When Divorce Leads To A Happily Ever After For A Small Business

Apr 17, 2014
Originally published on April 17, 2014 6:03 am

Married couples in America co-own 3.7 million small businesses, according to the Census Bureau, and the arrangement can be fruitful when both marriage and business are going well. But what happens when it doesn't? Most of the time, when the love dies, the business relationship ends, too.

But that's not always the case.

Take Rhonda Sanderson and her ex-husband. They divorced the way many do, fighting over money and various other things. But then a few years later, after she suffered a bad injury, Sanderson found herself inviting him back into her life — as a business partner at her Chicago public relations firm.

"We actually knew that we were not suited to each other at all in any other way, but the fact is that he has this brilliant marketing mind, and all we ever talked about on dates were business ideas," Sanderson says.

While their marriage did not succeed, their business certainly did. Over the years, they raised their child and their business together. Her ex is in her will. And, according to Sanderson, their relationship has never been better.

"We don't get along very well in certain ways, but we still love each other as people, there's no question," she says.

Making It Work

Kit Johnson of Capella University has studied couples who've stayed in business after a divorce. "It's sort of been a prevailing belief that divorce is a real business killer," she says.

Johnson says that is true in the vast majority of cases, but some "copreneurs," as they're sometimes known, are able to make sharp distinctions between their personal and their professional lives. Johnson and a co-researcher followed nine couples whose business relationship remained intact even under some grim emotional circumstances.

"One of the reasons for ending the marriage was infidelity, which for many people is ... a deal breaker in a relationship, but they had this ability to compartmentalize," Johnson says.

She says one kind of trust can be broken without necessarily affecting trust about money, clients or skills. And in some instances, where ex-spouses rely on the business for income, there may be no good alternative.

"What we found was that, yes, the business can survive. As a matter of fact, it can even thrive," Johnson says.

That is, of course, the exception, not the rule. In many cases, a divorce can lead to a forced sale of the business. And sometimes, when a family business is involved, the drama gets multiplied.

Sticky Situations

Kathy Marshack is a psychologist in Portland, Ore., who has studied and counseled couples and families who have struggled to keep businesses going through some big rifts. One family, she says, got tangled in webs of relationships gone bad.

"They got themselves into all kinds of trouble by allowing girlfriends, boyfriends of their kids to come and work in the business. They had people embezzling. And it was a nightmare because how do you confront an embezzler who's your daughter-in-law and the mother of your grandson?" she says.

Three of the family members divorced, but the business has survived. Marshack says it's easy to be blind about love or business, but it's also unwise. "We just believe that if we love somebody that should be the tie that binds us together in loyalty forever. But we live here on Earth, and all kinds of things happen here," she says.

Jeff Landers, founder of a financial advice firm for women, says often his clients want to retain their business in spite of their ex-spouse without realizing there might be other emotional and financial hurdles to deal with down the line.

"If there's going to be, down the road, a girlfriend or a new wife, how awkward and difficult would that be, especially if the new spouse doesn't want the old spouse around?" Landers says.

This is one thing that Rhonda Sanderson also has experience with.

"He married two other people after me, and they're gone," she says. "Even though they knew it was business, I think his admiration for me would come out in the relationship a lot. I remember one of the wives saying, 'Well, why don't you go to Rhonda? You're always saying that she can do this, she can do that, so why don't you ask her for it?' "

Sanderson says she and her ex-husband still fight. But she says the difference is, when you aren't married, it's much easier to let differences go.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Over the next few weeks, we're going to delve a little deeper into the world of small business. According to the Census Bureau, there are some 3.7 million small businesses in this country that are co-owned by people who are married. This arrangement can be fruitful when both business and the marriage are going well. But what happens when the love is gone? NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Rhonda Sanderson and her ex-husband divorced the way many do - fighting over money and various other things. But then a few years later, after she suffered a bad injury, Sanderson found herself inviting him back into her life, this time as a business partner at her Chicago public-relations firm.

RHONDA SANDERSON: We actually knew that we were not suited to each other at all in any other way. But the fact is that he has this brilliant marketing mind, and all we ever talked about on dates were business ideas. It was so crazy.

NOGUCHI: While their marriage did not succeed, their business certainly did. Over the years, they raised their child and their business together. He's in her will. And according to Sanderson, their relationship has never been better.

SANDERSON: We don't get along very well in certain ways, but we still love each other as people. There's no question.

NOGUCHI: Do you love him more now than you did when you were married to him?

SANDERSON: Absolutely.

NOGUCHI: Kit Johnson teaches at Capella University, and has studied couples who've stayed in business after a divorce.

KIT JOHNSON: You know, it's sort of been a prevailing belief that divorce is a real business killer.

NOGUCHI: And Johnson says that is true in the vast majority of cases. But in some, co-preneurs - as they're sometimes known - are able to make sharp distinctions between their personal and their professional lives. Johnson and a co-researcher followed nine couples whose business relationship remained intact, even under some grim emotional circumstances.

JOHNSON: One of the reasons for ending the marriage was infidelity, which for many people is - that's a deal breaker in a relationship. But they had this ability to compartmentalize.

NOGUCHI: As in, he may be a terrible husband, but he manages our finances well. Johnson says one kind of trust can be broken without necessarily affecting trust about money, clients or skills. And in some instances, where ex-spouses rely on the business for income, there may be no good alternative.

JOHNSON: What we found was that yes, the business can survive. As a matter of fact, it can even thrive.

NOGUCHI: Though that is, of course, the exception, not the rule. In many cases, a divorce can lead to a forced sale of the business. And sometimes when a family business is involved, the drama gets multiplied. Kathy Marshack is a psychologist in Portland, Ore., who has studied and counseled couples and families that have struggled to keep businesses going through some big rifts. One family, she says, got tangled in webs of relationships gone bad.

KATHY MARSHACK: And they got themselves into all kinds of trouble by allowing girlfriends, boyfriends of their kids, to come and work in the business. You know, they got - they had people embezzling. And it was a nightmare because how do you confront an embezzler who is your daughter-in-law and the mother of your grandson?

NOGUCHI: Three of the family members divorced, but the business has survived. Marshack says it's easy to be blind about love or business, but it's also unwise.

MARSHACK: We just believe that if we love somebody, that should be the tie that binds us together in loyalty forever. But we live here on Earth, and all kinds of things happen here. (Laughter)

NOGUCHI: Jeff Landers is founder of Bedrock Divorce Advisors, a financial advice firm for women. He says often his clients want to retain their business in spite of their ex-spouse, without realizing there might be other emotional and financial hurdles to deal with down the line.

JEFF LANDERS: If there's going to be, you know, down the road a girlfriend or a new wife, how awkward and difficult would that be - especially, you know, if the new spouse doesn't want the old spouse around? (Laughter)

NOGUCHI: This is one thing that Rhonda Sanderson, of the Chicago PR firm, in fact also has experience with.

SANDERSON: He married two other people after me, and they're gone. (Laughter)

(LAUGHTER)

NOGUCHI: Was that at all strange?

SANDERSON: Very. Even though they knew it was business, I think his admiration for me would come out in the relationship a lot. I remember one of the wives saying, well, why don't you go to Rhonda? You're always saying that she can do this, she can do that. So why don't you go ask her for it?

NOGUCHI: Sanderson says she and her ex-husband still fight. But she says the difference is, when you aren't married it's much easier to let it go. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.