter, you step onto the court, you’re able to step off the court,” he said. When the relationship works, he said, the sense of mutual commitment is strong enough that it leads to a sense of shared reward. Take note, co-working couples: Fight on!
Don’t hesitate to walk away
What happens when working and living together become unsustainable? Muske said that most people, though not all, tended to try to save the relationship first. This sometimes requires that somebody be dismissed.
“You can easily give a pink slip to an employee,” he said, “but if you’re living with that person, you have to reach a mutual understanding that this is not working.”
He recommends being clear in advance: Both spouses have the right to tell the other that he or she is holding the organization back. My wife, who works with entrepreneurs, calls this a “startup prenup.”
I asked Linda what she had learned from our experience. While acknowledging the occasional tensions, she was, as is her nature, upbeat: “Working together allowed me to have a deeper appreciation for what you do, and the same in reverse.”
Would she recommend it to others?
“For a limited time,” she said.
That qualified support echoes what I’ve heard time and again. For all the problems, most co-working couples enjoy the process. One reason may be that, regardless of how well their businesses do, couples who spend that much time together tend to think more about their relationship.
Marshack said: “When you work with your spouse, you’re going to be challenged all the time by the way they think, including the way they think about you. That makes you introspective. It makes you work on yourself and the relationship. And that can’t be bad.”