Career Couples| February 21, 2023
How do couples who work together keep their shalom bayis intact?
“OH my gosh, you guys are just the cutest!”
“It must be so much fun to work with your husband every day.”
Sari and her husband often hear those comments when clients watch them working together. And they smile and nod. But the truth, Sari says, is more complicated. “There’s nothing cute, cool, or fun about working together as a couple. You can be an incredible team and your workday can contribute to your marriage. Or it can be an utter disaster.”
For most of human history, it was the norm for couples to work together. They ran family farms or businesses in or close to their homes. Professor Glenn Musk, a professor at North Dakota State University who has spent the last 20 years studying couples who work together, writes that about a third of businesses in the US are run by couples he calls “co-preneurs.” Many more aren’t officially manned by family, but receive regular, often uncompensated help from spouses or partners.
Spouses have always had to work together as a team to ensure the running of a well-functioning bayis ne’eman. But that teamwork intensifies when they choose to work together professionally. How can couples learn to negotiate working together in the smoothest, most productive way?
Then and Now
Half a century ago, most Jewish women were homemakers and/or teachers. Businesses were dominated by men, but when necessary, wives would play a supplementary role. They ran their husbands’ medical offices or stood at the cash register.
That model is still the case for many couples today. Yocheved Frischman, for example, married a primary care physician trained in holistic healing and acupuncture. She describes herself as the “chief operating officer” of his practice.
She runs the business end of the practice, keeping records and the books. She began her involvement when they lived in the US, but since their aliyah the practice is much busier, and she manages employees who deal with the Israeli record-keeping needs.
Rachel Sarway started out helping her husband with secretarial tasks when he opened a business in judgment enforcement (helping people recoup money the courts have determined is owed them). “It involves a lot of nitty-gritty information that has to be entered into the system — subpoenas, court documents, bank information,” she says. “But my husband isn’t the type to sit at a desk all day and has less patience for details than me. I’m more organized, and little by little, I started taking over a lot of his administrative tasks.”
Not every wife is happy at finding herself drafted into helping her husband. Financial coach Simi Mandelbaum dealt with a case in which a man’s parents wanted to help him make more money, and pushed him to buy a business that would require his wife’s participation. “She hates it,” Simi says. “She doesn’t enjoy the work.”
Similarly, when Bracha’s husband began selling computer equipment, he relied on her to make deliveries for him. She did it with good grace, knowing it helped the family’s bottom line, but admits, “That wasn’t the career direction I’d planned on pursuing, and I would have preferred to spend my time differently. But my husband needed help. I sweetened the situation by listening to music and shiurim as I drove around making deliveries.”
As years have gone by, it has become more common for a husband to join a wife in her business rather than vice versa, or for them to undertake a business together. The US Census Bureau reported that the number of women-owned businesses increased by 42 percent between 1997 and 2006.
Simi Mandelbaum cautions that when a husband joins his wife’s business, his ego may have a hard time assuming a supplementary role. “Many men have a difficult time taking orders from a wife who is the boss of the business,” she says. “The wife has to make sure he gets the proper respect at home for their shalom bayis.”
Dr. Yisrael Feuerman, a psychologist specializing in relationship and money issues, notes that in most partnerships one of the partners will end up dominating. “Usually in a husband-wife business there’s an unspoken agreement that one of the partners will take a lower profile,” he says. “That requires some shrinking of the ego and allowing the other partner to make mistakes. But both partners should be very aware that when you win, you win together, and when you fail, you fail together.”
He notes that it’s common in partnerships for an unconscious element of competition to creep in. One spouse may boast, “I got up at five today to get a start on the workload.” But experts on the psychology of teams suggest that instead of trying to keep up or give in to the other person’s competitive side, you should instead ally yourself with it. “Be friendly with the part of that person that’s egotistical and wants to dominate,” Dr. Feuerman suggests. “Keep the focus on the team and its goals.”
Sari and Shmuel’s Story
For Sari and her husband Shmuel, going into business together was a journey that started by accident; they never planned on working together. “My husband got a part-time job as a mashgiach in a restaurant,” Sari recounts. “Spending so much time in the kitchen, he became very familiar with many aspects of the business.
“ ‘You’d be so good at this!’ he kept telling me. ‘You’re a fabulous baker, you work well under pressure, and you’re great with people. Why don’t you sell your desserts?’ ”
At the time, she replied, “Me? I like making cookies for you and eclairs for a kiddush. I’m not a businesswoman.”
But they needed more income, so through one of her husband’s new contacts in the food industry, she landed a job as the dessert chef for a high-end caterer. She threw herself into the job, taking a course given by a Parisian baker, and learning all she could about creating elegant desserts in bulk. People liked her creations, and soon the caterer was inundated with requests for her desserts, even for affairs he wasn’t catering. He had her working long, hard hours, but the lion’s share of the profit went into his pockets, not hers. It rankled.
“Look,” Shmuel told her. “I’ll take care of all the finances, and I’ll do all the ordering and work with suppliers. You’ll work with the clients — everyone loves you — and make your incredible desserts.”
Sari hesitated, but then the caterer she’d been working for suddenly announced he was making aliyah. Within two months, she was out of a job. With a prayer on her lips, she told Shmuel she was ready to go ahead. Two months later, La Pâtisserie was born. And two months after that, they had so many orders that they needed to hire someone to help with the baking.
There’s nothing like working together to bring out the different strengths and weaknesses of both spouses. But those differences are actually a good thing. In Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, author Joshua Wolf Shenk maintains that dyads like a husband-wife team often produce a greater flowering of creativity than one person laboring alone. “The pair is the primary creative unit,” he says, bringing in dozens of historical examples from culture and science to prove his case.
In fact, he demonstrates that many a “lone genius” actually worked in tandem with a spouse or helper, a person often unacknowledged by the history books. “We [partners] need similarities to give us ballast, and differences to move us forward,” he writes, quoting William Blake. “Without contraries, there is no progression.” In other words, if there are no differences between partners, nothing new can be contributed to their collaboration. It’s better when each brings different strengths to the table.
Shmuel and Sari are a study in contrasts. She’s very laid-back, a free spirit who likes to be spontaneous. Shmuel is methodical and thorough. In many ways their differences complement each other.
But they also share many traits. Like most entrepreneurs, both are strong, brave, and adventurous. That’s great when it comes to getting out there and taking risks and making things happen, but not as great when you need to follow rather than lead. It took time, and a business coach, to iron out those kinks.
Rivky Fefercorn and her husband Aryeh, who jointly run TEAM ARI Realtors in New Jersey, also have different business styles. Aryeh has greater sangfroid when it comes to taking risks, like investing in properties or big advertising campaigns on the local school buses. “I’m more of an overthinker,” Rivky says. “My husband’s a doer. And he doesn’t panic when revenues are slower. He’ll just say, ‘If we need to go get a job, we will!’ I’m the one who joined a chaburah on emunah and bitachon to anchor myself.”
Many men have an easier time than their wives tolerating the ups and downs of business. They seem to imbibe early on, the concept that business means you win some, you lose some, and that competition, hondeling, and the occasional unpleasantness are simply part of the game. “My husband is much better at negotiating, and his patience with the clients, especially first-time home buyers, is unparalelled,” Rivky says. Sari’s husband took over for her when a client behaved in such a disrespectful, condescending manner, she was ready to cancel the whole contract. “I told him how impressed I was at his ability to stay professional with this awful client,” she says.
Every couple works out how to handle their own household budget, but an even greater level of coordination is required when it comes to running a business together. Simi Mandelbaum says that every person has a financial personality that carries over into all aspects of their lives. It helps to recognize your financial personality and see how it differs from your spouse’s. She often asks clients, “What do you admire about your spouse’s approach to money?” “The thing they say they admire, such as being very carefree or deliberate, is usually the thing that will be the most stressful in their marriage,” she asserts.
The same principles apply to husband-wife teams. One spouse may want to invest all the profits in the business, while the other wants to spend some of it on their home. Often one is more willing to take risks, which may mean expanding the business or spending on a marketing campaign, while the other prefers to put money into savings or build up inventory. “In the older generations, the wife would keep quiet and go along with her husband,” Simi says, “but today’s women are about talking things over and coming to a mutual understanding.”
Stay in Your Lane
When Sari and Shmuel decided to open their business together, everything made sense on paper. But Sari knew that once they jumped in, the division of labor would soon get murky. This made her wary, so they went to discuss it with their rav. The rav also had concerns. He told them it could only work if they maintained strong boundaries in place regarding who did what.
Shortly after they began, they realized what he meant. They did have a lack of clarity about who was responsible for what. A client was confused when he was sent two different estimates, because each had thought the other was taking full charge of that account.
The two of them had different visions for the business. Shmuel wanted to grow as fast as possible, while Sari preferred to find a core of loyal high-end clients and cater to them. Shmuel thought she should develop a few signature desserts and create those in bulk, possibly even sell them to local grocery stores. But Sari, a creative soul, wanted to have a menu that was ever-changing, where the customer would know that he’d always find something new. They discussed these issues endlessly, and at some point, the discussions began to sound more like arguments.
To deal with these issues, Sari and Shmuel decided to consult with a business coach, Zev Kahn.* “He wasn’t cheap, but he was worth every penny,” Sari says. “Zev is like a combination of a business ‘rav’ and a marital therapist, and we agreed that he would have the last word on business decisions.”
They divided the roles according to each one’s strengths. Sari is the creative salesperson and does the bulk of the work until they seal a deal. She helps potential customers figure out what dessert they want for which occasion, which corporate gift they want to send their client, or what line of baked goods they may want to add to their café menu.
Then her husband steps in, finalizing prices, crafting a contract, dealing with orders and deliveries. “We’re a tag-team,” Sari says. “Clients love having the different skill sets involved, and they know exactly who to go to for which issues. The business coaching really paid off. Our business has tripled since we started with Zev.”
Too Much Togetherness?
“Honestly, I believe that working together is not a good idea for most couples,” Sari avows. “There’s a lot to be said for having separate orbits during the workday and reconnecting in the evening. When you work in the same business, you’re together all the time.”
She says that giving each other physical space was very helpful. “We used to work out of the same space. My husband had set up a large desk in the corner of the commercial kitchen we rented. But it was a disaster.
“I like to have music blasting while I bake, my assistant and I schmooze, and the commercial mixer makes a racket. My husband needs quiet and keeps his desk meticulously organized. It was impossible for him to work in the same space as me.”
They decided to separate during the day. Now her husband works from a home office, and only comes to the kitchen if a client wants to meet him in person. Most of their contact during the day is via email or text. This also enables them to “come home” to each other without having spent the past eight hours in each other’s space, and makes the division of labor easier to uphold.
Rivky and her husband each have an office in their home. She didn’t mind spending many hours working at home together a couple of years ago, when the business was busier and she still had a child at home. Now that her youngest is married, however, and the business is seeing a seasonal slump, sometimes being home all day with her husband in their home offices can be lonely and boring — through no particular fault of his.
“It’s just the two of us, so we don’t have the larger social structure of a big office,” she says. “I just need to get out sometimes, to get some space and fresh air and see people. I’ll take my laptop and go sit in a Starbucks.”
But Dr. Feuerman doesn’t think working in close proximity has to be a problem. “Today, especially since Covid, many people are working out of their homes,” he says. “They set up home offices and stayed in them.” He himself has an office in his home, but it’s separate from the rest of the house. On top of that, he notes, Jewish men have to be out of the home two or three times a day for minyan and learning.
Keeping Work and Family Life Separate
Faigie W.*, who ran her husband’s medical office, realized she needed to set firmer work-life boundaries when she had her third child. The day after the birth, as she lay recuperating in a hospital bed, her husband appeared with his hands full — not with flowers, but the office appointment list. “You have to help me with schedulings!” he cried.
Simi Mandelbaum states that it takes self-discipline for couples to demarcate and maintain separate spheres for work and home. She herself works from a home office, but maintains two cell phones, one for work and one for personal use. When she’s “at work,” she turns off the personal phone, and vice versa. “When you go to dinner with your husband, leave the business in the car,” she says. “Otherwise you won’t be able to just enjoy the relationship. Detach yourself mentally! Use a visual image; imagine a cage for your cell phone and business invoices.”
Journalist Bruce Feiler found that working closely with his wife Linda while raising a family meant that when they had a disagreement about one part of their lives, it became an excuse to bring up everything else bothering them: “You don’t like that decision I made about that project? Yeah, but you never finished the dishes last night.” Writing in the New York Times (“Together, at Home and at Work,” November 2013), he says the experts call this “spillover,” and adds that in today’s day and age, our technologies make it harder to set boundaries.
Sari also found that the typical sorts of foul-ups that happen in business — an order that needed to be placed and wasn’t — can quickly spiral from a professional issue into a personal one. An innocent mistake can become a relationship issue: You knew how important that was to me. How could you have forgotten to do it? Don’t you care about me? Then those bad feelings can follow you home, so there’s no refuge for you or your spouse.”
Obviously, we have to treat a spouse differently from an employee or partner. “You can dispose of an employee who doesn’t perform. A professional relationship is purely commercial,” Dr. Feuerman says. “But spouses who work together have a love relationship. That means they’re willing to work harder and sacrifice more to make sure it works.” On the other hand, it’s harder and more hurtful to correct or criticize a spouse, or reach the painful decisions that things just aren’t working out and ought to be disbanded.
Husbands and wives who don’t work together may only be familiar with each other’s “home” selves — how they behave as a spouse, a parent, a friend. They may never get a glimpse of their spouse’s professional persona. But couples who work together may see things they never noticed before, which disturb them: a husband’s tendency to obsess too long, a wife’s lack of organization or efficiency, a spouse’s bossiness with employees.
On the other hand, you may discover previously unknown strengths in your spouse that heighten your admiration. You may see him in a new light as you watch him handle challenging work situations with aplomb. And there will be a fresh injection of respect and appreciation into your relationship.
“Just recently, I was having a nerve-racking meeting with a fellow who’d opened a new catering business,” Sari says. “He peppered me with endless questions, some of them bordering on obnoxious. My patience was wearing thin. Just then, my husband walked in. As soon as the fellow saw my husband, he visibly relaxed. ‘That’s your husband?’ he said. ‘I know him from shul. We can wrap this up right now. If he’s running this business, I know I can trust you.’ On the outside, the pastry chef in me exhaled. And on the inside, the wife in me kvelled.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 832)
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