From the September 2000 issue of Startups

Making love in the afternoons. Enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee together in the morning. Taking a moment for a brief hug or an "atta boy." Closing up shop at 4 p.m. so both mom and dad can watch 6-year-old Jane in her first dance recital. Shopping together at Staples and saving money by sharing office supplies. These are the romantic images one can conjure up when thinking about couples working at home.

But an alternate reality can also be true: A fight the couple engaged in the night before about an upcoming family get-together spills over to the breakfast table. There will be no refreshing and healing break as each leaves for the office. They have to tackle a business project at 9 a.m.-together.

The trip to Staples doesn't go so well. She wants to spend $150 more than he does on business stationery and computer software. By the end of the shopping expedition, she's calling him "cheap," and he's accusing her of being irresponsible with money.

Or, for the married entrepreneurs who work together at home but in separate businesses: Instead of giving each other a "high five" when one accomplishes a goal, the relationship is rippled with jealousy and competitiveness which diminishes any celebration of each other's successes. Instead of "Good job," the unsaid exclamation might be, "Yeah, so? I could have done that, too, if I had more time. But I'm doing most of the work around here taking care of kids and cleaning the house. If you pitched in more, I'd be able to score as well!"

Which scenario is most likely to occur when a couple works closely together at home, either in the same business or in different businesses? I'm not hedging when I say both are equally possible. Success or failure as a couple working from home depends on a number of factors: individual personalities, the couple's communication skills, how happy and in love they are when they begin working from home, individual needs for space and togetherness, how well-suited each individual is to homebased entrepreneurship, and how financially successful the business or businesses are.

Unfortunately, even a couple perfectly matched for working from home can run into difficulty when enduring the pressures of a business failure or a life-cycle crisis. Conversely, a couple who ordinarily wouldn't work well together may surprise themselves and bond in the course of fighting against difficulty. Regardless of each couple's temperament and conflict-resolving skills, one thing seems to be universally true for all couples: Within each relationship, there must be some individuation. The world may view you as a "we," an inseparable business partnership or a spousal relationship strengthened by sharing space and resources in separate businesses. Either way, you must find some distance from the other. How much depends on your individual temperaments.

But how do you get physical and emotional space when you're in such close proximity?

Finding Your Personal Space

Greg, 53, and Ann Bidou, 45, run a 2½-year-old part-time antique motorcycle parts business, T100 Toymakers Inc., from their home in Trumball, Connecticut. Ann shares their secret to a successful work-at-home partnership: "We have separate offices within our house, and we have separate areas of expertise so we don't tread on each other's toes very often. Greg [provides customers with] technical and mechanical advice, takes orders, prepares invoices, [handles] inventory purchasing and packing; I handle the accounting, banking, tax preparation, promotion, shipping and receiving.

"My office is upstairs; his is downstairs. I have a computer; he doesn't need one. However, Greg is starting to get turned on by eBay auctions for buying and selling inventory, which may mean more use of 'my' computer. We'll see how that goes!

"We overlap in four areas: customer service, inventory record-keeping, swap meets and money issues. We have few disagreements in the first three areas, but over money issues we've had some 'intense' discussions. Greg is a risk-taker, a buy-now-pay-later, we'll-make more-money-tomorrow person. I'm a save-now, pay-cash, don't-spend-more-than-you-have person. But we make it work to our advantage by leveraging the strengths of each style. Combining his risk-taking and my caution makes us a much stronger team."

One of Greg and Anne's secrets is to get out of the house and socialize as much as possible. Not only is it good for business, it helps refresh their relationship as well. They've also found their own formula for dealing effectively with conflict.

"We deal with difficult days by confrontation and/or withdrawal," says Ann. "If confrontation gets too intense or goes nowhere, we withdraw until we chill out. [Later,] we'll go at the issue again more calmly. We've also gone to couples therapy once a month since we were newlyweds to prevent little issues from becoming big ones. That has really helped, especially by teaching us listening skills and how to risk telling each other what we truly want and need, even if it seems like it will cause conflict. In truth, it prevents more conflicts than it causes."

Working Together, Living Together

Shel Horowitz and his wife, Dina Friedman, of Hadley, Massachusetts, work together and separately in Accurate Writing & More, a writing and editing business. They've discovered one of the primary rules for working at home couples: Share a computer as infrequently as possible, and preferably not at all.

Shel recalls: "When Dina first left her day job [in 1987] to join me in the business, the biggest conflict was over computer time. Much pressure was relieved when we got a second computer-though because only one of our computers [is connected to] the Web, there's still some tugging and pulling about who gets to use which computer. Probably within a year, we'll get a new computer. Then maybe we'll network them so that files can be shared and it won't really matter who's where."

Shel and Dina, both 43, also had to work out differing preferences for the ideal working environment. Shel likes to work with music in the background; Dina prefers silence. Shel is the admitted clutterer of the two. But they've worked it out over time-Shel flips on the music as soon as Dina leaves the house. And many couples working from home swear by ear plugs or headphones.

Shel reports a happy marriage of 16 years, only improved by working together. But their business success is not something that just "happened" along because they loved each other. They give their relationship ongoing energy, just as they do their business, Shel acknowledges.

"We talk to each other a lot, try to have a meal out alone weekly, give each other a lot of massages and cuddles, and take the dog for walks together," Shel says. "We make a point of establishing channels for communication. We keep romance in our lives with a lot of different strategies, most of which cost little or nothing." (It helps that Shel is the author of the self-published book The Penny-Pinching Hedonist, so he knows lots of low-cost tricks).

Adds Shel, "In addition to hiking and massage, going out for coffee or dessert, riding our bikes, going dancing, playing ball with the kids, being silly together and working on the same causes, we take two significant vacations per year, one with and one without the kids."

The spaces in their togetherness allow for Dina to work on her novels, something that for her requires isolation and intense concentration. Dina also teaches at various local colleges, giving Shel increased opportunity to blare the music when he wants to.

Shel and Dina enjoy vacationing together, but some work-at-home couples take vacations away from each other. Whether it be once a week, a weekend away from the family once in awhile, or even an extended vacation or sabbatical away from home, many couples design ways to infuse longing for each other back into the relationship when they're feeling claustrophobic or irritable.

When I'm working as a coach with couples who are strained by their working relationship at home, I suggest that the frequent fighting they're reporting may be an ineffective method they've chosen for getting space from the other. There's nothing like a nasty argument to put a wall of separation in to the relationship! Ideally, a couple can develop more nurturing and productive ways to separate from one another when needed.

Although working from home with a spouse nearby can strain a marriage, it also provides incentive to work on the relationship and not let laziness and inertia set in. Many of the strategies for keeping a work-at-home marriage thriving are the same suggested for any couple. Homebased entrepreneurial couples, once they develop the right formula for being around each other much of the day, will often fall in love in a deeper way than was possible in their previous separated lifestyle.

Should You Work at Home With Your Spouse?

Can you share an office successfully with your spouse?

Score each question from one to five, one indicating that you strongly agree and five indicating that you strongly disagree. Then total your points.

1. My spouse and I have the same need for tidiness, organization, space and clutter in our work area.

2. I can share a computer or desk space with my spouse, or we will have separate workstations for each of us.

3. My spouse and I enjoy being together a great deal. We can work together in close quarters without friction.

4. I don't need private, uninterrupted space to do productive work.

5. I work better when I'm working near my spouse than when I'm working alone.

6. My spouse and I are able to negotiate and problem-solve well. We easily resolve conflicts.

7. I really appreciate having my spouse available for advice, encouragement and constructive comments throughout the day.

8. My spouse and I can share office equipment efficiently and still meet our individual business needs.

9. We have no choice but to work it out since our only available space is shared office space.

10. Even within our shared space, I will be able to carve out my own separate work area.

11. My partner may have work habits that annoy me, but even if I feel judgmental, I've learned how not to express it, unless it gets in the way of my work.

12. Both my spouse and I have a sense of humor. We laugh and have a good time together throughout the day.

13. My spouse and I will regularly take time away from each other, outside of the home office, when needed.

14. My spouse and I will be able to keep our business and personal conflicts separate. We don't fight dirty, and when we do fight, we don't stay angry with each other for very long.

15. My spouse and I work best at different times of the day, so we'll be able to coordinate private time in our shared office.

16. Sharing a home office is our first choice right now. If doing so begins to jeopardize our relationship, we'll look for other alternatives.

Scoring:

16-36: Looks promising!
37-58: You will face several challenges, but it could work.
59-80: Danger! Sharing a home office could seriously jeopardize your relationship.

Quiz is reprinted with permission from Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business, A Planning Guide for Couples, by Azriela Jaffe. Copyright 1996, HarperBusiness.


Azriela Jaffe, Entrepreneur.com's Homebased Psychology Expert, is the founder of Anchored Dreams and author of several books, including Honey, I Want to Start my Own Business.