Today's current 50 percent divorce rate is evidence enough that marriage is challenging. But, what if you impose an extra challenge on top of that? How does having one or both partners be entrepreneurs impact the likelihood for marital success?
To find the answer, I spoke with Trisha Harp, founder of the Harp Family Institute (HFI), which focuses on the impact that entrepreneurship has on relationships and, inversely, the impact relationships have on businesses.
Harp has dedicated her career to studying the effects of entrepreneurship on relationships, and she's is no stranger to the topic herself: She is the daughter of an entrepreneurial marriage and is married to an entrepreneur. After continually hearing terms like “entrepreneur’s widow” as well as stories about the overwhelming failure rates for entrepreneurial marriages, Harp chose to write her master’s thesis on “Spousal Satisfaction In Entrepreneurial Couples.”
En route, one thing that stood out, she says, is how "many entrepreneurial researchers reported how vital the spouse/support network was in an entrepreneur's life, but [how] little data had actually been collected to determine just how important.”
Now in her post-graduate phase, Harp has spent the last decade gathering data and interviewing hundreds of entrepreneurs and their spouses, to learn “as much as I can about the best practices of the most satisfied couples."
Overall, she says, her data has confirmed that when entrepreneurial couples -- couples with at least one entrepreneur in the household -- follow a few key steps, their relationships, though challenging because of the business, are not doomed. Here are her top six findings that may give you some hope for your own entrepreneurial relationship:
1. In spite of the odds, most spouses would marry their entrepreneur again.
“Our research shows that 87 percent of respondents have experienced cash flow problems at some point in time with their company," Harp says. And during those cash-flow problems, entrepreneurs reported, their sex lives decreased, she shared. It has been well documented that the top two reasons for divorce are money and sex. So, why does the data indicate that when spouses were asked: “Knowing what you know now about being the spouse of an entrepreneur, would you still marry your entrepreneur?” 88 percent said yes?
“One reason," Harp explains, "is that, in spite of the roller-coaster ride that defines entrepreneurship, spouses have reported a great feeling that they are 'on this journey together.' There is a strong desire to stick it out. HFI data also shows that when couples create a shared vision for their future, their satisfaction in all areas of life increases.”
2. Creating shared business and family goals leads directly to greater happiness.
Harp's data showed that entrepreneurs who set shared long-term business and family goals with their spouses scored higher in every area of satisfaction than those who didn’t. On her surveys, entrepreneurs who set shared business goals were 17 percent happier than those who didn’t; and 27 percent who set shared family goals reported higher levels of satisfaction.
Of those who set shared family goals, 98 percent reported being still in love with their spouse.
3. Positive outcomes result from sharing the good, the bad and the ugly about the business.
Contrary to what one might believe, Harp's data showed that when entrepreneurs shared both positive and negative aspects of the business on a regular basis, the other spouse's trust and confidence in the entrepreneur actually increased. "Sharing on a regular basis increases the spouse's belief in their entrepreneur’s ability to succeed," Harp says.
"When the entrepreneur chooses not to share, the spouse usually knows when something is wrong, simply by observing his/her partner’s demeanor. The not knowing leads to frustration, anxiety and impatience," Harp says. However, when the entrepreneur shares on a regular basis, "the spouse is privy to the solutions the entrepreneur is considering," she adds.
And discussions make the non-entrepreneur spouse feel as if he or she is contributing. "This helps increase a spouse's ‘buy-in’ and makes them feel like it is ‘our’ company instead of just ‘your company,’” Harp says.
4. Entrepreneurs and spouses need to be on the same team.
As the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top. When an entrepreneur comes home, he or she comes back to a partner, not an employee. “When a couple feels like they are in this together, it supports both members of the team. It’s 'us versus them,'" Harp says. "For example, my husband calls us 'Team D & T.'"
When spouses on Harp's surveys were asked how they handled stressful financial challenges, their number one answer was, "We supported each other fully," she says. Now, of course it's up to both the entrepreneur and the spouse to determine how that support plays out, but, "Asking pointed questions like, ‘When you’re stressed out because of the business, what can I do to make you feel supported?’ is always a good idea,” Harp says.
5. Entrepreneurs genuinely appreciate their spouses.
Her data also confirmed that entrepreneurs actually have a significant level of gratitude for everything their spouses do for them. The problem, however, is that spouses don’t realize their that entrepreneur-partners believe they [the spouses] are important to the success of the company.
"Directly showing your appreciation is one way to ensure you both know how meaningful your role is to the family, the business and each other," Harp advises. "Grab a stack of Post-Its and write a bunch of love notes on them. Be sure to include ways they help with all aspects of your life, including family and business. During dinner, be sure to thank your partner for something very specific they did to make your life a little easier.
"For example, my husband recently printed a copy of my car insurance. He sent me an email letting me know there was a copy on my desk and already in my glove compartment. My response: ‘Now you’re speaking my love language. I hate it when the card just sits on my desk taunting me. Thank you for taking that extra step.’”
6. It's important to be loving, fun, intelligent and honest.
Harp looked at how entrepreneurs and spouses characterized one another’s personality characteristics. Of the top six characteristics for each, four showed up on both lists. Despite a list of roughly 50 characteristics to choose from, both individuals repeatedly chose “loving, fun, intelligent and honest.”
"It’s been written that people often choose partners who complement us and fill our holes," Harp says. "Entrepreneurs choose partners who can keep up with them, emotionally and intellectually. That’s a pretty solid foundation for any marriage!”
So, is your own marriage to an entrepreneur doomed? You may be in for some rocky times, but, as Harp advises, as long as you set shared goals, communicate often, directly appreciate one another and continue to respect each other’s contributions, your entrepreneurial couples can rise above the challenge, letting you live happily ever after.