It's a dilemma faced by many entrepreneurs: How do you keep a marriage strong while meeting the round-the-clock demands of a small business?
Azriela Jaffe, 38, has been on both sides of the quandary. First, she endured the launch of her husband's accounting firm. Then, two years later in 1995, she abandoned a 15-year human resources career in banking and social services to start her own business, Anchored Dreams, from her Lancaster (Pa.) home. There she publishes an international online newsletter for entrepreneurial couples on business and relationship issues (www.isquare.com/az4.htm) and coaches couples in phone and online sessions. She is the author of Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business (HarperBusiness, $23).
Enterprise's Dennis Berman recently spoke with Jaffe--shortly before the birth of her third child in three years--about the impact a new venture can have on spouse and family.
Q: What drove you to write your book?
A: It's essentially the book that I wish we had read before my husband quit his job. At the time, my husband and I were both masters-level professionals in corporate jobs--your basic dual-career beast. My husband, at my encouragement, decided to leave his job to start his own business out of our house. And if the business had launched the way we had hoped, and everything had been rosy, I suppose I would be on an entirely different path. But the fact is, the transition for my husband from being employed in a corporate job to being self-employed was harder than we ever expected--on him, on us as a couple, and on our family.
Q: When did you realize that things weren't going as planned--and what happened when you reached that point?
A: One of the first things that happened is that our financial projections for my husband's business were way off, and we were unprepared for how we were going to handle that. I don't care how many women proclaim they're now feminists. My experience is that most women have difficulty being the primary provider for their family. And it was very hard on my husband's ego to suddenly be cast in the role of not being the primary breadwinner.
Q: There seems to be a fine line between supporting a spouse while also being realistic about the spouse's entrepreneurial dreams. How do you do it?
A: There is a conversation that couples absolutely need to have from the very beginning of the process, where they're clear with each other about the kind of sacrifices, financially and emotionally, they're willing to make.
The spouse who is becoming unsupportive, belligerent, angry, resistant, or downright crabby about what's happening in the business is very often not getting his or her concerns addressed. And those concerns may be something as simple as, "I don't feel like we have enough insurance," or "I'm worried that we're going to lose the house." And if that person doesn't feel like they have the ability to have a dialogue with their spouse, then they start getting even more resistant and put the brakes on the whole process.
Q: What's the worst that can happen when these communication breakdowns strike?
A: One woman who contacted me had lost her home, even her pets, because she and her husband had to move from a house to a rental property. They had a very coveted trust fund that she had relied on for years but was now dwindling down to what she felt to be almost nothing. Her husband was running his business into the ground. What made the situation so painful was that their marriage was disintegrating because he didn't even want to come home anymore. When he did, he had nothing but a very angry, frightened spouse who kept rubbing his face in his failures.
This gets down to a couple of basics. One is that this couple had not established a way to set boundaries with each other. She had no way to say, "this is too much," or "this has got to stop." They were just ignoring each other. When I lost touch with her, the business was still not profitable, and he was refusing to give up on it.
Q: You mention in your book that entrepreneurs starting a business can leave a spouse experiencing some of the distress an affair might provoke.
A: It can very much feel like there is, all of a sudden, a third person in the marriage. If you just take the sex out of it, everything else is there. You've got something or someone totally occupying your fantasies and your dreams, your thinking and your time.
Q: Before a spouse jumps into entrepreneurship, would you recommend the couple draw up a written agreement outlining boundaries and expectations?
A: If you are willing to, writing it down always helps solidify the commitment. But I hesitate to say every couple should do anything.
Q: What about a "contract" with the kids?
A: That brings up one of the tragedies of entrepreneurial life: One reason for starting a business might be to spend more time with your family, then the business takes over your life. One of the best ways to make sure that you don't lose touch with your family is to identify the things that hold it together, be it having family dinners at night or going to church on Sunday.
Q: What particular qualities have you found that help couples handle the havoc of entrepreneurial life?
A: A lot of what makes a strong entrepreneurial couple is what makes a strong marriage in the first place. What may not be so obvious, that I certainly have discovered, is that you've got to have a sense of humor about all this. If you take entrepreneurship too seriously in your marriage, you're going to end up going crazy. You should appreciate and enjoy the business, but you shouldn't be so attached that if it should change you're going to fall apart.
Q: What types of businesses take the greatest toll on family life?
A: Retail is the worst when it comes to locking you into certain hours. I remember very vividly a couple I interviewed that was running a Mailbox Etc. business and had put it up for sale. They didn't think through what it would actually feel like, six days a week, to be sitting in a Mailbox Etc. office. They felt really trapped in the business.
Then the other issue, when you're dealing with a manufacturing business, is the amount of investment and capital that's required. And very often, the financial risks and losses are much more dramatic when you're dealing with high-tech or manufacturing businesses than when you are with smaller home-based services.
Q: How can starting a business strengthen a marriage?
A: The point is that you've found your right livelihood, whether it's working together in a business or whether one or both of you are self-employed. As much as we can talk about the downside of self-employment, we can also acknowledge that a spouse trapped in an unhappy corporate job is not good for a marriage, either. So, in the best-case scenario, both members of the couple are thriving in their work lives and then they are gaining a certain amount of freedom, independence, and control over their lives, and that dramatically enhances a marriage.
Join Jaffe for a live chat on Apr. 19 at 9 p.m. EST. Go to AOL at keyword: BWTalk