From the December 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

Once upon a time, two brothers in a family business got into a fierce argument at work. They shared their anger with their wives, who were supportive and defensive of their respective husbands' positions. Each wife built up such resentment of the other brother and his family that at a dinner at their in-laws' home, the wives could do nothing but glare at each other.

The brothers, on the other hand, appeared to have a wonderful time. Much to their wives' confusion, they joked with each other all evening and played a friendly game of basketball after dinner.

What had happened? Simple. The brothers forgot to tell their wives they'd resolved the business dispute. They were well past it, but it took the sisters-in-law months to get over their anger.

This is not a fairy tale, according to Bernard Kliska, partner of The Family Business Consulting Group in Chicago, who shared this true story. That can easily happen if you fail to consider how spouses impact a family business.

"Someone who's never been exposed to it doesn't really understand that the family business is the moving force in the family," says Kliska. That's why it's so important to talk about what role, if any, the nonfamily spouses will have in the business. Discuss, preferably before marriage or before the family member enters the business, how he or she can be an instrument of goodwill rather than an unwitting instigator. For example, consider how people handle employment gripes. A woman comes home from work and tells her spouse about how unfair the boss is. Her husband is sympathetic and defensive of his wife-even urging her to look for another job. But the situation becomes infinitely more complicated when the boss is your wife's father with whom you have a standing Saturday golf game.

A workable agreement has to be set up. What's expected of the family member who is working in the business? What's expected of his or her spouse?

The Family Member's Responsibilities

Family business members should consider strategies to encourage peaceful and supportive relationships between spouses and the family:

  • Don't complain about other family members. "There's potential danger in venting because you're only presenting one side of the story," says David Gage, founder of Business Mediation Associates in Washington, DC. And then, quite naturally, a loyal husband or wife will take his or her spouse's side.
  • Promote the strengths and importance of your family members. "In most cases, family businesses are stronger because of the complementary skills of their members," says Kliska. The fact that a brother or sister has different talents and does things differently than you should be celebrated, not criticized.
  • Communicate what's happening with the business and involve spouses in family and shareholder meetings. "These people are not [outsiders]," says Kliska. "They are an integral part of the family and, by extension, the family business." Spouses should know what major challenges the business is facing and how well it's doing. They should never feel isolated or left out.

Dale Crownover is president of Texas Nameplate Company Inc., a Dallas manufacturer of nameplates, ID labels, dials and panels started more than 50 years ago by his father. Crownover has attained a balance that works for him, his wife and the business. "I don't bore Julie with details of the family issues in the business," Crownover says. "But we do talk over coffee about troublesome processes, not troublesome people, and she knows everything about the business's finances."

The Spouse's Expectations

Spouses must also take the initiative to express their expectations clearly:

  • You have a right to express your feelings if you have all the facts. But the key words here are "all the facts," says Kliska, who sees family meetings as the way for spouses to hear all sides of thorny issues.
  • You have a right to a life apart from the family in business. You need to take vacations away from the family, have friends outside the business, and make time for your own family so your spouse's family doesn't engulf you.

You needn't discuss business all the time. Your career or activities are equally interesting topics of dinner-time conversation. "If the family business is too intrusive," says Gage, "it can take a toll on intimacy."

What's Your Role?

Every family business is as unique as every individual, so the roles spouses play will be different for each. Here are a few that spouses might shoulder:

  • Listener. While it's important to be an active listener, "keep in mind that people tend to talk about what doesn't feel OK. They don't talk about relationships that are going well," says Gage. "So in many instances, just hearing someone vent and not taking it too seriously is the way to go-unless your spouse asks for your honest reaction or ideas."
  • Supporter. Loyalty is important, of course. "But you don't want to make your spouse's battles yours," says Gage. "You might have opinions, but ultimately it's your spouse who's in charge of his or her working life . . . and it's his or her family."
  • Mediator. "If there's a problem between your spouse and another family member," says Kliska, "you could serve as a goodwill ambassador. While still remaining sympathetic to your spouse, you might say something like, 'Well, think of it this way...' or 'If you were in his shoes, what do you think you'd do?' These interjections prompt more expansive thinking."

If family members have any doubt about how important spouses are to the business, Kliska points out that these are the people who are helping raise the potential successors. If your spouse doesn't communicate enthusiasm for and support of your family and the business, how likely is it that your kids will take control of the reins one day?