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Years ago, I mediated among small business partners arguing over their business. I was always struck at how enmeshed their personal relationship was with their professional one. It was impossible to resolve the business challenges without considering the personal hurts.

And much more so when the business partners are also life partners. Especially working in the high pressure environment of a restaurant. Where the day-to-day is a ceaseless juggle of a thousand details. And you have big issues such as restaurant failure rates and securing working capital.

The family business dynamics mean that what annoys you at home is going to annoy you at work. The normal, little clashes between co-workers sting a bit more when coming from a life partner. So everything is heightened: The joys of creating a business together. The stresses and pains of keeping a business afloat.

Don’t wait for your restaurant marriage to feel the strain. Address how you and your partner will navigate all the aspects of your relationship.

LET’S TACKLE THE HARDEST STUFF FIRST

As a threshold issue, both of you need to value your marriage above your business. If both of you can’t say the marriage is more important than the restaurant, then self-help may be insufficient at this point.

Second, both of you should be equally invested in the restaurant. Is it fulfilling both of your professional aspirations? Are one of you coming along to support the other, but has professional dreams that are being ignored? Or perhaps, someone is just burned out and needs to step away for a bit.

Have a plan for how the two of you are readying the business if/when one of you no longer wants to be part of it. Plan out:

  • How long is the transition period before the partner is fully removed from the business?
  • What sort of financial cushion do you need to have before one can leave? You won’t be able to reduce or forgo owner salary in tough times anymore.

A practical plan will also force you to talk about how to have that difficult conversation. The spouse remaining in the business might be thrilled with the other’s new path. S/he may feel betrayed. Neither of you can know exactly how you’ll feel until it happens. Yet talking about it now will increase the understanding for whatever emotions come up. You’ll have a better understanding about how to handle your business finances and any small business loans you may come to use.

OK, YOU’RE STAYING BUSINESS AND LIFE PARTNERS

You’re both 100% in. No questions. But you’re driving each other crazy and the business is suffering. Staff are uncomfortable and confused about what’s expected of them. You need a better working relationship for the sake of your marriage.

Are you stepping on each other’s toes all day? You each have distinct talents. Make the division of responsibilities and labor clear. Who owns the back of the house? Who owns the front? Who handles financial issues? Who handles the marketing?

Allocate spheres of authority by your talents and interests. If you both hate doing one particular area, say manage payroll, outsource it. But one of you is still responsible for ensuring the outsourcer is doing their job.

Once you’ve decided who’s responsible for what – stay out of each other’s way. Respect their professional skills and let them do what they do.

In an article by JD Harrison, EventBrite founders Kevin and Julia Hartz share their secret to making it work, ” ‘Divide and conquer’ is our go-to strategy and we challenge ourselves to uphold it every day. While we both operate the business on a day-to-day basis, we are diligent about not treading on each other’s turf.”

Of course, some issues should be joint decisions. Clarify those issues during the same process of clarifying your separate roles. You’re responsible for the front of the house. Does that mean you can bust the budget and redecorate the entire space? Or can the partner responsible for food decide to install their dream kitchen?

Identify what factors are required when something must be a joint decision. Typically this will include expenditures over a certain amount, and changes in direction from the business and marketing plans.

HOW HARD A LINE BETWEEN RESTAURANT AND HOME DO YOU NEED?

You can find a lot of advice about how to separate restaurant and home. Some advise hard lines never to be crossed. Others say that’s unrealistic.

The truth is – you and your partner need to work out for yourselves what works for you. Are there certain issues that can cross-over? Perhaps some cross-over is all right, as long as it’s not the main topic of conversation or only lasts so long?

Do you have children? Are you working split shifts or are you both always at the restaurant together? These factors probably affect the equation.

What is consistent is that everyone needs time away from the business.

If your marriage becomes only about the restaurant, that’s not healthy for your marriage.

Again, different plans will work for different people. Do you agree that days when the restaurant is closed are reserved for a personal time as a couple? Do you have scheduled date nights? Plan out how you’re going to carve out time to focus on your marriage instead of the business. Otherwise, you’ll find the business taking over.

DON’T TAKE ADVANTAGE OF YOUR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP

Two waitresses are no-shows and the front of the house is frenzied. That’s not an excuse to be short-tempered with your spouse in the kitchen. Do you think your spouse over-orders food? Nothing’s going to waste and everything’s on budget? Let it go.

The emotional intensity of family business dynamics are magnified in a restaurant marriage. It’s so easy to take advantage of the solid foundation the marriage provides – enough to start weakening that foundation.

Don’t forget to appreciate how hard your partner works. Tell them. Don’t expect your partner to resolve issues occurring within your sphere of responsibility. You can expect some empathy. Maybe not while they are dealing with a mini-crisis of their own. But later.

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