Why the start of a company so often spells the end of a marriage
No one, as far as I know, breaks out divorce statistics for entrepreneurs, but I'd wager they're higher than the U.S. average. Fortunately, my husband and I are not among that number. The demands of Gary's business, Stonyfield Yogurt, have created periods of distance and suffocating tension between us. But our marriage has survived the occasional stony silence and slammed door. Still, given the pressures on entrepreneurs and their families, it could easily have been otherwise.
Common causes of divorce include financial strain, neglect, lack of communication, and divergent goals. Postmortems on the remains of entrepreneurs' marriages can turn up all four in abundance. Other professions keep people away from home and preoccupy their thoughts, but they don't produce the toxic cocktail of resentment and anxiety created by putting the family's security constantly at risk. Then there's that green-eyed minx, Jealousy. How often have you heard an entrepreneur describe her company as her "passion"? How often have you heard one say the same thing about her spouse?
More fundamentally, people start companies to do their own things, while marriage is about doing things together. Particularly in already-strained marriages, there is no tension a business can't make worse. Kyle (for this column I'm mostly omitting last names) recognized fissures in his marriage before he launched an electronics manufacturing company. Afterward, those fissures widened into canyons. Kyle admits he neglected his wife, poring over business plans when she wanted to chat. For her part, his wife didn't take him seriously; she openly doubted that the company would ever support them. Her resentment assumed material form. If Kyle bought a tool for his business, then his wife would go out and buy jewelry of equal value. "Once I bought an oscilloscope, and in return I had to buy her a Corvette," Kyle told me. "She considered my stuff toys. Playthings." The couple divorced after two years.
Kyle's situation highlights how conflicting perspectives can destroy a union -- specifically if the entrepreneur insists he is acting in his family's interest, but the spouse believes he is acting in his own. One test of the entrepreneur's motivation is how much of the family's collective life he is willing to sacrifice with little payoff. Tony, a software and media entrepreneur, admits subjecting his wife to "eight years of damn-near abject poverty and suffering" while he struggled to produce and sell a TV show. Finally, "she couldn't take it anymore," he said. "Two kids in diapers and wondering where next month's mortgage payment was coming from." Tony's wife delivered an ultimatum: the TV show or her. "I said the TV show," he told me. "That was the day the love died." The marriage died with it.
Sometimes, entrepreneurship changes a person -- and not for the better. In the crucible of company building, traits such as bossiness, self-importance, and impatience intensify. Roger says his wife of 23 years dominated their relationship even before she became an entrepreneur. In his view, building a successful company made her feel so powerful and confident that she became dismissive of him. "The seeds of our dissolution were already there," says Roger. "But they were like popcorn. The heat of the business made them pop up all over the place."
Ironically, Roger says, the thrill of starting a business initially reinvigorated their relationship with freshness and energy. But over time, as his wife's workaholism continued, Roger asked if she really still wanted a husband. "She replied with some version of, 'Not now. Maybe later.' "
Roger had reason to resent his wife's treatment. But some male spouses of female entrepreneurs have less justifiable complaints. Even in 2010, marriages are still being wrecked on the rocks of sexism: There are husbands who resent rather than celebrate their wives' entrepreneurial success. The CEO of a thriving PR agency told me she split from her husband when he became emotionally and physically abusive in response to her growing independence. "He would tell people I wore the pants in the family, just because of my income," she said. Of course, successful women in any profession risk similar backlash. But entrepreneurs -- by definition leaders of others -- may pose a particular threat to vulnerable male egos.
Just as company building can lead to divorce, divorce can destabilize a company, and even sap brand equity if the company trades on a family image. Chris Blanchard grows 20 acres of vegetables at Rock Spring Farm in Iowa, a stone's throw from the Minnesota border. In his original marketing materials (which he is slowly replacing), he and his now-ex-wife, Kim, were the literal face of the farm. They still smile together in newspaper articles, from brochures, and on posters in natural-food stores. "We had this public image of the idyllic farm family, and that was part of what we were selling," Chris told me. He hasn't lied about the end of his marriage, but he hasn't broadcast it, either. "Look, my customers want a good story with their vegetables," he said. "They want a narrative. This divorce just doesn't belong in a Smith & Hawken catalog. And I have a business to run."
Chris assumed considerable debt to renegotiate his equipment and real estate loans after the divorce, putting the farm on shakier financial footing. He sorely misses Kim's skills and perspective. (Recently, in fact, he hired her back to work on the farm.) But farming has humbled him; he understands that outside forces can wound a business. There are droughts. There are floods. And now there is divorce.
Spouse partners and those who work in the company suffer their own reversals of fortune and status with divorce. Kim put 10 years of sweat equity into their farm; her only way out of an unhappy marriage was to leave that investment behind. "I didn't want to destroy the farm by asking for half of it," Kim says. She emerged without a job, her own credit history, or even a title to list on a resumé. Roger, whose wife thought she might want a husband later, lost his CFO spot along with his marriage. "I'd made a huge contribution, and that identity was stolen from me," he says.
In one respect, entrepreneurs are like everyone else who divorces. They vow to do things differently next time. Many accept blame for having skewed priorities and promise their future spouses undivided attention. They talk about date nights and shared hobbies. The next marriage -- like the next company -- will benefit from lessons learned in the failure of the first.
But prospective spouses of divorced entrepreneurs: Tread carefully.
Entrepreneurs are teachable but not wholly reformable. Underneath the grace notes of good intentions, I heard a common bass lick: The business will still come first. As Chris Blanchard puts it, "Anybody I get involved with will have to know that I already have one wife -- and it's the farm."
"My priorities haven't really changed," another divorced entrepreneur told me. "I still have big plans."
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is married to Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt. She writes a regular column about the impact of entrepreneurial businesses on families.
Contributing editor MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG writes a regular column about the impact of entrepreneurial businesses on families--based on her experiences being married to Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm, the organic-yogurt company.