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Why Divorce Doesn't Have To Mean The End To A Family Business

By Kyle Danner

It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that divorce would mean the end of a business. After all, how could two people who can’t stay married stay in business with each other?

Well, it’s quite possible.


Researchers Patricia Cole and Kit Johnson interviewed 9 copreneurs (18 individuals) who remained in business together following a divorce. “Copreneurs” is a nifty term used to describe couples who own a business together. The couples were together from as little as three years, all the way up to 32 years, and ranged in ages from their mid-30’s to their mid-60’s.

Through their research, they discovered six factors that contributed to a couples’ ability to work together despite the pain of divorce.  Some of the findings might surprise you. The good news is, if the couple in question retains these characteristics, there is hope that the family business can move past the divorce.

1. Trust

It shouldn't come as a surprise that trust was a driving factor in divorced business partners continuing to work together. After all, trust is a key component of every successful family business, even businesses where partners don't work together.

Trust became a central theme in all of Cole and Johnson's interviews. That’s particularly powerful considering only one couple had legal documents in place to govern their working relationship. The others had no documents or, if they did, divorce was not in the paperwork.

If you or your family members are going through an emotional divorce, trust can be a hard thing to hold onto. A good way to determine if trust still exists is to ask yourself, "Will the other person continue to work for the best of the family business?" 

2. Compartmentalization

Everyone was able to separate the personal from the professional, which is interesting considering that more than 50 percent of the partnerships ended due to infidelity and that divorce proceedings became contentious. Unfortunately, compartmentalization can be incredibly difficult, particularly when you are going through something as emotionally draining as a divorce.

One interviewee in the study offered this valuable piece of advice:

“If you don’t have the ability to separate yourself from what you mean and what you do, it can get you in a lot of trouble.”

3. An Emotional Connection

The authors were surprised to learn that emotional connection, not economics, kept business partners together following divorce. Reasons for staying together included “emotional stability,” remaining close to one another, shared values, history, and friendship.

While it's true that many divorces create permanent rifts between couples, some are able to maintain a friendly relationship with their former spouse despite their differences. It's a good idea to take it slow after a divorce and not try to force the relationship to stay strong. Try to focus on the positive characteristics of the other person. Although you didn't work out as a couple, they still have good qualities that make them an asset to the family business.

4. Synergy

Another factor that kept divorced couples working together was synergy, the cooperation of the two groups to produce beneficial results greater than they would have been able to produce working separately.

Synergy is a term often associated with business but not always associated with relationships. That said, it is something that can be maintained between family members in the business, even those who are going through a divorce. The survey participants talked about a natural balance of skills and clearly defined boundaries as key to staying in business together.

5. Commitment to the Business

Many respondents describe the business as “our baby.” This suggests the business meant more than bricks and mortar or sales and profit. Like a child, it was something that demanded their attention, nurturing, and protection.

When parents divorce, they don't usually cut ties to their children. Instead, they continue to raise their children to the best of their abilities, even if they don't have full custody. It's the same for the family business. If you create a business with someone, you don't have to sell it just because your marriage didn't work out. If you are both dedicated to seeing the business succeed, allow that shared passion to act as the glue that holds your working relationship together.

6. Positive Gender Issues

When asked about gender differences directly, participants said it was a nonissue. However, many of the women shared they felt they had more power following the divorce. For a few women, their former husbands encouraged it. Perhaps, as the authors suggest, the experience of going through the divorce empowered the women. Since romance was no longer part of the relationship, they focused more on the business. 

Is the Divorce the Elephant in Your Family Business?

But divorce, while painful, doesn’t have to spell the end of a business. If trust exists between both partners, along with a strong emotional connection, a natural balance of skills, and other various factors, then the relationship and business can be preserved, and even grow.

If you or another family member is going through a divorce, you might not want to talk about it at all — especially in the family business. But, if the divorce is causing tension between employees or preventing the team from doing their jobs, it can create a rift that could lead to a blowout.

My online course will provide you with all the tools you need to break the ice and start a conversation about the elephant in the family business. It won't be easy, and it does come with risks, but it's the best way to start the healing process and help the business move past the divorce.

To learn more about my course, "Is There An Elephant In Your Family Business?", click the button below. 

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