Confessions of a woman married to a man married to his business

The seminar for CEO spouses that Elaine Brodsky runs at our Inc. 500 conference gave us an idea. Instead of looking at company building through the eyes of the company builder, why not ask a spouse to tell her side of the experience? Here, Elaine tells her story. -- The Editors

In 1979, after 10 years of marriage and one child, my husband started a Manhattan-based delivery company called Perfect Courier Inc. Before founding his own business, Norman had been an attorney as well as a consultant to another courier company, but he was bored doing legal work and restless to try something on his own. I'd been an elementary school teacher but by then was staying home with our five-year-old daughter, Rachel. Although we weren't rich by any stretch of the imagination, our financial situation was reasonably secure. What better time to take a chance?

I remember the discussions in our backyard that summer, and how excited Norman was, working out the details with several of the key employees who helped start Perfect Courier. Norman definitely had the courage of his convictions; he simply did not believe the new company could possibly fail. Me? I had complete faith in his judgment, plus the knowledge that we wouldn't be wiped out financially if the business went under.

What I didn't understand -- and what events soon made me appreciate -- was how compulsive a personality Norman could become once he had responsibility for managing his own company. I underestimated how much of his self-esteem was wrapped up in this decision and the amount of physical stress and emotional strain that lay ahead -- for each of us.

Norman and I are very different types of people, physically and emotionally. He's a giant of a man, aggressive, outgoing, and egotistical, always wanting the biggest and the best. He's also the kind of person who lumps all of his emotions together as anger. I'm not that way at all. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, which is a far cry from the cosmopolitan community I live in now. My sheltered and somewhat shy attitude toward marriage was that you followed behind your husband and stayed out of the way. I thought of myself as being his balance or anchor -- his silent supporter -- but never a full and equal partner with a mind of my own. It took both of us quite a while to learn that these roles weren't satisfying. In almost no time, however, we came to see that we didn't think about this new company in quite the same way.

Being married to a businessman is seldom as glamorous or as ego-rewarding as being married to a business. Perhaps it's because I live by the beach, but I think of the problem in terms of the ocean. On the surface of the water, everything looks calm, just as in business: the dynamic, self-confident entrepreneur is floating above the waves with his company and his dreams; he's the one operating out there in the "real world," the one who's gathering all the attention and acclaim for himself as he goes about building a successful business. Underneath that layer of entrepreneurship, however, much as there are ocean tides and currents beneath the calm surface, there are other layers pulling in totally different directions. In the most extreme cases, those kinds of riptides are the raw material from which divorce statistics are made.

Norman was obsessed when he began Perfect Courier. He gave it 150% of his attention and energy, to the point where he nearly disappeared from our family life. The job was never 9:00 to 5:00, five days a week. There were always dinners in New York City, or meetings to attend, or emergencies to handle. Sometimes Norman had to go out and drive a truck himself, and there were even times when I was making deliveries in the family car. At home, Norman started wearing a beeper on his belt, seven days a week. Problem with the trucks? Emergency in the middle of the night? You-know-who's number was at the top of the list. I still remember nights when that beeper would go off in our bedroom like a fire alarm.

Eight months after he started Perfect Courier, Norman faced the company's first real crisis. A strike by the Long Island Rail Road in 1980 threatened to shut the business down for good. Norman started staying in his Manhattan office for days at a time, sleeping on a cot with a phone by his head. He was a physical and emotional wreck, and I was beginning to feel jealous of the business, almost as if it were a mistress I somehow had to compete with for his attention. Looking back, I remember the anger that was churning inside me. We had scheduled a family trip to Florida, and at the last minute Norman said he couldn't go because of the strike. After a lot of soul-searching, I decided to take Rachel with me to Florida -- alone. That was a turning point for me, the first time I'd ever gone off on my own. I had had it. Intellectually, I understood Norman's need to focus on the business, but emotionally, I was headed for disaster.

Of course, that was not the last of the crises. The next major one happened when the one-square-block area surrounding company headquarters was plunged into a total blackout. Once again, Norman went into hyperspace, working day and night to protect everything he'd dreamed of from going down the tubes. It may have seemed like a survival mode to him, but to me it looked like slow death. He was a zombie at home and a stranger at the office. If I called him at work during a bad time, he'd cut me short and hang up. At the house, he'd never sit down and talk about his feelings -- or, even more frustrating, listen to any of mine. It was almost as if his family had ceased to exist. Everything was at stake for him, and none of us could help.

Soon after this, I finally reached a point where I could not take this kind of life anymore. Nobody can live in a relationship in which she can't be number one sometimes. I'd wake up every morning feeling like I wanted to go right back to bed. Every few months my body would break down and I'd get physically sick, or I'd wind up going berserk: ranting and raving until I got out whatever frustration was aggravating me. In the long run I knew I had to make some choices for myself. One was to go back to school -- even though I already had a college degree -- so I began taking courses in assertiveness training, self-awareness, and chemical-dependency counseling.

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In the early days, even though Norman was the boss and the others who helped him start the company were the employees, we were socially friendly as couples. Norman used to have this thing about saying, "Joe and Tom don't work for me, they work with me' -- until it came to a confrontation. Then, of course, Norman was the boss. I used to get calls from all sorts of people, saying, "Do you know what Norman just did -- or didn't do?" I responded by getting into whatever the problem was and trying to make peace. All that happened was that I ended up getting ripped apart or squeezed in the middle. There are people who used to be associated with the company who don't talk to me to this day. I've had nightmares over relationships that were ruined. Norman can shut it off completely; I can't. It's difficult being guilty by association.

The more I focused on my own needs, the easier it became to say, Look, if you, Norman Brodsky, really do care more about the business than you do about this family, then please go get yourself an apartment and live in the city. If what you truly value in life are the fancy cars, expensive restaurants, and the monetary rewards of running a multimillion-dollar company, then fine, have your company . . . but plan to enjoy it by yourself. I hope you're going to be very happy, because this is not what I signed up for. I want more from my marriage.

Over the years, I was watching Norman go through major changes of his own. More and more, it seemed, the "family" that had rallied together to build Perfect Courier was falling apart. First, there was a young man whom Norman so identified with that he talked about grooming him as his eventual successor. Something about this person's behavior concerned us, and I began to suspect that he might have a drug problem. "Nonsense," said Norman. "You take a course in drug counseling, Elaine, and suddenly everyone's a coke freak." In this case, unfortunately, I was right. The story ended tragically with the young man's suicide, and Norman was devastated. It was the first personal crisis for us in terms of the company, but it would not be the last.

A few years ago, Norman found out that a trusted employee was stealing from the company. Neither of us could believe it at first -- it simply could not be, we told ourselves -- but the evidence was overwhelming. Norman went into mourning, as if there had been a death in the family. In a way, there had been. This was one of the people who had been with him for years. Friendships were shattered because of the incident. People blamed Norman for allowing it to happen. Even now, when some of us get together, we go over the details again and again, still not quite believing it happened.

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Although I do not work side by side with my husband, I was affected by these events because they affected Norman so deeply, and because I believe women are naturally more attuned to emotional issues in the first place. We feel things in a different way, we pay more attention to the human undercurrents -- or so my talking to other spouses has convinced me. And the types of business issues Norman discusses with me are people related -- I'm his emotional sounding board. But what's exciting for the CEO-husband -- taking his company public, for instance, which Norman did in 1986, or getting ready to make that first big acquisition -- may not have the same emotional charge for those who live with him. I can be supportive and sympathetic to what Norman's going through with his company, but that doesn't mean I share all his values or ideals. I don't read the stock tables every day. I don't fantasize about driving a Rolls-Royce or care about material things the way he does. I'd rather run a nursery school and my household than a fast-growth company.

When Norman started buying up other companies, he was like a kid in a candy store, a regular King Midas -- he believed everything he touched would turn to gold. I understood his need to expand the business, but it wasn't my need. He was doing the buying, but I wasn't buying into it, if you know what I mean. When he was out of line in our relationship, I told him so. In fact, a therapist we once worked with told Norman that I was the only person who had the nerve to stand up to him. Maybe that's true -- once I had learned how to stand up for myself.

If it affects me directly, I get involved -- even when it comes to the company. In 1984, Norman decided to buy out his original investors. There had been some strains developing among them, and since it was my future as well as his that was on the line, I needed to satisfy myself that the company was on sound footing. So I went in and asked questions. "Is Norman OK," I asked one of the investors, "or is something going on here that I don't know about?" I even told one of the key employees, "Look, you can lie to me if you want to, but I'm here because I stand to lose as much as anybody if Perfect Courier goes down the drain. And you stand to lose because you'll be out there on the street with me." Norman understood why I had to do this. Maybe some of the others didn't, but he did.

Norman, meanwhile, has had to pay a price in other ways. One incident occurred in 1985, on the night of my birthday. Norman hadn't been feeling well for a couple of weeks, but he tends to suffer in silence. He also doesn't take very good care of himself, whereas I'm a health and fitness nut. We'd made reservations at a fancy restaurant that night, and I remember telling him in the morning, "Whatever you do, Norman, don't screw up my birthday.'

As we were getting dressed that evening, I knew something was wrong. In fact, I was so upset about his ruining my evening that I went in to the bedroom to tell him I'd go alone -- when I found him collapsed on the floor. It took three people to help me get him in the car and over to the hospital. Very rarely have I seen my husband totally helpless and out of control. It scared the hell out of me. He was so sick it was a week before the doctors could operate (they removed his gall bladder). Lying in that bed so weak and helpless, Norman was forced to reevaluate his priorities, a process that had already begun during my pregnancy and the birth of our second child, Beth. He realized he had this business and all this money, but without his health and a loving family around to support him, what did he really have?

Businesses do not run in a vacuum, after all, and neither do marriages or households. Every CEO has people he or she lives with, the ones who must ultimately bear the brunt of the business frustrations brought home. Living with those ups and downs on a daily basis can put a terrible strain on personal relationships. If a spouse finds herself in a situation like I did a few years ago, when the demands of running the company begin to take their toll on the family, then she must learn how to deal with the turbulence and get in touch with her own needs. If she and her husband are not willing to make adjustments for each other, she may have to walk out and find a different kind of life for herself. Marriage to an entrepreneur is possible -- but it doesn't happen without both partners working at it any more than a successful company can run on its own.

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Elaine Brodsky has been married 19 years to Norman Brodsky, founder of Perfect Courier Inc.