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For Richer For Poorer

Friday, March 05, 2010
How To Maintain Harmony When Mixing Marriage And Work
By Mollie Neal

Some say mixing business and pleasure is a mistake. Nonetheless, married couples often take the plunge and expand their partnership to include business, too.

Suddenly, the words “for better for worse” take on a whole new meaning as couples face a unique set of challenges brought on from being together 24/7.

Roughly 80 percent of U.S. businesses are family owned, and 2.7 million are operated equally by male-female teams, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Some experts believe that there are many more co-entrepreneurial couples, or copreneurs, a popular term used to describe couples who operate businesses together.

Enjoying each other’s company, trusting one another, and sharing a vision and commitment are compelling reasons to join forces in business.

However, many couples quickly realize that building a business and a happy marriage can be challenging. You may be able to buy out a lackadaisical partner, but a spouse is there for the long haul.

Fortunately, entrepreneurial couples can take steps to maintain harmony at work and home.

Be Professional
Michelle Madhok and her husband, Michael Palka, own SheFinds Media Inc., an online publisher of shopping blogs and fashion guides. The couple works hard to maintain a professional and respectful demeanor in their New York City office.

They have clearly defined roles and responsibilities suited to their individual skills and personal work styles. And they respect each other’s opinions. The combination helps keep the business humming along. It also curtails second-guessing and stepping on each other’s toes throughout the day.

“We have business discussions and debates and we don’t let it get personal,” says Palka. “We don’t want employees to feel as though they have to deal with marriage squabbles. We are not a family here at the office; we are a team.”

Close The Office Door
Like many entrepreneurial couples, it can be difficult for Palka and Madhok to leave work at the office.

“On one hand, we like to talk about the business because it’s our life,” Palka says.

But there are times when they disagree, and discussions can become heated.

So, they make a concerted effort not to discuss work after 8 p.m. and try to use that time to focus on their personal lives together.

Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil, a family therapist and author of “Make Up, Don’t Break Up” (Adams Media, 1999) urges couples to create those kinds of boundaries.

“People who live and work together need to learn to compartmentalize the family and the business.”

Weil also suggests that unless it’s an emergency, keep computers, cell phones and other distractions out of the bedroom.

“They can easily interfere with and contaminate your personal relationship,” she warns.

Learn To Balance
Work and life are inextricably intertwined for Dr. Jessica Freedman and Dr. Randy Katzke. The couple co-owns MedEdits, a home-based consulting firm in Demarest, N.J.

The firm helps individuals navigate the application process for medical school and residency.

Freedman and Katzke maintain a balance between work and family by shouldering equal roles in tending to their children and the household. Regular time out for exercise is critical, too. They also schedule date nights and short vacations.

Those are all smart moves. Therapist Weil says that outside interests help recharge the battery. Time spent apart is also beneficial to the relationship.

“If you smother each other’s space there’s no mystery or novelty, which is the thing that keeps people passionate,” Weil says.

Simply maintaining separate offices or taking a walk alone during a lunch break could provide the needed privacy.

Entrepreneurial couples tend to work even longer hours than dual-career couples, says Dr. Kathy Marshack, a psychologist, family/business coach in Portland, Ore., and author of “Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home” (Davies-Black Publishing, 1998). She encourages clients to carve out time that isn’t business related to nurture the relationship.

“Put love ahead of work,” Marshack says. “Otherwise the relationship will suffer, and so too, will the business.”

Speak Your Mind
Communication is the cornerstone of any good partnership, whether it’s personal or professional.

“Entrepreneurial couples have greater potential for communication breakdown and interpersonal problems than do other couples,” says Marshack. “They often fail to confront issues head on, instead relying on compromise and other avoidance techniques.”

To keep communication flowing, Weil suggests taking 10 minutes each day before leaving the office to discuss any particular business issues, such as money or employees. The key is to validate each other’s concerns without getting angry or emotional, and to identify specific resolutions.

Talks at home about personal or family issues are a good idea, too.

Creating a life plan can also help. Individually assess your own values and goals regarding life, marriage, business, wealth and health. By sharing these plans, you can identify similarities and differences, focus on establishing a common ground at home and work, and develop a shared vision for your future, says Marshack.

Resolve Conflicts
Experts agree that the number of entrepreneurial couples is on the rise.

So too is the stress level.

Supportive spouses are lending a hand to their other halves who are running strained businesses. Victims of unemployment are teaming up and starting new ventures. Often personal and business finances are intertwined.

If the business tanks, the family finances will likely be in jeopardy, too.

“The economy is causing more stress than ever before on relationships because people are more grumpy, irritable and worried,” says Weil.

To counteract that stress and help avert conflicts, give one another some slack. Try not to be too critical, and always be respectful of each other’s differences and opinions.

Couples may spend a great deal of time developing skills and abilities necessary to run their business. But individuals can typically use lessons in conflict resolution, says Marshack. She encourages couples to use tools like books, community college classes and seminars to hone personal skills or find ways to revitalize a marriage.

It’s inevitable that conflicting issues will arise and aren’t always readily solved. Where business owners traditionally rely on accountants and lawyers for advice and direction, business couples can consider finding an objective source like a psychologist or business/life coach.

Michelle Madhok and Michael Palka visit a counselor once a month to help maintain harmony.

“It’s nice to have a neutral party to play mediator when we disagree on something or just need to clear the air,” says Madhok.

It’s a process that’s not always easy and even uncomfortable at times. Together, they learn how to face issues, work through them and move forward. They’re also reminded that they’re successful in marriage and business.

“The most important thing is that in the end it makes for a better working relationship and a better marriage,” says Palka.


Writer Mollie Neal enjoyed a short stint helping her husband with his business years ago, but prefers going solo during office hours.

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