I get a lot of funny reactions when I tell people I own a business with my husband. From the quick “I could never” paired with a dramatic eye roll, to a wondrous “What is that like?” uttered in disbelief, to “awwwwwww”—and everything in between.
So for Valentine’s Day I’m going to spill the beans—it hasn’t always been easy (shocking, I know!). But I’ve learned that working with your spouse can be one of the most valuable and beneficial things you can do to enhance your marriage—if you make the effort to use it as a motivation to grow.
These principles also apply to any partners in business who want to grow a successful company. A colleague recently shared that she is bringing in a therapist to work with her and her two business partners to help with their communication issues.
Whether you are spouses, friends, or colleagues, sometimes your differences are exposed only when you start working together: differences in how you feel about money, risk, being right, failure, and what to do when you experience success. These differences may come to the surface over time no matter what, but they are amplified in business, and they can be the source of exhausting conflict.
My husband and I had to learn a few key lessons if we wanted to build a successful business we loved without killing each other. These are key lessons for a team to be an unstoppable force in business. Without them? You probably won’t last very long—as a couple or as a business.
There Will Be a Turf War If No Treaty Exists
When we first started Worstofall Design out of our little railroad apartment in Brooklyn, our roles were clear: Steve was the designer, and I was “the business.” I knew nothing about design at the time, and Steve was happy to abscond from all business responsibilities, so it worked out perfectly. Because of this, we created a well-oiled machine during that first year-and-a-half. People cocked their heads in disbelief when we told them working together was breezy, but we thought we just naturally had an amazing relationship.
The honeymoon ended when we hired our first two employees. Our weak spots were exposed, and suddenly we were bickering more, things got tense here and there, and we fought regularly. It was exhausting.
We had a business to run and we agreed it was unfair to make our team uncomfortable with our conflict, so we knew we had to deal with this head on. That’s when we decided to go to therapy.
Sitting down with a therapist helped expose differences in our communication styles, as well as unexpressed emotions and expectations. But one of the most tangible things we learned was the source of much conflict: We had never discussed who was in charge of the two employees! We had hired a talented graphic designer and a spunky assistant/social media marketer/photographer to support us, but we had never discussed how they would be managed. On the one hand, managing employees seemed like my job because I was in charge of running the business. On the other hand, Steve was in charge of design, and James was his designer.
It turned out that almost all our conflicts arose from a power struggle over this undefined territory. Once we learned that, it was almost as simple as communicating and delineating responsibilities. In the years since, we have been able to stop conflict in its tracks just by realizing that it often starts because we both believe a decision falls under our domain of responsibility.
Make Sure You Agree on the Big Idea
If you and your partner don’t have a shared big vision for your company, you are going to have infinite conflicts. I learned this the hard way. A few years in, we realized we had never discussed our goals for the business. At some point I hadn’t even realized I had taken a sharp turn toward building a huge agency, while Steve, on the other hand, hadn’t really thought about it. All he knew was that he didn’t want to build the big agency I was imagining.
(More on that story, and how powerful defining success can be for your business, click here.)
Picture us trying to make any decision in this situation, pulling each other in different directions without even realizing it.
For example, we got an opportunity to pitch to a huge client, but it required us to stay up all night to do so. I wanted the client because it would get us closer to having the big agency. Steve didn’t share that vision, and the project didn’t sound inspiring to him, so he thought it was silly for us to bend over backward for this long-shot pitch. The poor guy had no idea why I was insisting that we push ourselves in this way. My actions made no sense to him, and it made no sense to me that he wasn’t on board.
Once we realized the discrepancy we sat down to map it out— together. Until then, I had assumed we had the same idea for how to build the business. To me, it was the obvious choice. But when we started to brainstorm what we wanted out of life and our company, I realized I didn’t want a big agency at all! I had just made that assumption at some point and never questioned it. (For more on this, I wrote about the importance of defining success here.)
Together, we developed a vision for what we wanted—for both the business and our lives. Our vision has adjusted over the years, but we revisit it often. And having that shared vision has made all the difference in how we work together.
Once we were both on board with a common goal, our teamwork skills skyrocketed. Suddenly we would happily do almost anything the other person asked because we understood why we were doing it. And we were both willing to be more flexible in areas where we tended to be stubborn because we knew we were headed toward the same ultimate goal.
This also helped make all our large decisions revolve around the actual goal, rather than our personal preferences. And that has been key to working together—really believing that we both prioritize our shared business and personal goals.
You Both Have Your Shit; Don’t Be Afraid to Own Yours
I share our experience of bringing a therapist into these conversations because although it’s possible to make these discoveries on your own, we didn’t have time for that. Business doesn’t stop, and we needed conflict resolution as soon as possible.
Plus, therapy still has a stigma. If you go to a therapist, especially with your spouse, somehow it means there is something wrong with you that needs fixing. What if that’s not the case? What if, instead, any two people engaged in something as intense as building a business can always benefit from being better communicators? The stigma is stopping business/life partners from being more potent in the world because they don’t feel comfortable dealing with these issues head on.
And if you’re reading about issues and thinking “not me,” you definitely have them. The unwillingness, or maybe even fear, to entertain the idea that you could actually get better at communicating with your business partner might even represent the potential issue itself. If you’re too afraid to admit you’re not perfect, and worried about imperfections that might be exposed when you go into a room that is meant to expose them, that might represent the very thing that can create conflict in a business relationship. One that is almost impossible to overcome if you don’t deal with it.
Everyone has their shit. Own yours and your business will thank you.
Without our business, my husband and I may have never taken the steps to learn these skills, and they have had measurable positive results in our business and personal relationships. Without the business, though, there may have been no impetus to start the exploration in the first place.
Working closely with another person is always going to be a challenge, regardless of whether you are married. But if you’re both willing to put in the effort, any two people who want to build a business together will find that it is possible to do so without killing each other—if you have the desire to build these skills. And because of, and not despite, all the challenges, working with my partner has been one of the most rewarding and special things we have done for our marriage.
This article was originally published on Forbes