It’s not just the Gates, who met at Microsoft and worked together until their first child was born, and have joined forces once again to run the Gates Foundation. More and more Americans are teaming up with their partners on a work venture at midlife; Elizabeth Isele, who is cofounder and CEO of Senior Entrepreneurship Works, says 40% of the people with whom she works are doing so, a number she expects to grow. When you live together and work together too, having a harmonious relationship is doubly important. Issues can migrate from your personal to your business relationship, so it’s key to nip conflicts in the bud.
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That’s what Laurel and Richard discovered. As a senior executive, Laurel LaBauve, 54, was used to being in charge. When she decided to leave her job with Merck to start a home renovation business in 2011 with her husband, Richard, “to suddenly be working side by side 24/7 was a big change,” she said. She put together a master plan for work that needed to get done to keep renovations on schedule, and when her husband decided to focus on a different project, “it would drive me crazy!” she says. “I didn’t realize how much she wanted to be in control,” says Richard, 57. “I’d be lying if I said there was no tension.” Meeting regularly to review the master plan helped diffuse the stress.
Launching a work partnership can test even the strongest of marriages. “Percolating tensions will become much more prominent when you have to deal with the person every day,” says Patricia Pitta, a couple and family psychologist practicing in Manhasset, New York, and past president of the Clinical Division of the New York State Psychological Association. Conflicts can arise from having to renegotiate the fundamentals of power, control and money. Here, hard-won advice from the people who really know this beat: couples who work together.
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Speak Up! One of the biggest traps couples fall into is letting issues fester, leading to resentment and anger. Stephanie Schroeder, 50, who began working with her life partner, Lisa Haas, 49, several months ago in consulting, has already learned not to pile up small grievances or engage in “kitchen sink” type of fights. “We simply discuss differences of opinion and work those out respectfully,” Schroeder says. Deb McAlister-Holland had to learn how to critique her husband, Fred’s assignments and provide client feedback without making it personal, delivering it in a very direct, non-judgmental way. The two, both 60, invest in start-up technology companies together.
Divide and Conquer. Make sure you each have your own areas to direct, and make those areas the things you each do best. Richard LaBauve handles finances while his wife is in charge of marketing. Deb McAlister-Holland is the planner and writer; her husband, Fred, handles research and analytics. “That makes us a really good team.”
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Penny Loosenort, 56, who runs a business with her husband, Dan, 58, training medical professionals in CPR, says it’s important never to take each other for granted, which can be mighty tempting when you’ve been a couple for many years. Instead, make a habit of expressing your gratitude to your spouse for the vital role he or she plays at work and at home.
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Carol Roullard, 60, who has co-authored five photography books with her husband, says that as deadlines approach, “the claws come out and aggravation-laden comments and tongue clicking starts,” but that with each book, those impulses have diminished. The key, she says, is respecting each other’s opinions, work ethics and capabilities. “No one is going to do the task the same way you would, so don’t expect that.”
Don’t Forget Date Night. And remember, talk of work is off limits. Leslie Gay, 60, who owns two Painting With a Twist franchises with her husband, Marvin, 70, says they head to the beach or meet for dinner regularly. “We make it quality time,” with no talk of business. The LaBuaves say it’s equally critical to develop outside interests apart from your spouse.
Carve Out Your Own Space. Deb McAlister-Holland likes clear, open spaces and craves quiet while she works. She said her husband “could clutter Grand Central Station from floor to ceiling in three weeks flat.” So they remodeled their house to convert a bedroom into an office for her husband, while she works in another room. Having a defined work space also helps to draw “a clear line of demarcation between work and family time.”