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Spouse in the House

What could be worse than spending your workdays with an insufferable, inefficient, ineffective co-worker? Spending your days with an insufferable, inefficient, ineffective co-worker who is also your spouse.

Sounds like a nightmare, I know, but it's reality for many people — people who not only have to work with an impossible co-worker, but live with them, as well.

Spouses who work together are the subjects of a recent Work & Family article by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal. With prose worthy of a Stephen King novel, Shellenbarger spins scary stories of couples that have moved their relationship from the bedroom to the cubical.

"About 8 percent of small businesses started recently in the U.S. are co-owned by husbands and wives," writes Shellenbarger, referencing a survey by the Kauffman Foundation. The statistic represents a hellish situation at least partially caused by the recession. One or both partners loses their job, and figuring that the situation could not possibly get any worse, they decide to go into business together.

"Suddenly," writes Shellenbarger, "they're forced to figure out how to keep their marriages healthy while working to keep their businesses afloat."

It's OK. You can scream if you have to.

The techniques that the different couples use to reduce conflict are more comical than horrific. The VanGordons, co-owners of a painting company in Texas, throw foam balls at each other when differences arise. It's a reasonable solution, but I do worry about escalation. When the foam balls are replaced with flowerpots and baking dishes full of lasagna, it may be time to shut down the business.

One especially brave spouse profiled in the article is Jim Larson, co-owner of a mobile storage business in Wisconsin. As Shellenbarger writes, "Giving his wife a performance review is something that Jim Larson would have preferred to avoid. 'I was ready to throw up,' he says. 'That's a really difficult conversation to have.'"

I would call Mr. Larsen's characterization of his "difficult conversation," the understatement of the year.

How would you feel if you had to give your spouse a performance review? How would you feel if he or she had to give one to you? In my personal marital experience, any criticism, no matter how well meaning, can result in serious consequences. Even a truly trivial critique, like suggesting a new hairstyle would look better on a poodle, can result in a week spent sleeping in a pup tent in the backyard.

Some coupled co-owners find that no matter how compatible they are at home, their individual management styles clash in the workplace. For example, the Winterhalters of Virginia discovered that jointly managing their frozen yogurt business brought out the worst in each of them. Mr. Winterhalter, a former executive, was accustomed to giving orders. "'I don't like to the mop the floor,' he reported, but prefer to supervise others."

Mrs. Winterhalter is of a different stripe. She likes to "jump in and perform tasks herself: 'I like to mop the floor, and I think I can do a better job.'" Outside of immediately inviting Mrs. Winterhalter over to my house for what I am certain she would find a satisfying mopping experience, I must admit that I have nothing but admiration for the Winterhalters' solution to their conflict. They divided the awesome responsibilities of providing frozen yogurt to the hungry hordes with the mister working days and the missus taking command of the night shift.

It's an approach I endorse and plan to institute with my spouse, even though we work at different jobs. I'm convinced we can add a good dozen years to our married life by carefully coordinating our schedules so that we never see each other.

Of course, the real solution for getting along with your spouse at work is the same solution that works with your spouse at home. "Successful couples keep a clear separation of the roles they play in each relationship," says business coach Doug Wilder of Florida. "There is a separate rule book for each."

In other words, what works in the bedroom is likely to work in the workplace. In my own marriage, for example, we both acknowledge that I am the lord of the manor, the big boss man, the CEO. And now that my position high atop the marital org. chart is established, will someone please hand me the mop. I've got a lot of cleaning to do, and I don't want to get dinged in my annual review.

Bob Goldman has been an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com. To find out more about Bob Goldman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.


1 Responses »

  1. Bob, I was laughing out loud reading your article. A little bit of humor, actually a lot of humor, helps spousal business partners survive. After all as I was quoted in the article, "It is easier to get a new business than a new spouse." And I have been reminded by several divorcees, "it is cheaper too." Keep mopping! Doug Wilder
    P.S. I read your article "Are Bosses Human?" on your website funnybusiness.com and laughed again at your description of a "coach in your pocket."