Married to the job
Going into business with your spouse can be a dream or a nightmare – good communication is the key to making it work
Alan and Valerie Kingston, owners of Glenilen Farm, with their children, Sally (12), Grace (10) and Ben (7), at their family farm. Photographs:Emma Jervis
When Jamie and Lisa Cobbe gave up jobs in Dublin to start a business together in the west, they had to learn to speak to each other as colleagues – not as a couple – during working hours.
It took a good six months to sort out their working relationship, after starting Water Babies, a baby swimming programme, in the west.
“If there was an issue in the office we would argue it out as a couple instead of discussing it like colleagues,” says Lisa. “It made me realise that if we were going to stay together, we had to learn how to speak to each other properly.”
Even after that realisation, it was a conversation they had “to revisit a couple of times”, says Jamie.
As with any new venture, there were initial financial difficulties and self-doubt. But for the Cobbes, who had two young children, there was the additional pressure of staking the whole family’s future on the business.
“We had for a long time wanted to move to the west coast but we had never been able to figure out how to do it,” says Jamie. For him, surfing was the big draw; for Lisa, it was having her mother, sister and brother living in Galway.
It was only after taking their first child, Leon, now aged four, to Water Babies in Dublin, that they spotted a franchise opportunity that might make it all possible.
But two significant life events – the death of Jamie’s father and the birth of their second child, Marley, now aged three – delayed their pursuit of a better work-life balance.
It was March 2011 before they moved and then faced the reality of trying to make a go of their own business.
“We had both given up really good jobs and the recession had just hit,” says Lisa, who was an archivist in the National Library, while Jamie was the manager of a centre for young adults with intellectual disabilities.
“There was a lot going on and we did question for those months had we made the right decision.”
The word “copreneurs” has been coined for couples like the Cobbes and, whether the intimate partnership or the working relationship was established first, keeping both on an even track can be tricky. Home can no longer be a total escape from work, and vice versa.
“I think it is definitely challenging,” agrees family therapist Ann Campbell. “While you realise it is a professional relationship, you are much more likely to get short with somebody you are in an intimate relationship with.”
Good communication is important in all relationships but here it is doubly needed – clarifying in advance the roles and ground rules. And listening is the one part of communication that gets lost very easily, she advises.
It would be a good idea if couples moving into this two-dimensional relationship acknowledge that it requires a huge readjustment and talk about how things between them might be different.
Another aspect of being copreneurs is that employees will judge you as a couple, as well as employers.
“The other part that is huge for couples working together is family life,” says Campbell, who is vice chairwoman of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland.
“Gender issues come in here; when it comes to the crunch, whose responsibility are the children? Are they both business partners’ responsibility or is there an idea that one is the stronger partner, therefore they do less family stuff?”
Their own childhoods will colour expectations and, as they have had different upbringings, they really need to discuss how they are going to handle this. Likewise housework, which has been shown to be the thing all couples argue about most.
Yet couples working together, who may have spent the day talking business, can’t go home and argue with somebody else about who hasn’t done what, she points out. “You’re faced with that conversation with the same person as well.”
She advises co-workers going home together after a bad day to “name it and park it”. Acknowledge there is a problem at work but agree you are going to leave it aside and talk about it in the morning.
Self-care is really important, particularly when there are multiple demands on the one relationship. There is a fair expectation of a certain amount of care and minding in the intimate relationship, says Campbell, “but can you be black and white and just get on with work and have a different connection in the workplace”?