The Entrepreneur and the Spousal Relationship

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The Entrepreneur and the Spousal Relationship In The Trenches

It’s no secret that meaningful and fulfilling relationships require deliberate work, often require trade-offs to be made between partners, and possess more than their fair share of peaks and valleys.

Though these realities are true of substantially all long-term relationships, they seem to be especially true in instances where one of the partners pursues a career as an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur myself, it’s clear to me that in some ways the realities of my chosen career path have magnified and heightened the challenges that are common to all relationships, and in other ways have added completely new dynamics that most other couples can’t directly relate to.

The role of spouse to an entrepreneur or CEO is not an easy one, as they are directly impacted by the emotional high and lows that are typical of the journey: They act as a source of consolation during the bad times, keep us grounded during the good times, and in many cases play a large (though often unnoticed and under-appreciated) role in our ultimate successes and failures.

In spite of the importance of the role that spouses play however, the role of a spouse or partner in the entrepreneurial journey is a very under-discussed topic, at least within the literature of which I’m aware. In the post that follows, I attempt to shine a light on the role that spouses play in the entrepreneurial journey from the perspective of both the spouse and the entrepreneur. I do this by discussing my own experiences, as well as presenting the results of two anonymous surveys, one of which was sent to a group of entrepreneurs and CEOs, and one of which was sent to their spouses.

First: A Few Personal Admissions

I suspect every CEO can relate to the fact that, during the course of any given day, I likely had to deal with multiple problems spanning several different groups of people, including employees, customers, and suppliers. In dealing with these problems, I always attempted to conduct myself with patience, thoughtfulness, and engagement, because I knew that’s what was required of me as the leader of the company. Because of this however, when I came home at the end of the day, I regularly found myself to be exhausted and emotionally depleted. Though I suppose this was understandable, it manifested in ways that produced unintended consequences for my wife and our relationship: I often felt too exasperated to talk to my wife about the day’s problems (preferring not to relive them), I had little remaining patience, and at times I was so absorbed in my own work that I didn’t ask my wife about hers. The patience, thoughtfulness, and engagement that I strived to achieve at work often didn’t seem to follow me home. In this way, the person who was most important to me regularly got the worst of me. Of course, this was never my intention – it just kind of happened.

On top of this, “compartmentalization” between my work and home lives remained elusive for me during the entirety of my entire entrepreneurial journey (if this describes you too, fear not: it means you’re human). Not only did this mean that problems at work negatively impacted my ability to be present and engaged at home, but over time I discovered something else: I often felt the worst about my relationship during the periods in which I felt the worst about myself. Though I’m not sure I recognized this in real-time, the benefit of hindsight has shown me that periods of personal or company success often manifested in fulfillment and engagement in my relationship. Periods of worry, uncertainty, and self-consciousness at work often manifested in me feeling disengaged or stagnant in my relationship.

I don’t mention these two things to propose a solution to them (I suppose my candidacy for “husband of the year” will likely have to wait another year). Instead, I mention them simply to state them publicly, in case you’re feeling something similar.

Survey Results: The Perspective of the Entrepreneur

The data suggests that I’m not alone: Two-thirds of the CEOs that I surveyed stated that their relationships had indeed suffered as a result of them being an entrepreneur or CEO. When asked about the unique challenges that entrepreneurship has created within their own relationships, the following emerged as common themes:

  1. Stress, overwork, and a persistent state of uncertainty takes a toll on the CEO personally, takes a toll on their spouse, and naturally takes a toll on the relationship as a whole
  1. Being a CEO or entrepreneur is all-consuming, and as a result it is often very difficult to be mentally and emotionally present at home, even when you’re technically “off the clock”
  1. There simply isn’t enough time in the day to adequately dedicate towards the things that you care about. Between the business, the spousal relationship, self-care, and/or relationships with others (friends, kids, extended family, etc.), many CEOs feel as if they’re performing inadequately in at least one major part of their lives that they otherwise classify as being important to them

Though these themes were certainly interesting to note, I suspect they’re unlikely to strike you as surprising. What may surprise you however are some of the less obvious themes that emerged from the data:

  • Many CEOs aren’t sure of the extent to which they should share work stressors with their spouse: On one hand, many CEOs recognize that sharing worries and anxieties with their spouse is part of good communication, and is a way to include them as part of the journey. On the other hand however, many CEOs: i) Want to shield or protect their partners from these worries and anxieties; ii) Don’t wish to relive them in an emotionally depleted state; and iii) Worry that sharing these worries with their spouse will negatively impact their ability to successfully “compartmentalize” their work and family lives
  • Many CEOs feel a financial burden: Though most external observers are unlikely to associate the role of CEO with financial anxieties, it’s clear that many CEOs feel exactly this. These financial anxieties seem to stem from three primary sources: i) Having a large percentage of one’s net worth tied up in what is often a single, illiquid private company (often for years or decades at a time); ii) Making less money relative to previous jobs (particularly applicable for mid-career CEOs who left financially lucrative jobs in favor of pursuing an entrepreneurial career path); and iii) Fear that the value that they’ve created in the company can disappear at any time for reasons outside of their control (recessions, loss of key customer relationships, attrition of key employees, etc.)
  • Many CEOs feel a sense of guilt: By and large, most CEOs are very much aware of the things that they aren’t doing well in their various roles as spouse, CEO, parent, or community member. The trade-offs that they often have to make between these roles can often create a sense of guilt for them, as they often want to do better, but feel as if they’re simply unable to do so. Some illustrative responses from CEOs that demonstrated a sense of guilt within their spousal relationship included “I routinely feel like I’m disappointing her” and “it has created a forever-debt in our relationship”. Some of this guilt seems to stem from the fact that many CEOs feel as if they have no choice but to ask their spouses to burden an asymmetrically large load of the responsibilities related to home and family, and they feel bad about doing so. I suspect another source of guilt (perhaps at a subconscious level) comes from the difference between the stated values of the entrepreneur and the values that they actually find themselves embodying on a day-to-day basis. Said another way: The actions of many entrepreneurs would suggest that they prioritize work over family, though their stated values almost always suggest that the opposite is true.
  • Many feel as if their spouse still doesn’t truly understand what it’s like to be an entrepreneur: I’ve said before that nobody understands what it’s like to be an entrepreneur or CEO unless you’ve been one. In my own case, I sometimes resented my wife for not trying to understand what I was dealing with to a sufficient extent. Over time, however, I came to appreciate that effort wasn’t the primary issue. In some cases, I was actually creating/worsening the problem myself, and in other cases there was simply too much that remained unsaid between us. For example: i) Often, my wife purposely wouldn’t ask me about work for fear of forcing me to relive stressful situations, and to give me the opportunity to “unplug” while at home; ii) My attempts to shield and protect her from the realities of my job created an unintended consequence whereby, at times, she thought everything was fine when it actually wasn’t; and iii) I sometimes wouldn’t share challenges with her because I assumed she simply couldn’t relate to them.    

Agreements Versus Expectations

Unsurprisingly, lack of communication sat at the root of many of the more “symptomatic” problems that manifested in my own relationship, and I suspect this is true of most other relationships too. Years ago, I had a business coach tell me that “the root of most interpersonal problems can be traced to the difference between agreements and expectations”, and the more time that I’ve spent contemplating this statement, the truer it has become. A few quick examples come to mind in which my wife and I could have transformed unspoken expectations into explicit agreements to address some of the issues mentioned above:

  • I could have been explicit about when I was looking for advice versus when I simply wanted to vent
  • My wife could have been more explicit about asking me whether I wanted to talk about the day’s events, or whether I preferred to leave them at the office
  • As a couple, we could have been more explicit in discussing how she could act as a true partner in my entrepreneurial journey, as opposed to just being an observer of it, which sometimes felt like it was the case

As you contemplate your last (or your next!) conflict as a couple, it’s worth thinking about whether or not that conflict is attributable to the difference between agreements and expectations. I suspect that in more cases than not, it will play a material role.

Advice to Other Couples

When I asked CEOs about the advice that they’d give to other couples in which one partner was about to embark upon a career as an entrepreneur, the overwhelming majority of them mentioned the importance of being explicit, purposeful and communicative as a couple with regards to the likely challenges that lay ahead. Instead of hoping to avoid the potential challenges, the CEOs encouraged couples to find ways to proactively discuss the challenges that are almost certain to manifest in the years to come. Suggestions for some of the more practical ways to do this included:

  • Therapy (either individually, or as a couple). Think of this more as “preventative therapy” than “treatment therapy”, though of course either is fine
  • Having the non-entrepreneur join a community of some sort, where they can connect with spouses in similar situations (these are simple enough to create on your own, but organizations like EO also offer structured forums for spouses)
  • The importance of regular “check-ins” as a couple, and the importance of having difficult conversations when warranted
  • Create ways in which the non-entrepreneur can be a partner in the journey, not just an observer of it
  • Agreements on how you’ll handle the division of household duties (across high, medium, and low-workload periods)
  • Ways in which the entrepreneur will support the interests and ambitions of their spouse (yes, they have career ambitions too!)
  • Writing down goals and promises to each other, and regularly checking in on progress against both

Survey Results: The Perspective of the Entrepreneur’s Spouse  

In an attempt to justify things like extended periods away from home, long hours, or a reduced ability to participate in home or family life, it’s unfortunately become all too common for the entrepreneur to revert to a mostly hollow platitude that says something to the effect of “But the only reason why I’m doing all of this is for you and our family!”.

Candidly, I suspect that this simply is not true in most cases. Indeed, it wasn’t at all true in my own experience if I’m being honest: Though freedom and financial security for my family is certainly a happy consequence of my entrepreneurial ambitions, it’s not at all the reason why I pursued them. I’m certain that I would have pursued the exact same path had I been single or in any number of different circumstances (whether or not I would have been successful in these pursuits without the support of my spouse is a different question entirely).

The plain truth is that most people who pursue highly ambitious career paths do so for reasons largely related to themselves (often in spite of what they tell themselves and others). The sooner you rid yourself of the delusion that you’re doing it for others, the sooner you’ll come to realize the magnitude of what you’re asking of your spouse: To make meaningful and prolonged sacrifices to support your largely self-interested endeavor (I don’t mention self-interest with a negative connotation here, but instead a factual one).

Importantly, the fact that a spouse may benefit from the outcomes of these pursuits (financial or otherwise) is often irrelevant: I don’t know this for certain, but I wonder how many spouses of entrepreneurs would happily trade the possibility of a lifetime of financial freedom for a more present, available, balanced, and emotionally engaged partner working in a more traditional job with much less financial upside.

In most cases, the spouses of entrepreneurs don’t make the sacrifices that they do because they’re interested in participating in the outcomes of their spouse’s efforts, but instead because they know that their spouse likely wouldn’t be happy or fulfilled if they weren’t at least giving their entrepreneurial dream a real shot.

In reviewing the survey responses provided by the spouses of entrepreneurs and CEOs, I noticed many similarities with the results of the previous survey discussed above. Namely:

  • Approximately two-thirds of the spouses that I surveyed agreed that their relationships had indeed suffered as a result of their spouse being an entrepreneur or CEO
  • The seeming inescapability of stress, overwork, and uncertainty
  • Emotional distance of their partner, the all-consuming nature of the job, and the inability of their partner to be present, even when they’re not working
  • That they generally feel forced to assume the overwhelming majority of tasks and responsibilities related to home and family life
  • Disappointment or confusion related to the stated values of the entrepreneur (likely something like 1. Family; 2. Health; 3. Career) being in direct conflict with their actions (likely 1. Career; 2. Health; 3. Family) 
  • Many spouses are also unsure of the extent to which they should be asking their partners about what’s troubling them at work: On one hand they want to be helpful and engaged, but on the other hand they don’t want to force their partner to relive stressful situations for fear of heightening their levels of stress or anxiety

Perhaps most interesting however were the areas in which the responses of the spouses provided new insights. Namely:

  • Over 50% of spouses have felt as if their own career or professional ambitions have been “overshadowed” by those of their CEO partner
  • Spouses can sometimes feel helpless, in that they recognize the stress and anxiety that their partner is under, but feel as if their ability to alleviate it is somewhat limited
  • Though many CEOs feel like their spouses don’t truly understand what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, most spouses think that their partners don’t truly understand how difficult it is for them to have to balance running a home, family, and their own careers simultaneously
  • Spouses often feel a responsibility to keep their partners properly “calibrated” – that is, reminding them of the importance of celebrating wins as they occur, reminding them of the importance of taking vacations and time off, and reminding them that the business can’t and shouldn’t always come first. The weight of this responsibility can grow to become heavy and tiresome over a long period of time
  • Though spouses generally recognize the importance of supporting the entrepreneurial careers of their partners, balancing those efforts with focusing on their own professional ambitions is of critical importance: Some spouses who made what they classify as too many personal or career sacrifices now regret having done so, and reported feeling stuck, unfulfilled or even quietly resentful    

Lessons, Habits, Routines & Best Practices

Though most people agree with the idea of communication being of critical importance to a relationship (it’s difficult not to), in practice many couples don’t do anything in particular to ensure that they weave good communication into the fabric of their relationship (beyond constantly reminding each other of how important communication is, of course).

For many years, this certainly described my own relationship. One small step that we’ve recently taken to implement good communication in our own relationship is to regularly engage in “conversation starters”. These are simple questions that we work through as a couple with some agreed upon cadence (in our case, weekly). Though it likely sounds a bit contrived, our communication has improved drastically as a result of just doing this one small exercise. Here are some examples of the questions that we ask each other. Feel free to use any questions that you think may be helpful to you and your partner:

  • What’s one thing that I haven’t yet said to you that I should have?
  • What is something that you’re currently worrying about?
  • What are you currently grateful for?
  • What is an apology that I owe you?
  • What have I not yet thanked you for?
  • What is one thing, small or large, to be celebrated that we haven’t yet mentioned or celebrated?
  • What was the best thing about this past week for you?
  • What was the worst thing about this past week for you?
  • I think as a couple we should do more of ____________.
  • I think as a couple we should do less of ____________.
  • What difficult or uncomfortable conversation have we not yet had?
  • What’s one thing that you wish that I asked you more about?
  • In what ways are we currently not on the same page as parents?    

Beyond this simple exercise, several other practical suggestions emerged from the survey results of both the CEOs and their spouses. These include:

  • Committing to date nights with some agreed upon frequency (weekly, monthly, etc.)
  • Creating and consistently updating a shared calendar, including both work and personal obligations, so that each partner is regularly aware of what’s on the other’s plate at any given time
  • Designating certain places or certain times of day as “technology free”, where all devices must be turned off and/or stowed away
  • Each partner must make time to maintain their physical and mental health however they see fit, and these commitments should take precedence over substantially all other things
  • Getting babysitting help where and when appropriate to spend meaningful time together without the presence of kids
  • Spending time together outdoors, which has become particularly important as we’ve all been spending an abnormally large amount of time at home over the past two years

In Sum

Building and maintaining a meaningful relationship is hard enough on its own, to say nothing of the additional challenges that an entrepreneurial career path can present to both partners. Though the journey likely won’t be easy, very few things worth doing ever are.

The purpose of this blog post is not at all to suggest that your relationship is in imminent trouble if you or your spouse is contemplating a career as an entrepreneur. Instead, I hope you now recognize that building and maintaining a meaningful and fulfilling relationship is very much possible, even in spite of the unique circumstances that you’ll likely be forced to navigate as a couple.

Learning from the mistakes and experiences of others is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for the challenges to come, and being deliberate about working on the state of your relationship is one of the best ways to ensure that it doesn’t simply become a victim to the circumstances that will present themselves throughout the entrepreneurial journey. An ounce of prevention is often worth a pound of cure.

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