When Business Gets Personal

Dear Dr. Deb,

My thirteen-year marriage is falling apart.  It’s hard to tell who’s really at fault, but I do want to untangle this mess and understand the role I played in it.

I’m a 55-year-old recovering drug addict who’s remained sober for 20 years. My wife is an only child who grew up with alcoholic parents.

Several years ago, I left my corporate tech job to become an equal partner in my wife’s very successful real estate business. We both wanted to create a true partnership built on our mutual desire for fulfilling work while making time to live the life we love. Our company roles focused on the different skillsets we brought to the table: I took on the COO role, and she continued to lead as the CEO.

However, the honeymoon was short-lived. Business issues soon surfaced concerning decision-making and conflicting work styles.  Being a type A perfectionist, my wife refers to the business as “her child going off to college.” In my case, I don’t feel like a “birth-father” to the company, and I have trouble referring to the business as “ours” as her identity is so closely entwined with it.

For example, she rejects my opinions frequently, insisting that she’s more equipped to know what’s best since she was responsible for the initial success of the business. I’m constantly afraid of letting her down, which means I tend to defer to her decisions often. Ironically, this seems to frustrate her even more.

She fluctuates between being supportive and being demanding, pressuring me to know more than I do. I get emotionally overwhelmed, so I detach and don’t communicate — as a former techie, I’m used to isolating myself.

Sadly, it seems we’ve become adversaries. Neither of us feels nurtured by the other. Our sex life is non-existent. Home is no longer our sanctuary because we can’t seem to separate our personal relationship and the business.

I feel powerless and hopeless, and I’m being mindful of the potential effects of this conflict on my sobriety. Thankfully, I’m still able to keep myself drug-free. Dr. Deb, can you help me figure out what I need to do with my two roles as a husband and business partner to deal with this situation? 

Keeping Sober

Dear Keeping Sober,

Kudos for asking the right question: What is my role in contributing to the problems? Taking accountability while acknowledging the problem will help you figure out the changes needed to improve your relationship and partnership.

Whenever you both start behaving like adversaries, invite yourselves to think back on the original dream of becoming partners who leverage one another’s strengths. Bring back the “we-ness” that helped you to develop a loving marriage and a satisfying business partnership.

Let’s face it: managing a business with your romantic partner is as challenging as it is rewarding. Try as you might to keep the personal and the business roles separate, it’s impossible. These roles are interdependent, always interacting with and impacting each other. 

So what do you need to simultaneously develop a strong personal identity and a successful business partnership?

Contrary to popular belief, relationships are made up of three distinct entities, not two: the two individuals and the life they share between them. A healthy relationship cannot exist until both have clearly defined personal boundaries. In short, remember that you both have an identity separate from the relationship, and your relationship – both as spouses and business partners –can only be as good as the individuals in it.

The antagonistic behaviors you described also suggest that there are deeper, unresolved issues at work here. So let’s break it down:

It seems that your “type A” wife learned to be overly responsible, depending and trusting primarily on herself, because of her experience and potential trauma dealing with alcoholic parents. Given her need for control and self-reliance, it’s surprising that she was agreed to share her business with you. However, as you experienced, she quickly resented sharing control with you once you were on-board.

As a former employee in a large company, you weren’t used to being an overall decision-maker. The clearly defined expectations and daily routine served as a comfort zone for you. As a former drug addict, your mindset and learned coping mechanisms cycled through dependency, helplessness, and avoidance. In contrast, being an entrepreneur requires a very different mentality and skill set, relying on good decision-making and communication abilities.

Being on the path of sobriety for so long now (congratulations!), you must know that progress is a journey, not a destination. Being drug-free is just the beginning. It’s time to take full responsibility and control over your life and keep honing your ability to make decisions. 

It’s by no means an instant solution, but a very good start to resolving the situation is continuing to work on yourself by taking ownership as a major decision-maker alongside your wife instead of deferring or avoiding confrontation. Develop your communication “muscles” so you can better manage your feelings and get on the same page with your wife.

Whenever a relationship is in trouble, remember that it is a true reflection of the kind of people who are in it. Once you have developed a secure relationship with yourself (and she with herself), you’ll both be in a strong position to be true partners living the live they dreamed about.

Dr. Deb

Do you have a burning question – Your comments in response to a column are welcome. ​I will do my best to answer as many of your questions as I can. Please email me at deb@drdeborahhecker.com