This is the message that almost every aspiring entrepreneur hears: To have any chance of success, you need to be all in.
From cofounders to investors to business partners, the expectation is that your business will be your life for the foreseeable future. Quit your day job. Set aside your social life. Give up your hobbies. Forget about getting a good night’s sleep.
And while few would say it directly, there’s another assumption in this mindset: If you have a spouse, partner, or children, they’ll need to be put on the back burner. Now is not the season for quality time with your loved ones. Like it or not, that’s the way it has to be.
As the spouse of a longtime entrepreneur, I can’t help but ask: Does it really have to be this way?
In the early years of my marriage, my husband, Ned, was absent so much—working long hours, traveling for weeks at a time—that friends of mine questioned his existence. He never attended my work functions or social events, even missing major celebrations like weddings. Our date nights were often canceled, our vacations bumped further down the calendar over and over again.
Whenever I asked Ned to spend more time with me or to set better boundaries with his business, he almost always responded, “I can’t.” He had too many responsibilities; he was under too much pressure from investors; he had to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible—right now.
We were stuck. Ned didn’t think his business could succeed if he spent less time on it; I wasn’t certain how our relationship would survive if we continued with the status quo.
Spend a little time with other entrepreneurs’ spouses and similar stories quickly emerge. They have experienced severe loneliness, and have had to sacrifice and make difficult choices for the sake of their partner’s business, perhaps working extra jobs to help pay the bills, or operating as single parents, or relocating to another state or country. The stress and uncertainty of the start-up life, plus the absence of their significant other, has taken a significant toll on their relationship and their own well-being.
One Silicon Valley marriage-family therapist I spoke with likened it to your spouse having an affair. “The start-up can be like a lover,” he explained. “The entrepreneur is intensely involved in this other. As with extramarital affairs, some marriages break up because of it, and others don’t.”
Unsurprisingly, entrepreneurs tend to have higher rates of infidelity and divorce than the general population. And it seems to have little correlation with the success or failure of the business. For every story about a marriage on the rocks because of the stress and financial woes of a struggling start-up, there is a story about a marriage that fell apart after a wildly successful IPO.
In contrast to the all-in expectation, research suggests that a strong marriage and family life can help sustain an entrepreneur rather than be a liability. Across multiple surveys, business founders credited a strong support network as one of their top reasons for success. And the most critical source of support is spouses.
An increasing volume of research is also demonstrating that working nonstop actually hurts productivity and efficiency. Entrepreneurs, like every other kind of worker, need down time to rest and be rejuvenated. They need to spend time with loved ones, engage in relaxing activities, and sleep enough to have the energy and focus to meet their goals.
Investing in family, then, doesn’t take away from an entrepreneur’s work goals. It actually promotes a more sustainable and effective way of working, allowing him or her to accomplish more over time and reducing the risk of burnout.
But the question remains as to how overwhelmed and overworked entrepreneurs can find the time and energy to maintain strong marriages. In the three years that I spent researching this question, the surprising answer I discovered is that there’s plenty that can be done, many of them small actions that have significant ripple effects. Minor changes in behavior and attitude can actually have a big impact on the health of a relationship.
It doesn’t actually take that much time to show that family is a priority for you. But it does take intentionality.
Below are some of the most effective steps that entrepreneurs can take to invest in their marriage, based on recommendations from top marriage-family therapists, executive coaches, and entrepreneurs themselves.
- Make sure your partner knows you are committed to the relationship.
When entrepreneurs’ significant others wonder if they matter anymore, your relationship is beginning a long slide into trouble. Regularly reminding your partner that you care goes a long way toward helping him or her to feel secure and content in the relationship. This could be as simple as a daily “I love you” or “thank you,” and other intentional gestures of affection and appreciation.
- Set a few key boundaries and honor those boundaries to the best of your ability.
Modern technology and the ongoing pressure entrepreneurs face make it very difficult to set boundaries between work and home. But setting aside specific times and places where work will not intrude—such as a no-phones-allowed weekly date night—will make the time you spend together much more meaningful. Research has shown that one positive interaction between partners can have affirming effects that last for up to a week. Reserving only a few hours a week for your relationship will make all the difference in maintaining trust, affection, and camaraderie.
- Make important decisions about the business together.
Since your start-up will impact your mate in significant ways, he or she should have a say in major business decisions that affect your family, including choices about investing personal assets, quality of life, where you will live, and when to expand, shrink, or close the company. Giving your significant other a voice will help him or her to feel empowered and respected, and will allow both of you to operate more like a team.
- Set shared priorities and goals together—and revisit these every few months.
Just as goals help focus you in your work life, goals will help you know what you are working toward as a couple. When do you want to attain a certain income by? Do you want to have children and, if so, when? What do each of you need to feel like you are living fulfilling lives? Having such discussions will get you both on the same page about your future and help you make professional and personal decisions that make sense for both of you.
Given the significant returns on well-being and sustainability that a healthy marriage can provide, intentionally nurturing your most important relationship is one of the best investments an entrepreneur can make. You can still give the bulk of your energy and attention to helping your start-up thrive. But this way, you won’t be pursuing your dreams alone. You’ll have a partner to encourage, support, and sustain you each step of the way. And, more likely than not, you’ll come out of the experience with a deeper, more fulfilling relationship.
Guest contributor: Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is the author of Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up World . She writes a column about the intersection of start-up life and marriage, family, and personal well-being for Inc.com and contributes regularly to Christianity Today. Her award-winning writing has appeared in dozens of publications in the U.S. and Asia. Dorcas and her entrepreneur husband, d.light cofounder Ned Tozun, have lived in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Kenya. They currently reside in the San Francisco Bay Area with their two adorable hapa sons. Learn more about Dorcas and her writing at chengtozun.com. Facebook–Twitter–Google+–LinkedIn