We Can Work it Out Paul and I have been together for 31 years and have worked for 26 years in business together. In 1977, we had a child. I quit my job as a bookkeeper and began working for Paul part time. As I learned the ropes of running a small business, it freed Paul to work 70 instead of 80 hours a week. As our children grew older, I spent more time in the company.

Keep Work at Work At dinnertime our rule is, “Don't talk about work.” After dinner, if we want to talk about work, we do. If one of us doesn't want to, we say, “Let it go until we're at the office.” As with any working relationship, it hasn't been smooth 100% of the time, but we manage to get over inevitable bumps in the road. Paul understands I need time for other interests — I volunteer and run our personal affairs — and he understands my need to work only 32 hours a week.

Draw Your Lines I'd suggest that couples who are also business partners create boundaries with clear lines of responsibility. That doesn't mean making decisions independently. It means consulting each other as needed. Accept each other's roles, and understand varying levels of commitment. We have a strong personal pledge to each other. We've done counseling and family therapy with our kids. You can air differences and understand how the other person sees things. That's really helpful.

Nina Winans, CR
Winans Construction
Oakland, Calif.
Big50 1992

When For Better Makes Things Worse My wife, Peggy, worked with me for 16 years before we reached our crossroads: Get divorced or make our marriage and business work. Peggy started the company with me 28 years ago, doing bookkeeping. It was exciting in the beginning, building the business, but when it grew to 40-something employees, and she was juggling day care and sick kids, it became too much.

In 1992, we learned of a couple struggling with the same issues, and they got divorced. That was our wake-up call. In 1993, we made changes. We decided to respect our time together, to respect each other's abilities, and to create boundaries of when to talk about the business.

Ultimately, Peggy decided we shouldn't work together, because she felt robbed of doing what she wanted. (Peggy wasn't drawing a salary — we just bumped my salary up. That was a mistake: She didn't feel valued.)

When she got out, I saw her really smile again. About the same time, I decided to leave work every day at 6 p.m. We survived.

Separate to be Equal Here's what I tell people now: Respect each other's time and talents. Allow the other spouse to do what they want. If they work with you, pay them the prevailing salary — if not more. Recognize their strengths. Praise them for their contributions. Spend time with each other and your kids. And look for signs your relationship isn't going well. Guys get tunnel vision when they're creating a business. We take a lot for granted.

Bill Medina, CGR
Medina Construction Co.
Salina, Kan.
Big50 1994