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Marriage As a Business Proposal
People get married for all kinds of reasons. People like to be married and stay married for reasons that change over time. Although studies have shown that being married is associated with a longer lifespan (at least for men), I don’t believe – nor is there any evidence – that a Married life necessarily results in more long-term happiness than a life lived alone. However, marriage is difficult in a way that living alone is not. Because viewing the challenges of a given situation in the context of a parallel situation can generate new perspective and energy for problem solving, I thought I would describe an analogy that, while unable to encompass or to explain all aspects of married life, including the wonderful and necessary dimension of love – has served my wife and me well: marriage as a business proposition.
HOW MARRIAGES ARE STRUCTURED LIKE BUSINESSES
All the following remarks also apply to homosexual relations.
Marriage is like a business, but not all businesses are created equal. A marriage is more like a general partnership than an LLC, a general partnership whose purpose is the management of a common life. Partnerships are formed as a result of the merger of two companies. Mergers are always done to improve the profitability of the two companies involved. Profitability is defined as a net gain. Good partnerships result from a judicious choice of partners who have a common vision for a company, complementary skills and similar long-term objectives. How each partnership defines these parameters varies depending on the type of partnership in question and generally defines your partnership’s business plan:
1. Net gain: is it a lot of money? Lots of travel? Lots of romance? Lots of stimulating conversation? What does each partner consider the main advantage of marriage?
2. Vision: Will the partners spend a lot of time together or a little? What activities will you do together and what activities will you do separately?
3. Complementary skills: Is she a good organizer? Is he a good accountant? Is she a bargain hunter? Is he good with contractors?
4. Long term goals: Does he want children? Does she want to live in the suburbs?
THE PRINCIPLE OF CORRESPONDENCE
If a company buys another, there is no merger, it is an acquisition. Acquisitions are not about meeting as equals. Acquisitions consist of one company absorbing another while retaining the essence of its original identity, an identity to which the acquired company remains subject. Certainly, many marriages are built on the pattern of acquisition. And not that it can’t work, but because people in general tend to become more independent over time, the pattern of acquisition can become problematic as the submissive partner feels less and less inclined to remain submissive.
While acquisitions are difficult, true mergers – where two companies come together as equals to create a mixed entity resulting in a new whole greater than the sum of its parts – are even more difficult. While opposites can indeed attract, as the saying goes, in my opinion usually (but not always) in a mutually pathological way (for example, the attraction between someone who is overly dependent and someone who is need). In general, to be successful as a new business, mergers must adhere to the Matching Principle, which states that the two businesses involved must be on par in certain key areas:
1. Physical Appearance. We don’t like to think it matters, but if one of you is significantly more attractive than the other and either or both of you aren’t sure about that, the marriage could easily end up poisoned by jealousy.
2. Information. Too big a difference makes it difficult for a pleasant conversation between partners.
3. Level of education. The same comments apply as in point 2 above.
4. Personal interests. Not that you need to have identical interests, but there must be some degree of overlap.
5. Beliefs. Religious, moral and political (in descending order of importance). Not that you need to have identical beliefs, but if yours are too far apart, the friction can generate enough heat to cause irreparable damage in the long run.
6. Interest in children. Difficult to have a successful marriage if there is no agreement on this issue.
7. Degree of happiness. If one of you is significantly happier than the other, it’s hard to create a happy partnership.
8. Styles of mourning. A psychologist friend of mine once suggested that couples do not divorce because they experience devastating losses, but rather because they have incompatible grieving styles. (Or because one partner refuses to let the other cry as they wish). Sadly, most couples will end up crying together over something. I discussed grief and grief styles in a previous article, Letter to a Widow.
EIGHT STRATEGIES FOR LONG-TERM PARTNERSHIP SUCCESS
Certain business processes, if followed, will help preserve the long-term health of your partnership. The problem most partnerships face is not that they don’t perform these functions, but that they don’t perform them consistently. The reason that standard operating procedures (SOPs) help businesses succeed is that they are actually “standard”, meaning that they are applied by every member of the partnership. SOPs aren’t part of every business model, but companies that use them are generally more successful. Here are some important SOPs you might consider incorporating into your partnership:
1. Play to your strengths. Let her handle the finances if she’s better at math. Let him cook if he is the “greedy”. Know who is responsible for each task that maintains a home and a relationship, and do your best to divide the tasks in a way that feels equal to both of you.
2. Set aside enough free time. One partner may need more, the other not at all. But agreeing before the merger on how much everyone needs and is willing to donate is crucial.
3. Review your partnership goals. First, establish a few. Second, ask regularly if you have met them. If not, why not? Make business decisions. Fix what’s broken with ruthless precision.
4. Compete together. Studies suggest that when couples compete on the same team against others, whether it’s Scrabble or beach volleyball or whatever, it brings them closer together and makes them happier with the partnership. Choose activities that you both enjoy.
5. Plan “themed” evenings. Examples include date nights, time alone, and goal-setting discussions, as described above.
6. Periodically review and reinvent your partnership’s business plan. How you define the net gain, vision, complementary skills, and long-term goals of your partnership will change whether you talk about it or not. For example, the way a start-up defines these terms will necessarily be different from that of a mature company. Don’t let circumstances define them for you. Being proactive helps ensure that both partners feel they have control over the partnership and therefore that it will continue to meet their needs.
7. “If it’s important to you, it’s important to me.” This is my wife’s constant refrain, her point being that creating a successful partnership requires each partner to provide important care for the other. I have a much harder time caring about things that don’t intrinsically interest me but are only on the table because they’re important to her. But the reason I fight is because I think she’s right.
8. Define a communication strategy. Poor communication is the main weakness of even the most successful companies. Companies often don’t have a clear method for communicating their messages internally (although e-mail, for example, is ubiquitous, its consistent use is not – not everyone checks every e-mail that it receives or does not have an effective way to sort important messages from unimportant messages). When making business changes, companies often fail to even build communication into their plan, or if they do, they put it at the bottom of their list of action items. But the best strategy for change in the world will fail if: 1) nobody knows about it, and 2) nobody adopts it. To achieve adoption, actively involve key stakeholders in the change so that they don’t feel like the change is being done to them, but they are doing it. You cannot communicate too much or too often. Make a habit of CCing or Bccing your partner in email correspondence with external vendors that involve partnership maintenance activities. If you need to deliver a key message directly to your partner that involves difficult or unpleasant feelings that need to be discussed, you can try, for example, writing the message down as a memo. Literally. When you get into the habit of regularly messaging each other about your relationship in the form of emails or written letters, communication often becomes not just POS, but remarkably smooth and effective communication. Writing down ideas also has the beneficial effect of helping you clarify your position and analyze your feelings about it, as well as calming you down. I wrote many notes that I never sent, having learned in writing that the fault I attributed to my wife was in fact my own. Have fun with this: maybe even create a company logo for your wedding.
Despite using these and other strategies, even the healthiest marriages remain in constant danger of failure. Truth be told, marriages are not like businesses; they are also like flowers: they need constant watering. But whenever you’re fed up with your life and really mad at your partner, obsessively focus on their negative qualities, and find yourself happily fantasizing about leaving and finding a new partner in another superior company where these negative qualities are absent. — Pause and remember why you chose your current partner in the first place. If you chose wisely (and that’s a big if), you might find that all the positive qualities you saw in the beginning are still there; that the virtues that made your partner such a good partner for you in the first place still make them the best choice you could have made. At least, that’s what always happens to me.
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