My Partner, My Spouse

work with spouse

Having been married to The Lovely Marianne for more than 45 years, and having been in business with her since 1989, I feel qualified to give you this advice on how to be in business with your spouse, and still stay happily married.

Define your goals. And I mean clearly. Don't just say, "To make money." Spend a lot of time thinking about each other and what's important to you as a couple. For instance, when we started our business the only goal was to put four daughters through really good colleges, and all at the same time (which happened in 2000). We focused all our efforts on that goal for years. Once we'd accomplished that, we had to redefine our goal. And we did. So, what's really important to you and your partner? Whatever it is, define it and then use your business as a tool to get there. Don't get caught up in just chasing money for its own sake. Work toward something that defines you both as individuals and as a couple. Do this and your life will be richer.

Decide who does what. Separate all the business responsibilities and do it based on talent. Then get out of each other's way. And don't second-guess each other after one makes a decision. Recognize and revel in the other's talents. When we were first married, I did the checkbook. Why? Because my father did it in his house. But I'm horrible at math (and soon proved it). Marianne shines in this department, so she's the bookkeeping and finance wiz in our business. She leaves me alone to write stories and do marketing. It's a solid partnership, forged through past experiences and humility.

Decide whether to grow or stay small. Staying small in a service business can create a lot of stress. There are only so many billable hours in a year, and the more time you spend working, the less time you'll have as a couple. Working around the clock is a wonderful way to get divorced. If you decide that your business should grow, you're going to need employees. If you manage them correctly and treat them right, they'll become your "products," and that will move you from a service business into a product business. The result is that you'll have more time for each other. Nice.

Treat employees as you would be treated. I'm assuming one or both of you once worked for someone else, and probably got disgusted with the way you were treated by that old boss. This is how most couple-businesses get started. So when it comes time to hire people, don't forget what probably drove you into your own business in the first place. If some stinking boss treated you poorly, please don't do the same to your employees. Keep that door to the past open and never forget. Treat your employees as you wish your old boss had treated you. It's the best way I know of to keep good people, and you'll be well on your way into that "product" business.

Don't be an idiot. If you're wrong, admit it and then shut up. It's OK to be wrong, but it often takes years to learn that. Learn humility and kindness. Never ridicule your partner in front of other people in an attempt to cover up your own failings. When you're wrong, say so. Then have a good laugh and move on.

Compromise. When you learn to do this, you'll be on your way toward wisdom.

Fight only in public. I don't think it's possible to be in business with a spouse without fighting. A good fight is like a pressure relief valve on a boiler, but if you're going to fight, do it in a public place. Marianne and I have our blowouts at a local restaurant that we love. Being there in public means we have to be civil to each other. Sounds crazy, but it works. And keep the focus of your "discussion" on business issues. Don't make it personal, and don't bring household issues into it. When you're done, make up. Never go to sleep without making up. And never involve the kids in your business fights (or fight in their presence). Children are too fragile to be used as bludgeons.

Keep your customers out of your bedroom. Separate the business from your personal life. Those people have no business being in bed (psychologically speaking) with the two of you.

Never worry about money. I'm serious about this. Time is the only true commodity and as long as you both have that the money will take care of itself. The best way I know to wreck a husband/wife business is for one or both of you to obsess over money. Try this. Instead of focusing on dollars, focus on your customers' problems. Within their problems you will find all the money you two will ever need. Trust me; it's true.

Take the Lottery Test. If the two of you hit it big on the lottery, would you give up this business of yours? If the answer is a resounding "YES!" then the two of you should seriously consider giving up the business right now and find something else to do. I say this because your marriage is tied to that business, and if that business is making you so miserable that you long to win the lottery so that you can get out, then that business will eventually hurt your marriage. And your marriage is more important than that business. Right?

Figure a way to get out. How will you retire? Are you building something that's saleable? If not, why not? Or do the two of you plan on working until the day after the funeral? If so, make sure that this business is a true labor of love and not a necessity. You're in it up to your ears now, but how will you get out? And when?

Don't stress. Stress kills. Schedule daily exercise. Take mini-vacations. Go walk on the beach or sneak off to an early movie. Be a couple. Stay in love. Appreciate the yin and the yang of your business. There will always be good and bad days. Keep in mind that no one ever carved on a tombstone how many service calls that person made, or how much money they were worth, or how many phone calls that person took from nasty customers. Don't stress. Remember, you're just in the HVAC business. It's not like you're delivering plasma.

Take vacations. It's nearly impossible for a couple in business to leave the business at home when away on vacation, but vacations are crucial to a good marriage, so take them at least once a year. And besides, if you love what you do, it's not such a bad idea to take the thing along with you. I've gotten some mighty fine business ideas while sitting on a porch in Cape May, NJ. It's OK to pack the business. Just leave the customers behind.

Give to charity. Do it because it will help you both step away from your day-to-day problems and consider those who are less fortunate. Your good example will also have a tremendous impact on your kids, if you're lucky enough to have kids. And giving comes back to you. It really does.

Hug your kids. Looking for a solid business goal? There's one for you. You've got to be with them to hug them, so don't work 24/7. Find the time to watch the soccer games, to go to the Scout meetings, the karate lessons, the school dances. Make your kids a part of your business by scheduling plenty of time for them, just as you do with customers. And just as you wouldn't do with your customers, never burden your kids with your business problems when they're young. Please let them be kids. And find time for them. Every day.


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