couples working together

This is one of those times when my education in both counseling and organizational psychology, as well as my many years of experience with clients who were working together, all dovetails perfectly. If you want to have a successful business with your partner while also having an awesome personal relationship, this article is for you.

12-minute read

The Stats on Couples Who Work Together

Whenever I’m creating something, I first write down all of what I think and know about the topic. After that, I go look at what the research says and then I meld that altogether. And the first thing I can tell you about couples who work together? There isn’t much research-based information out there, and what I did find was often contradictory!

Having said that, Glenn Muske, a professor at North Dakota State University, has been studying couples who start businesses together for about 20 years; and I think his stuff is solid. He calls these couples “co-preneurs” and has found that about two-thirds of businesses in the United States are family-owned and about one-third of those are run by couples. Another study I found, published in 2017, stated that approximately 1.4 million couples run businesses together in the UK. An older article I found from 2014 states that about 70% of businesses in Australia are family businesses, so we’ve got to assume at least a portion of those is run by couples.

However, I didn’t find what I consider solid research for some of the other common scenarios I’ve run across, such as couples where one partner started a business and the other came in at a later date, or arrangements where one partner owns a business and the other helps out from time to time with no formal arrangement or pay.

Today’s top five rules are going to try to take into account all the different ways you might be doing business with your partner. If you’ve got a large business, some of this might be rudimentary, but I feel confident there’s something here for everyone.

Before I get too deep, I want to say a few things:

First, being in business together might not be for you. The most common issue I see where things just don’t work is when one person starts a business, and the partner comes in to help so they can save money. Unless your partner is equally enthusiastic about this business and maybe would have even started this same business on their own, these arrangements often end up with the partner who’s there to support the other’s dream feeling resentful that they’re not pursuing their own dream or resentful because they don’t feel appreciated enough for their sacrifice.

I always say that no decisions in relationships should be by default. I don’t want you to move in together to save money on rent, and I don’t want you working with your partner only to save money either. If this is your situation, then following these rules should be very high on your priority list!

Second, I’m going to be saying “at home” to denote your personal life and “at work” when I talk about your work life. I understand, of course, that many of you might be running a business from your home but for ease of understanding, that’s the language I’ll be using today.

Last, every business requires startup capital. You wouldn’t expect to open a bakery and not have to invest money to get it going. But, for some reason, I’ve found that many entrepreneurs don’t have this mindset and they’re trying to get something off the ground with no or very little money. I think this is a big mistake. To me, you’re betting on yourself, and that’s the best bet you can make, so, hire a virtual assistant and outsource what you can. Rent an office or communal space, even if it’s only one day a week. Investing in your business is investing in yourself.

Now let’s get to my Top Five Rules for Couples Who Work Together:

Rule #1: Who’s the boss?

A top priority is to clearly divide labor and decide who has the final decision in different areas.

A lot of couples have unspoken or more casual rules at home. For example, in your home maybe whoever cooks dinner doesn’t have to clean up. Or maybe one of you always does homework with the kids while the other is making dinner. You’ve fallen into a pattern that at some point you agreed upon (either expressly or by default), but it’s really not something that’s formal, per se.

Work can’t be this way for it to flourish long-term. If you want this business to be a success and grow, you’ve got to think of it as something scalable so don’t start with a bunch of “maybes” or making changes at every whim of either partner.

At work, you want specific roles and responsibilities. I highly recommend creating a job description for each role and adding to it as you do the work and see what’s required. This helps on multiple levels: first, it helps the two of you be crystal clear on expectations (which should be included in any job description) and second, when you’re ready to hire more people, you’re very clear on what that person will be doing.

Most importantly, one of you should have the final decision in areas under your jurisdiction so that everything isn’t a constant decision-making process, and you can both focus on your respective areas. Of course, you can both have input and it’s wonderful to brainstorm together, but someone needs to make the final call.

This should also apply to household issues that might come up, such as needing to wait around for a plumber or a kid getting sick. Get clear about who takes off when a kid needs to stay home (this is true even if you’re working from home). Depending on how sick the kid is, it’s going to take up emotional bandwidth and time so don’t think, “Oh, we’ll just tag team” if you’re working from your home or “I’ll take care of sick little Marco and work around it.” At the very least you want to reduce the workload for your day so you have the emotional bandwidth to deal with this new thing added to your plate. In other words, do your best not to mesh work and home life, even if you’re home together all day.

Rule #2: Separate Work and Home Hours

In my many years of experience working with couples in business together, I’d say that this is one of the more difficult areas, especially if you both work from home.

Setting up specific hours that are for work and specific hours that are for home is crucial in creating balance, boundaries, and efficiency. Decide when the workday starts and when it ends. This also means that business only gets talked about during work hours! Not on the weekends, date nights, or in bed. There’s got to be some separation so you can switch gears and be present for both worlds.

I’ve had some couples argue with me about this one and say that they love talking about business “outside the office” (which literally means in the bedroom when your office is down the hall). When I’ve asked them to humor me and try this, they always report back that it’s helpful. I don’t want anyone chatting about work all day long in the same way that I wouldn’t want you chatting about that five pounds you want to lose all day long or about the kids non-stop. It’s important to have times when you can be fully present in what’s happening now. This will also absolutely help you be more efficient elsewhere.

The reason Google has nap rooms, ping pong, great food, and all kinds of other distractions (including a concert by Lizzo not long ago!) is because they know that it helps people think better when they stop thinking about work and get lost in another activity.

Here are some great strategies and tips from couples I’ve worked with:

  • Set up a half hour at the end of every workday when you’ll take a break and debrief. You can set this up during the last 30 minutes of the workday or after dinner if that works better for you. I just ask that you don’t do it before bed or too late in the evening.
  • Meet every Friday and have a “week in review.”
  • Start every Monday with a 20-minute meeting to say out loud your agreed-upon schedule and goals for the week.
  • Create a happy hour at the end of a workday. Find somewhere to meet and chat for a little while so you can blow off steam from the day, have a cocktail or maybe a special treat to eat.

Rule #3: Be Separate During the Workday

Do your best to have separate places you work. At the very least, have your own desk, so you have a place that’s just yours to make a mess or get organized. If you both work at home, I highly recommend either renting an outside office that one of you can use or having one of you leave the house a couple of times per week to work at a coffee shop or local library. There are also lots of coworking or shared workspaces opening up again around the world. When I Googled public coworking spaces near me, about 30 options showed up. Again, renting a space, even for one day a week, to get some separation and space to focus fully for a stretch of time is crucial.

It also might be helpful to separate (if possible) when you see one another during the day. Maybe have separate places you work and come together for a scheduled lunch every day. If you stop for lunch, have lunch and don’t talk about work. Instead, you could eat, meditate together, go for a walk or to the gym, anything to ensure it’s a real break.

Rule #4: Know the Answer to Three Key Questions

I’ve written a free, complete guide to effective communication, so I’m not going to go into that here. But I do want to discuss one of the reasons I think communication falls apart with couples who own a business together; they skip the foundational pieces that help businesses run smoothly and productively.

You might know what your business stands for, but that’s not enough: we own a bakery, we’re a marketing company for small brands, we’re lawyers who run a real estate law firm, we’re podcasters who teach other people how to have a successful podcast. These are all top-level descriptions but don’t get to the real meat that causes breakdowns in communication and expectations.

There are three questions you need to have full, clear answers to:

  1. Who exactly does your business serve?
  2. What’s the overall mission of the business?
  3. What are your business’s core values?

Let me give you an example of a couple I worked with who started a Mexican restaurant together. When I posed these questions, here were their answers:

Me: “Who exactly does your business serve?”

Husband: “People who like Mexican food.”

Wife: “People who like authentic Mexican food.”

Here were my follow-up questions:

  • “What about people who don’t know they like Mexican food? Do you want to entice them in?”
  • “What about people who like fast food Mexican? Is there a place for them here?”
  • “Do you want to attract people who want to sit, relax and drink also? Do you want people who want a homey atmosphere, so they think they’re in their grandma’s kitchen?”
  • “Do you want business people on their lunch break who need to get out quickly or parents who are off in the middle of the day looking for a place to take their kids and relax while their kids play?”

I asked a bunch of questions like that to help them get very clear on exactly who they want to serve. Because when you’re super clear who your customer or client is, there’s less fighting and misunderstanding between the two of you. You can always come back to what this person, your ideal customer or avatar, would want or like and use that as your North Star.

When I asked, “What’s your mission with this restaurant?” It really opened up the conversation. Is the mission to make money only? If so, how much? Is the mission to create a legacy? Is the mission to introduce Mexican food to the world? You can see how the business plan changes when you ask these questions. Again, you both become very clear on your objectives and goals which brings you together when it comes to making decisions.

When you incorporate your core values, you really start to see things clearly: “We’re always honest and upfront. We never try to hide anything or take shortcuts. We love every person who comes in the door. We give back to our community and find ways to be involved and a center of our community.”

Rule #5: Have a Weekly Couples Home Meeting

Having a weekly meeting about the business of your home life will greatly help you keep your worlds more separate and organized. I’ve written previously about having a couples business meeting but I know that language can seem confusing right now. What I meant (before I wrote this article) was having a weekly meeting about the running of your personal/home life.

There are so many moving pieces in any family that it’s easy to seem like we’re nagging one another (“Honey, did you fix that leaky faucet yet?” “The lawn still needs to be mowed.” “Is dinner ready?” “Are you taking Sally to basketball practice?”).

Having weekly (or even biweekly) couples’ home meetings will make you happier because:

  • Instead of having what seems like a constant stream of nagging, you’ll have one time and place to discuss all these individual things.
  • You’ll have your partner’s full attention. Instead of asking your wife to bake something for the office Christmas party while she’s doing 10 other things (and risk her being super annoyed), you’ll ask her when she’s calm and ready to respond.
  • You don’t have to worry about forgetting something important. Instead, you’ll stop what you’re doing and take a quick second to update a shared agenda or make a note in your phone of whatever needs to be discussed at the next meeting.
  • You can keep what’s happening at work separate from what’s happening at home. You’ll feel less overwhelmed, more efficient and happier overall.

Wrap Up:

I want to end by saying I think there can be many positive outcomes for couples who work together:

  • Working towards a common goal
  • Understanding your partner on a different level including their struggles and strengths
  • Celebrating victories together
  • Seeing one another during the day for lunch or even a quickie depending on your setup
  • And there’s even research showing that starting a business together can provide significant income gains for the couple

The key is to set things up for success. Following my top five rules will definitely get you pointed in the right direction!

how to communicate with your partner
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