I’m quite careful about dispensing unsolicited romantic advice. But when I sit with entrepreneurs who are just starting out, I find I have a lot to say about what makes for a good relationship. My husband Patrick and I have been married for nineteen years, together for twenty-five, and at some junctures, we have both been entrepreneurs at the same time.
Marriage and/or starting a family is stressful under the best of circumstances. Starting a business is stressful under the best of circumstances. Put them all together and oy vey! An entrepreneur’s hours can be long, the uncertainty is ever-present, and many founders have their financial well-being as well their identities wrapped up in a company’s success, which raises the stakes. I’ve been on both sides of the divide. I’ve been the partner standing in the supporting role, cheering Patrick on in his ventures, and I’ve been the one who has relied on him to cheer me on when I needed it, and to ground me in reality when I needed it.
In any venture, just as in any marriage, things can go very wrong. Partners can feel burdened by carrying the brunt on the home front, and feel as though they’re isolated from what’s going on in the business. It can feel as though the entrepreneurial partner rarely makes time for them, and their needs—maybe even their careers-- take a backseat. On the other side of the divide, entrepreneurs can feel that they have to protect their mates from some of the pressures and fears they feel. And in any case, even if they share their greatest worries, many still feel they have to bear them alone.
Patrick and I have been through some extremely hard times together, including a failed business, a near-bankruptcy, and a health crisis. When people ask me how we weathered it all, though the answer is multi-layered, there is one simple premise underneath all we’ve done right: We don’t blame each other. Blame is a toxic word. Blaming your partner is derisive, and when the chips are down, you want to be about building each other up and not tearing one another apart. Blame comes in only when empathy is lacking. Blame means you’re more interested in pointing fingers than in linking hands to figure the way forward.
If you’re in the thick of stress surrounding a startup and feel the urge to blame your partner, stop and close your eyes. Regardless of whether you are the one starting the company or the supportive significant other, think about what your partner’s experience has been like, what’s been hard for her, and why. Stay there. Linger there. Then, invite her to tell you about it, and really listen. Stephen Covey famously said “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Seek first to understand. For where there’s understanding, there’s no room for blame.