We entrepreneurs start our businesses for a variety of reasons. Commonly, a driving force is the opportunity to be our own boss, to control our destiny. We are independently minded and don’t like to answer to anyone. Let’s face it — some of us go into business because we are virtually unemployable in the traditional sense.
As our businesses grow and we take on employees, partners, investors and bankers, we find ourselves making a series of compromises to our independence, as each stakeholder comes to the table with his or her own voice.
For those of us who are married or in a long-term relationship, we find out quite quickly that there’s another voice that we may not have anticipated — that of our husband or wife. The spouse of the entrepreneur is a not-so-silent partner who accompanies us on the sometimes crazy adventure of entrepreneurial life, but who often has little input or control over our decisions and the risks we take.
As I considered writing about this subject, I realized that the real expert is my wife, Lori. As a professional psychotherapist, writer and spouse of an entrepreneur for the past 21 years, Lori has some insights and prescriptions concerning this precarious role. Here’s what she had to say:
Before your beloved walked down the aisle, her mother (or his dad) may have pontificated about the infinite ups and downs and risks of marriage. But did she or he ever warn about how much those risks can multiply when you marry an entrepreneur?
Being the spouse of an entrepreneur can be the ultimate in risk-taking ventures. When you decide, with or without your spouse’s consent, to start a business of your own, you thrust your spouse into the front car of what can be a wild roller-coaster ride.
The ups? If you’re Ted Rogers or Donald Trump, then your spouse will enjoy some material gains and — if your ego can take it — more freedom to choose how to lead her life, with the options of staying home with the kids, choosing the career of her choice or allocating time to personal pursuits that might not be possible in a traditional work setting.
The downs? First, while you’re working long hours, feeling overtaxed and understaffed, your spouse feels the pressure you’re under and is likely to feel your pain. If your business is new or struggling, she’ll receive little or no recompense. Sure, you’re determined to guide your business through thick and thin, but she may not share your vision or passion. She might not even see the same potential in your business that you do.
Then there are the financial risks. Although your spouse has little control over your business, she suffers all the consequences of ill-advised decision-making. “Honey, I lost our fortune. Time to sell the house!” is an experience I know all too well. There’s also constant uncertainty. What kind of year will we have? Can we pay our bills? How about retirement?
Finally, there are personality issues. Entrepreneurs tend to be aggressive and defensive individuals — traits that may become exaggerated as the stakes get higher. Their egos can take up a lot of space, leaving little room for the spouse to be her own person much of the time.
How does the spouse of an entrepreneur cope? And how can the entrepreneur help?
Here are a few prescriptions, based on two decades of marriage to an entrepreneur and more than a few years on the roller coaster.
For the Spouse:
- Create some independence. Carve out a life for yourself, or you risk being eaten alive by your spouse, the business and the stresses it creates.
- Build supportive relationships. Find safety and security in relationships with family and friends. I am indebted to the love and support of a few close people in my life. I have also belonged to a discussion group comprising the spouses of business owners (through the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization), which resulted in a lot of learning and some very dear friendships.
- Find satisfying (and well-paying) work of your own. This came in handy when the chips were down and my income really made a difference. And doing work that is personally satisfying has allowed me to maintain my own identity.
- Take control of your personal finances. Be aware of your household expenses, assets and any liabilities that are shared or not. Early on in my marriage, I realized that while I may be in the dark about business decisions, I didn’t have to be clueless about our personal finances.
- Seek out self-development. A healthy marriage is made of two strong and independent partners who can each stand on their own two feet. Cultivate your own interests.
- Find a good therapist — or become one yourself! I’m not advocating that every spouse of an entrepreneur become a therapist. Nor am I suggesting that the stresses of living with an entrepreneur single-handedly drove me to my profession. However, greater self-awareness and a sharper knowledge of your partner’s emotional makeup go a long way in helping you to cope more effectively.
For the Entrepreneur:
- Be open. I’ve been asked many times to “sign on the dotted line,” committing to something I knew little about. What should the spouse of an entrepreneur do — view it as a command? Consult her lawyer first? Clearly, your spouse is at risk as much or, given her lack of control, even more than you are — and she has a right to know what’s going on. Fully disclose your business plans, the state of your operations and your financial picture — including the good, the bad and the ugly. If serious problems are on the horizon, then let her know sooner rather than later.
- Compartmentalize. Figure out how to leave your business at the front door. It’s not always possible to do this, especially if your business is at home. But find ways to keep the stresses to a minimum so that you can have a life together. Develop other interests — together or apart — so that your business does not take over.
- De-stress. You owe it to yourself and to your spouse to manage your own stress. Whether you’re irritable, angry, frustrated, tired or run down, you need to be the caretaker of your emotions. Clue in to your emotional and physical needs, and find ways (e.g., exercise or meditation) to achieve balance. There’s no room for “kick the cat” defences in which you take your stress at work out on those at home.
- Know thyself. The more familiar you are with your strengths, weaknesses, goals and values — from the familial to the financial — the less defensive you will be. Share your insights with your spouse.
- Show appreciation. Remember, you may be asking your spouse to step out of her own comfort zone on a regular basis. Yes, she may ultimately benefit from the risks you take. But if she is not a risk-taker, you need to be sensitive to this and show some appreciation for her willingness to support you in your business venture.
Lori has been a great partner and source of support for me during the ups and downs of my entrepreneurial career. She has learned first-hand how to survive and thrive as an entrepreneur’s spouse. And, as you can see, she is a not-so-silent partner!
© 2005 Jeff Dennis