In bedrooms around the world couples are talking, and when one member of the pair leads a family business, the influence from the other side of the pillow is often underestimated.  Whether they run mom-and-pop stores or global businesses, what spouses are saying to each other matters.

The intimate bonds between partners give them access to information and the opportunity to play an influential role in each other’s lives. People involved in intimate relationships know the power a partner has to motivate and inspire or to distract and devastate. Intimate relationships create their own unique “balance sheets” that regulate behavior. Partners often can sense intuitively how to gain power and influence and they know where the emotional “hot-buttons” are that can be used to even almost any score. For most, this power carries across the multiple roles in their lives, affecting relationships with family, friends, colleagues and business associates.

Many successful business leaders and entrepreneurs acknowledge the positive influence of their intimate partner on their careers.  In fact, successful individuals often credit the support, encouragement, determination, and even the “nagging” of a spouse committed to a shared vision of success as being primary factors in their commercial achievements. Yet most of us are unaware of how the subtleties of relationship dynamics can likewise undermine a couple or a family in business together.

A business success or some other significant gain, such as an inherited ownership stake, by one member of a couple can upset a balance unconsciously calibrated over many years. Even a seemingly positive event can threaten a relationship in subtle ways. Conversely, a perceived failure by one of the partners could be just what the relationship needs to ensure its survival, perhaps by making the partners feel more like equals. And a shift in a couple’s unconsciously held relationship balance sheet can either feed or frustrate the needs of an enterprise that is unwittingly entangled in the intimate power struggle.

Consider the case of a couple referred recently, bitterly accusing each other of disrespectful and controlling behavior and on the verge of a divorce. During more than forty years of marriage, the wife had built a successful enterprise that supported her family and garnered her significant public recognition. Then, coincident with her waning business influence and pending retirement, her husband received a significant inheritance, including an interest in a successful business. Enjoying his newfound wealth and the interesting opportunities associated with it, the husband felt newly invigorated, developing interests outside the sphere of his wife’s influence. This new “success,” left unacknowledged by the well-intentioned marriage therapists they had already consulted, was a major stress, upsetting the balance of the marriage. Their difficulty in navigating this next stage in their personal lives was also having a significant impact on their children and extended families, as well as on the employees and customers of two businesses.

Understanding that intimate partners consistently look for an outside person or another external factor to divert attention from their relational conflicts can help make sense of what’s happening when a family business, or a person in it, becomes a potent “pressure relief valve” during marital conflict. In family firms that survive and prosper into successive generations, this tendency to triangulate presents even more intense challenges.  Influential family members who underestimate the power of family business dynamics and are unable to contain and manage their conflicts can cast spouses and in-laws, in particular, in the scapegoat role.  One third-generation member of a prominent family business went so far as to claim that the old proverb about marriage: “For this reason shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife…” is not possible in a family like hers.  Indeed in family businesses, the contradictory meaning of the word “cleave” has proven to be the experience of many a young couple!

While at times the marital challenges faced by family business members are significantly magnified by the intensities of power, wealth and notoriety, they are not, in their essence, substantially different from those faced by any married couple.  A way to gain a fresh perspective on some of the mysteries of family business is to recognize that the challenges of running a family firm can become a way to regulate the predictable anxieties of couple life. For example, in the absence of a new “guiding purpose” to stabilize an entrepreneur’s marriage, the avoidance of succession planning becomes a major risk factor contributing to family conflict and business failure.

The “avoidance” of succession planning has roots in a founding couple’s developmental struggles, especially when they are strongly identified with their involvement in the family firm.  The couple may unknowingly be “buying time” in the inevitable march towards the end of life.  Additionally, avoiding succession planning prolongs the parenting stage as the founders remain vital to the support of adult children instead of facing the natural and important pain associated with their children’s developmental need to separate differentiate from the family in order to form their own adult identities.

Although the challenges are formidable, there is exciting potential for business owning couples to reflect on the dynamics of their intimate relationship in the context of the financial risks, intense decision-making pressures, and rewards associated with a life led within a successful family firm. And as stewards of the world’s most powerful and enduring economic engine, they would benefit from a better understanding of how their relationship can make a profound contribution to the economic success and the personal growth of families and communities.