Marriage. Many of us excel in documenting the wedding days of others, however actually excelling as a partner in a marriage is quite another thing altogether. That challenge is greater still when both partners are involved full-time in operating the business. Not only are all the usual marital issues present, they’re compounded by the stress of running a business and constantly being in each other’s business.
I speak from direct experience here: my wife and I are both full-time photographers. Though we operate under different business names so that we book our own set of clients, we work from the same office, share the same staff and make all the important (and many not-so important) decisions together. The seven years that we’ve been together have been at the same time wonderful and challenging.
From the outside, and especially in the beginning, working and spending days with your spouse seems both ideal and efficient. In practice, tension and resentment can easily build over time. Though many issues may start in the workplace, they quickly carry over into all aspects of the relationship. The romantic love affair that thrived in the beginning eventually becomes a subtle or even hostile battle for control.
Indeed, most marriages transition from romance into a fight for control – where they get stuck for years on end. This fight to control may be manifest itself in many ways, from indifference and withdrawal to argumentative discussion and even fighting. Ultimately though, the goal for your marriage and your business should be one of mutual collaboration. While this article cannot in and of itself get you there, it can hopefully lead you in the right direction.
Here are my 12 steps to a collaborative work/marriage relationship:
1. Give the Gift of Space.
As tempting as it may seem for both of you to work in that spare bedroom or garage, don’t. Give each other enough room so that neither of you can hear each other when you’re speaking at normal levels. Being together all the time will eventually drive the both of you crazy. Besides, you may not like how he talks to his friends or how she is always on the phone or how he isn’t working as much as you think he should.
Creating physical separation allows the two of you to express yourselves independently and have your own lives free of constant judgment from the other. Working together all day and then spending your evening hours together month after month often leads straight to marriage burnout.
2. Define Your Areas of Responsibility.
Not every decision needs to be made by both partners nor should every decision be subject to second-guessing by the other. The more clearly defined both of your individual roles are within the company, the less opportunity there will be for conflict.
Although there may only be two of you, create an organizational chart with CEO, marketing director, production director, photography director, chief financial officer etc. Then agree which person will assume which positions and what responsibilities go along with.
The Emyth Revisited by Michael Gerber is an excellent book on the subject of setting responsibility and creating a viable format for your business. I recommend it for all photographers but especially husband and wife teams.
3. Create a Board of Directors
Every company needs a managing board – even if it’s just the two of you. This “board” is where the two of you make the major decisions such as whether to buy that new computer system, hire an employee or advertise in the magazine. You can create a rule that any expenditure over a certain amount – say $300 - must be approved by the board.
Then it’s up to the appropriate “staff” (either one of the two of you) to execute the board decision. Once the decision has been made, the person given the responsibility is free to execute the decision so long as it complies with whatever parameters you’ve agreed to.
For example, let’s say that “the board” agrees that a new laser printer with Ethernet is needed for the business. A cap of $500 is placed on the purchase and the appropriate partner is designated to make the purchase. So long as the purchase falls doesn’t contradict whatever the board agreed to, the other partner cannot dictate nor criticize the how, what, when or where of purchase.
The central idea behind the board is to make clear which decisions should be made together and which can be made alone – without resentment generating second-guessing or micromanaging.
4. The Business Retreat
A business retreat is usually a once or twice a year event where the key management gets together outside of the office to discuss the direction of the business. Don’t leave it to just once or twice a year though – instead, “the board” should have lunch together once a week. Talk about the challenges that each of you face both inside and outside of your workplace.
The more communication you have between the two of you, the more each of you will felt like you’re being listened to and the better you’ll empathize with each other. Active listening is actually a more important skill in relationship building than speaking. Unfortunately, most of us specialize in the latter.
5. Set Limits on Work
It is not okay to work all the time no matter how important it is to your financial health. While the occasional late nights may be necessary, these should be the exception - not the rule. You must make time for your marriage if you want it to succeed. In fact, William Harley in his book His Needs, Her Needs recommends that couples provide each other with 15 hours per week of undivided attention.
When you’re not working, be sure to plan activities together. Many couples have designated “date nights” that are not to be missed. The more fun stuff you do together, the easier it is to endure the tedium of work, work, work. The couple that plays together stays together!
6. Talk About Something Else
When you’re not at work, don’t always be talking about work. Often there are disagreements between you and your partner on work issues. Once you start talking about work, you ultimately end up talking about something you disagree on. If all you do is talk about work – which is easy to do since that’s all you do together – then all of your conversations ultimately end up in an argument.
The solution is to not talk about work when you’re out enjoying life together. Don’t talk about work the last thing at night as you’re going to bed. Don’t talk about work at the dinner table. Don’t talk about it first thing in the morning. Those times are for the two of you to enjoy and appreciate the reasons why you got married in the first place.
7. Allow Time Apart
Outside interests are okay for the both of you. Yes, you want a vacation together, but your desire for a vacation together doesn’t outweigh his or her desire for time with his or her friends. When the two of you spend so much time and energy together, it’s almost mandatory that you each develop your own interests if for no other reason so you have something to talk about at the end of the day.
Often there’s a cruel irony where one partner wants to spend more time with friends and the other then gets angry at the other for spending so much time apart – which in turn leads to the other wanting to spend more time apart. Respecting your own and your partner’s need to be a strong, emotionally healthy individual is necessary for successful marriage.
8. Nurture Your Partner
Your husband is scatterbrained. Your wife constantly worries about money. This drives each of you crazy – but it doesn’t have to. Celebrate the qualities of your spouse’s personality. We each bring to marriage a unique personality and set of needs, however your partner’s needs are not and cannot be the same as yours. We can’t change our partner – the best we can do is embrace them and all their flaws.
In so doing, we create safety in the relationship. When each partner feels safe, then they can be open to honest expression and learning more about the emotional needs of the other. Once judgment ceases, so does conflict.
9. Your Spouse is Not Responsible for How You Feel
When you’re angry or hurt by something your partner did, it’s our tendency to blame him or her. However, you and you are alone are responsible for how you feel. To place blame on someone else for how you feel is to cast yourself as a victim – and thus close the door to actually fixing the problem since, in your mind, the solution lies outside of you.
A book that has profoundly changed my perception of marriage and relationships is Do I Have to Change Me to Be Loved by You? by Jordan & Margaret Paul. To quote from the book: "Since our feelings and responses always arise from our own values, beliefs, fears, and expectations, it is impossible for you to be responsible for another’s reaction." To which I’ll add, it’s impossible for anyone else – including your spouse - to be responsible for your anger, withdrawal and frustrations. Stop blaming!
10. Seeking Therapy
The decision to seek therapy usually only comes when one or both partners feel like they’re at the end of their rope. It’s tough for even the best therapist to help under these conditions. Even worse is that most therapy consists of the couple sitting on a couch bitching about the other with some mediation from a marginally helpful therapist. Other than the cathartic relief of expressing one’s anger and resentment, the process really goes nowhere.
From firsthand experience, I recommend what is known as Imago therapy. In this form of couples counseling, each partner faces each other and communicates in a safe, empathetic manner. The usual spite-filled therapy session is not possible in this format. In fact, you’re likely to achieve more in one Imago session than years of the usual couch complaintfest sessions. You can find an Imago therapist in your area at www.gettingtheloveyouwant.com .
Just like we take seminars and workshops to improve our photography, so too is it necessary to work on our primary relationship. I don’t speak from vast experience in this area, but my wife and I benefited immensely from a two day Imago workshop with Andrea and Bob Kamm in San Luis Obispo. Bob’s experience as a business consultant makes the workshop especially relevant to business owner couples.
Other such workshops that take place around the country can be found here. If you come across one given by Harvelle Hendrix, take it. He’s the founder and leading thinker in this branch of psychology. The weekend retreats average about $700 – which is money well spent. (Much better spent than on many of the myriad of photo workshops out there. By the way, this stuff can help you to become a better photographer too.)
12. I Quit!
If the way your partner works in the business – be it from their ability to follow through on what they say they will or their organizational habits (desk too messy or office too clean) – drives you absolutely crazy, it’s okay to leave the business and pursue something else. You are not locked into anything – no matter how locked in you may feel.
Not only is it impossible to force others to change, it’s not even fair to expect anyone else to change. Ultimately, we’re the only ones who we can change. Sometimes that change may involve just doing something else. Always leave quitting the business (or even the marriage) as an option.
Though your partner cannot be held accountable for how you feel, you can create accountability through consequences. If your partner’s actions persistently do not live up to your beliefs and expectations, your ultimate solution is to quit.
In case you didn’t notice, my list progressed from the more simple and concrete to the more emotional and time-intensive. As much as I’d like to provide a simple list of fix-it’s, that’s just not realistic in something so complicated as marriage. Deeper emotional work is frequently necessary to heal our mutual wounds.
Making a partnership work is a challenge and it does require effort. One benefit of my own efforts in learning more about making a business and marriage partnership work is that the knowledge I’ve gained has helped me in all of my relationships. I may have only one marriage, but I have many customer relationships – and the same principles of success apply to them as well.
All content is copyright John Mireles 2010 and may not be reproduced without permission.