With wedding proposal season behind us, it’s time for those who’ve recently become engaged to an entrepreneur to ready themselves for the ride. According to many who’ve been there, marriage to a business owner can feature experiences you aren’t likely to get when you’re wedded to someone who works “for the man.”
“You are about to embark on an exciting adventure. Embrace it!” says a New England software developer who stood by her serial-entrepreneur husband for 20 years before he hit on a major success. “This person will make sure you life is never dull.”
Indeed, journalist Meg Hirshberg, whose husband founded Stonyfield Farm, compares being along for the ride in a business venture to being the passenger in a car he navigated along California's winding coastal Highway 1. “He was driving and loving it, and I was feeling nauseated because of all the twists and turns," Hirshberg recalls. "One person is in control of the wheel, the other is sitting there being jerked around feeling sick."
To help you better handle the curves ahead, we asked several long-married partners of entrepreneurs to offer insights on sharing your life with someone who builds a business—or businesses—from scratch. (In the next post, we offer 7 tips for marital bliss with a business owner from Hirshberg, who is also the author of For Better or For Work: A Survival Gide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families.)
Many spouses note the importance of keeping the business and marriage in balance. “Make sure your life together isn’t all about nurturing and developing your spouse’s dream. You can’t lose yourself as a person,” says the software developer, who, like others we spoke to, asked to remain anonymous.
“There's a certain amount of ‘second fiddle syndrome' that can creep in when your partner is running his or her own business,” warns a training consultant whose husband is a New York restaurateur who evolved a two-store business into a tri-state operation with 17 franchises in four years. “There are the obvious things that stink, for lack of a better term: working on weekends, missing family events and evenings out with friends,” she says. “This setup also means that there can be little quiet time for the two of us to connect, to share little tidbits of our day or small challenges we overcame.”
Many spouses find they need to turn to family or friends for that kind of emotional support. “My advice is to be prepared to be the ‘best supporting actor/actress’ (in a comedy and drama) and to maintain a close group of friends and family who can provide you with the support you need,” says the consultant. “I'm close friends with the wife of my husband's business partner, and that is a particularly important relationship to me. There are few other people who can relate to my situation in the same way.”
Hirshberg, whose husband’s company didn't turn a profit for the first 9 years, adds that your partner can’t expect to build a business and then a life with you sequentially.
One spouse we spoke to recommended delaying starting a family, if possible, “until all the bumps and experiments are out of the way, else the extra responsibility for caring for a child could restrict the ability to make that huge leap into a new entrepreneurial dream, causing frustration and regret.”
But Hirshberg warns that you delay important life goals at your own peril. When it comes to having children or even taking a sabbatical, traveling, or buying a house, “you’ve got to go for it,” she advises. “It won’t be easy or stress free, but if you delay and wind up not living that important life dream because you waited for the business or the entrepreneur, that will be a life devastation.”
“Being entrepreneurial is a personality trait, and not specific to the project at hand,” says the software developer. Based on her experience, “There will be many endeavors attempted over the years; maybe more than one at a time, and some or most of these will go nowhere.” Having survived unsuccessful startups in music production, book publishing, and headhunting, she says, “You have to be prepared for the fallout—emotional and financial.”
Considering that financial hardships are one of the top reasons for marital disasters, one spouse says that fostering her own career completely separate from the entrepreneurial endeavor was crucial. “That way if the project doesn’t work out, it’s just one aspect of your life together, which is much easier to get past and rebuild.”
On the upside, being betrothed to a risk-taker can give you courage. “It takes a lot of passion, drive, and dedication to go into business for yourself,” says the restaurateur’s spouse. “My husband's willingness to take chances and calculated risks has, in many situations, given me the confidence to do the same, in both my professional and personal endeavors. Where I tend to be more guarded and slow to make major life changes, his enthusiasm, self-confidence, and passion has inspired me to trust my gut and take a leap when the time is right.”
In fact, the excitement of entrepreneurship can infect the whole family. Says the software developer, “My seven-year-old daughter asked me last summer, “Mom, how do I start my own business?”