When Marriage and Work Collide

Even the best of marriages will likely struggle under the pressures of a shared workplace. The key is to define your domain and find common ground outside the office.

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In 2000 Kate Somerset left her corporate gig and launched Icky Baby, a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based company that designs and manufactures chic baby gifts and accessories. The company took off quickly, its products selling in Barneys, Nordstrom, and hundreds of boutiques.

When Somerset needed some help, she turned to her husband, Tim. “He was hooked, and decided to quit his job and help me build the company,” says Somerset.

On paper it looked like the perfect union. She handled marketing and design. Tim, who came from the building industry, handled the operations.

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In reality, it was a disaster. Tim was instrumental in growing the business – at one point it had 15 employees – but Somerset didn’t always agree with his decisions. That tension spilled into the marriage. “We didn’t know how to put the boundaries in place,” she says. “We didn’t know how to turn it off.”

When it works, merging marriage and work can be a beautiful thing. Business trips double as getaways, and late nights are a shared burden rather than a source of bitterness. “It’s a lot easier to be empathetic when you really understand the dynamics of each other’s work,” says Rob Israel, who cofounded the Boulder, Colo.-based franchise Doc Popcorn with his wife, Renee, in 2003.

And many couples who work together say their spouse really is the best person for the job. “Business is so much about trust, and I don’t think there’s anyone I could trust more than my wife,” says Mike Harris, who runs Orlando-based Uproar PR with his wife, Catriona.

Yet even the best of marriages will likely struggle under the pressures of a shared workplace. The key to making it work appears to be careful planning — and understanding the risks.

Eyes wide open

As you might guess, the easiest marital mergers are those where each spouse has very different but complimentary skills. But as the Somersets learned, that is no guarantee of success. Likewise, individual personalities may not be that much of a factor. “Two ‘strong personalities’ can work well together,” says Dr. Stephanie Knarr, licensed marriage and family therapist in Maryland.  Rather, it’s the couples who already have communication issues or volatile relationships who are most likely to struggle in a shared workplace, she says.

Of course, that doesn’t mean couples who don’t already have issues won’t have problems. “You need to go in with eyes wide open and know what’s at stake,” says Marissa Levin, CEO of Information Experts, a 45-employee Reston, Va., strategic communications firm, which she has run with the help of her husband — and COO — Adam for 12 of the last 18 years. When husbands and wives first consider the idea of working together, she says, “they often have no clue how stressful it is to build and grow a business.”

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Defining roles

When Mike and Catriona Harris began working on a joint venture seven years ago things got off to a very rocky start. Though they’d come from different positions “we were each used to running the show,” says Harris. In a small work environment, that translated to regular battles. “It almost broke up our marriage,” he says.

Then they decided to define their roles, divide up their duties, and agree to respect one another’s area of expertise. “It’s like we flipped a switch,” says Harris. “Things changed that dramatically.”

In fact, experts say delineating roles is probably the single most important thing co-working couples can do. It’s not enough to carve out different niches, adds Knarr. You truly need to respect the other person’s domain.

Forming a united front

Parents know that their kids will try to play Mom and Dad off each other – or try to turn a “no” from one parent into a “yes” from another. The same thing can happen in the office with employees, says Levin.

Having clearly-defined roles and an organizational chart can help prevent employees from trying to pit spouses against one another. It’s also a matter of shaping company culture, says Israel. At Doc Popcorn, he says, everyone is encouraged to take their issues straight to the source. “We don’t talk about people behind their backs, period,” he says.

Building life outside work

The most difficult aspect of working together, say couples, is setting boundaries between work and home.

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At the early stages, it’s to be expected that work will be all-consuming. Eventually, though, couples need to find or rediscover common ground outside of work — and kids for that matter. Though regular “date nights” help, it’s not as simple as just getting away and saying you won’t talk about work. “You need to be fully available for each other,” says Levin. “You have to want to not talk about work.”

Parting ways, if necessary

For Somerset and her husband, it was difficult juggling a start-up and their three young children even when the business was thriving. But when the recession hit and many of Icky Baby’s customers closed their doors and stopped paying, “everything exploded,” she says. Not only did the couple have both of their careers tied up in a single business, they’d invested a good deal of their savings in it. “We lost everything and we almost lost our marriage too,” she says.

In 2008 they decided to part ways as business partners in order to stay together as a couple. Somerset has since relaunched Icky Baby, this time with another business partner. Tim is back working in commercial building. “We we learned from our mistakes and we are happily married,” she says. “But believe me when I say, we will never work together again.”