When Your Spouse Resents Your Startup
"If not now, when?" Amy Evans (who requested her real name not be used) asked herself that question, and her life changed. The attorney and mother of two had always wanted to be her own boss. So in 2013, at age 41, she opened an office rental business in the Midwest. Like many first-time entrepreneurs, Evans thought that owning her own business would afford her some freedom and lifestyle flexibility. Although 18-hour days quickly disabused her of that notion, she continues to savor the thrill of building her own thing.
That thrill hasn't been infectious. The way Evans's husband, Mike, sees it, he married a professional, not an entrepreneur. A practicing attorney himself, Mike has had trouble adjusting to his wife's new venture. His concerns are common among spouses of entrepreneurs: his wife's workaholism, the financial risks, and the fact that the family is suffering all the stressors of two working parents while enjoying the income of only one.
Though Mike doesn't directly subsidize Evans's business, he pays all the family's living expenses. That puts her in a bind. So long as Mike remains the sole breadwinner, she is assumed to be the default parent. If Mike needs to stay late at the office, he (understandably) feels that Evans should leave work and go home to the kids. For Evans, keeping the peace at home often means neglecting the company.
"Mike's not an entrepreneur; it's not in his DNA," Evans told me. "He's watched me fall into the time pit of the entrepreneur. He can't grasp that I need every waking moment to accomplish my goals."
Like many spouses who support the family, Mike feels that Evans's pursuit of a dream is a luxury, while he puts in long hours for the paycheck and health insurance. He does enjoy his work at a boutique law firm. But, said Evans, "Someone in his position can feel cheated, simply with the knowledge that they're providing the security while the other person gets to spread their wings."
Things grow more complicated when the working spouse also supports the business. Though most couples, including Amy and Mike, make early commitments to keep business and family finances separate, young companies are like baby birds with gawping beaks, always needing to be fed. In such situations, joint checking accounts become hubs of domestic drama. The spouse deposits; the entrepreneur withdraws; and then the spouse withdraws from the entrepreneur in anger for not being consulted. Or the spouse demands a say in company expenditures, irritating the entrepreneur, who resents being slowed down or second-guessed.
So far, Evans has wisely avoided this trap, trying to finance her business on her own as much as possible. "I don't want to answer to anyone," she said. "I don't want anyone trying to override or judge my decisions in my business. That's one of the main reasons I became an entrepreneur--to be free of all that." She acknowledges that she could use the extra financial support that her husband could provide. "But I think it's healthier to set these sorts of boundaries," she said.
If the couple does wind up investing family money in Evans's startup, I'd urge them both to consider this infusion not as a donation but rather as a considered investment in a promising business. If it flourishes, then both spouses can take justifiable pride in the company's success.
MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG | Columnist
Contributing editor Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is the author of For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.