Updated: May 21, 2019
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness” -Kahlil Gibran
Long before Alexander and I got engaged, he told me that he wanted to run a business with his future spouse. I remember having a strong reaction,
“What a TERRIBLE idea. I would never do that.”
I had the impression that working with your spouse would be suffocating. How could we have a healthy relationship if we shared everything all the time? I didn’t have any good models for what it would be like.
Fortunately, I changed my mind.
By the time Alexander invited me to quit the corporate world and work with him, I was 100% open to the idea. The day we got married is essentially the day we started running our freelance writing business together.
After our honeymoon, we wrote our way through Central America and then Western Europe — getting paid to do it. Now we’ve settled back home in Austin, Texas.
*As a brief disclaimer, we’ve only been married since August 2017, so we don’t want to come across as “marriage-advice gurus.” We're not experts. This blog reflects what we've learned in our first year of being in business together. It's been a steep learning curve, one that we're still on.
Finding Meaningful Work With Your Spouse
Most days pass quite peaceably and we go to sleep after a great day of work, wondering how we struck gold. There’s a deep joy in what we’re creating together.
Then there are occasional days that feel really confusing — when communication breaks down, when the distribution of labor feels unfair, or when one of us is being a grump.
But the difficult days seem to provide the best opportunity for understanding ourselves and our business better.
And the truth is, for us, all of this has been infinitely worth it.
Like most of life, there are pros and cons to sharing a partnership in both life and work.
Here are 11 things we’ve learned in the past year that might be useful to those who are considering starting a business with their partner:
1. Make time to cultivate your own inner life (for the good of your relationship)
If you go into business with your partner, be prepared to spend all your time together. Sure, this all depends on your line of work and your family life (kids, no kids, etc.) but for our freelance copywriting business, we sit next to each other all day, every day.
Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist and expert in modern relationships, writes about the preconditions for mutual desire and love: our conflicting human needs for both mystery and deep knowing. She writes,
Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter.
In the beginning, I didn’t fully understand how we could have a healthy relationship with so little space between us. Working with your spouse means that you have less of a private life than other couples who work separate jobs throughout the day.
“This is a big challenge,” said Andrew and Dorothy Bennett, Austin-based photographers and videographers of Bennett Creative. “We spend so much time around each other that we have to be proactive about going on non-work related dates.”
Andrew and Dorothy Bennett
“For separateness, we are blessed with different sleep schedules," Andrew adds. "I get up earlier and usually get a couple hours in the morning to myself. It’s also nice being our own bosses, because Dorothy will take off mornings to write and be at home whenever she needs to.”
For the particular idiosyncrasies of our relationship, being both colleagues and partners works for us. Alex and I typically work on separate projects and even keep individual client accounts, which means that we have our own interior worlds throughout the day.
We do discuss emails or read copy out loud to each other, but otherwise we tend to spend hours in our own writing bubbles. Effective writing requires quiet and solitude; the nature of our work does provide us some space.
Meaning: Make space for separate work — even if you’re in the same room all day.
2. Lean on each other’s strengths...
As a team, we tell clients that they are hiring two pairs of eyes for the price of one.
We edit each other’s work and discuss projects as they unfold. We’re much stronger together than if we were writing solo. In addition, we have never had a problem with giving each other critical editing feedback.
This openness and trust is absolutely a cornerstone of our business and relationship.
“It is as though forged together we form one presence, for each of us has half of a language that the other seeks. When we approach each other and become one, a new fluency comes alive.” - John O’Donohue
Meaning: Having a business (and life!) partner to depend on and give you constructive feedback makes your business exponentially stronger.
3. ...but keep a balance so you’re not asking too much of your partner
Like all collaboration, there are unhealthy or co-dependent iterations of working together. If Alex works on projects all day while I take breaks to go to yoga and grocery shop, I need to be aware that he’s carried more of a load than me.
Humans are typically givers or takers. Opposites tend to attract.
So if you’re an inherent giver, I recommend giving your partner the gift of communication. Asking for the things you need is the best way to fix the issue of giving too much.
If the workload feels unbalanced, that’s probably because it is.
Conversely, if you’re a taker, remember that you need to intentionally go out of your way to take initiative when it comes to emotional — and professional — labor. Receive feedback from your “giver” partner and be honest about putting in your fair share next time.
Meaning: After an argument or problem, you may need to revisit the status quo with your partner to learn how you can be more balanced next time.
4. Aim for an equitable division of house and work labor
Similarly, if you share a home and professional work, keep in mind that there is labor around the house that needs to be done in addition to meeting work deadlines.
Laundry accumulates. Dishes pile up.
When you work from home, if the house gets out of hand, your workspace can suddenly feel chaotic and full of distractions. Getting housework done after-hours is key to having a ready workspace the next day.
Alex and I have developed a division of labor that works for us… most of the time. We share the writing work and the housework. I cook, he does the dishes. He typically starts articles, and I finish them with final edits. We’re always refining it.
Meaning: Find your groove with housework to maintain a peaceful, happy workplace in addition to being a living space.
5. Work out
We have learned that both working from home and running a business together require going out of our way to get physical exercise. Whether it’s an at-home workout, running down by Lady Bird Lake, catching a yoga class, or going for a long walk with a friend — we HAVE to find ways to add movement to our day.
Working out has become a non-negotiable for our own sanity.
Without physical movement, we get grumpy and upset with ourselves. Life is better in business and in our relationship when we make time to get outside the house and move. Particularly with online/computer work, regular runs help prevent my back from going out after slumping in front of a screen all day.
Meaning: Longevity in this business would be impossible without the counterbalancing effects of physical exercise.
6. Don’t go to work angry
When we got married, the #1 marriage advice we received from family was, “Don’t go to bed angry.”
When you run a business with your partner, all of a sudden there are no divisions between work disputes and couple disputes. So if you’re mad at your significant other for neglecting to empty the dishwasher, it might impact the work you’re doing together.
As a couple, we tend to argue infrequently. We’re both lighthearted, low-conflict, mature people. But when we do inevitably get upset, we have to take time to discuss our issues and come to a resolution so that it doesn’t affect of our work.
Andrew and Dorothy add, “There have been times when we drive an extra lap around the block in the morning or after lunch so that we can finish a difficult conversation and walk back into the office at peace, or at peace enough to face our staff again.
“We have an agreement to never argue or disparage one another in front our staff. Arguments are for behind close doors and we aim that our staff, family, and friends only hear us being cheerleaders for the other, which we genuinely are.”
Meaning: You have to find healthy ways to manage conflict in both your professional and personal relationships if you want to successfully run a business together.
7. When starting the business, you double the risk
I have learned that being an entrepreneur is one of the most exhilarating — and risky — experiences possible.
Since neither of us have a predictable W2 job, the challenges of being co-entrepreneurs are greater. We don’t receive a “normal” monthly income to offset the less-consistent pay schedule and workload of freelance life. Net-30 or net-60 pay schedules mean that we often find ourselves waiting for big paychecks.
For us, our dependence on regular corporate paychecks has been replaced by the need to plan in between longer pay periods.
For Andrew and Dorothy, running a business together allows them to double down on their commitment to their craft:
”I think the fact that we are both all-in has been a huge asset to our business. We are both committed to spending money to grow our business, whereas a lot of photo/video people probably have to negotiate with their spouse on the next piece of camera gear.”
In addition, they have taken strides to provide a greater safety net for themselves. “To allay some risks, we recently got a substantial business insurance policy, including workers comp for each other. In case either one of gets hurt, we will still get that person’s salary for a year, in addition to medical expenses covered.”
Meaning: Working for yourself feels great. But when you go into business with your spouse, know that you may need to have some ingenuity to create an economic safety net for yourself.
8. Honor and share each other's achievements
One conflict we had to work through was comparing our work and accomplishments with each other. Very early on when I landed a new, exciting client through a referral from another business, Alex confessed that he felt somewhat disgruntled.
But we worked it out. In premarital counseling, we learned how to use listening skills to understand how our partner was experiencing something without judging that experience. So we listened to each other and eventually realized that we were being unfair to each other.
Andrew takes the opportunity as a chance to share his wife’s accomplishments. “I enjoy marketing as much as I enjoy creating, but it’s hard to promote your own work. So it’s really fun to promote Dorothy’s work for her. We do behind the scenes photos of each other's big shoots and celebrate each other in our Instagram Stories. It’s always easier to promote a band than a solo act (figuratively speaking).”
Meaning: Choose to see any success as a shared success (and a chance to brag on your spouse!) never as an individual win over the other.