Working With Your Spouse

There was a good piece in The Wall Street Journal recently about the “risky business” of working with your mate. It begins with the story of a man who was forced to fire his wife at home, during dinner.

Part of the problem, the article said, “was that the wife tended to want more ‘honey-sweetie’ displays of affection” than her husband was willing to provide. He had the habit of using his “work voice” when addressing her at the office.

“You don’t have to speak to me that way,” she would say. “You can ask nicely.” The essay went on to say that when he raised an issue about her work, she sometimes took it personally “and countered with a retort like, ‘Oh, yeah, well I noticed you left your dishes in the sink this morning.”

The business press is full of stories about husbands and wives getting together and making sweet corporate music. But the reality – according to the experts interviewed for the Journal article – is grim. The divorce rate in America, struggling along at about 50%, is higher among couples that work together.

Azriela Jaffe, a writer who coaches working couples, estimates that only one in 20 couples can successfully work together. “If you can’t talk about your partner as a life partner without a wince and you can’t stand watching your husband leave the Liquid Paper as well as the toothpaste uncapped, then odds are you aren’t a candidate,” the author of the article, Jared Sandberg, advises.

K and I tried to work together once. She was head of our company’s art department, and everyone in the office knew she was my wife. That didn’t encourage any of the people in her department (all women, as it happened) to work harder in her presence. On the contrary, they felt all the more comfortable chatting to her about who-knows-what during business hours. There were times when I’d walk into that department and see three or four women, highly paid executives, lined up to chat with her.

I couldn’t say anything, of course. Well, I did try … once.

I also experimented with the idea of having her attend my executive staff meetings. And here’s what happened. After explaining the benefits of some idea I really wanted the assembled team to accept, I asked if there were any questions. No one said anything – which is exactly what I was hoping for – until she put her hand up and said, “I have a question. Do you seriously expect us to swallow that crap? What kind of idiot are you?”

Later, after the meeting was over, I explained to K that the reason she shouldn’t talk to me that way at work was not because I didn’t deserve it, but because it would encourage all my other employees to talk to me that way too.

Fortunately, she understood. The next day, she resigned.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]