Marriage As A Business Proposal

marriage

Photo: SimonShaw

People marry for all sorts of reasons.  People enjoy being married and stay married for reasons that evolve over time.  Though studies have shown being married is associated with a longer life span (for men, at least), I don’t believe—nor is there evidence—that a married life necessarily results in more happiness in the long run than a life lived singly.   However, marriage is challenging in ways that living singly is not.  Because viewing the challenges of a given situation in the context of a parallel situation can generate a fresh perspective and energy for problem solving, I thought I’d describe an analogy that—while not able to encompass or explain every aspect of married life, including the wonderful and necessary dimension of love—has nevertheless served my wife and me well:  marriage as a business proposal.

HOW MARRIAGES ARE STRUCTURED LIKE COMPANIES

All the remarks that follow can be applied to same-sex relationships as well.

Marriage is like a business but not all businesses are created equal.  A marriage is more like a Partnership than an LLC, a partnership whose purpose is the management of a shared life.  Partnerships are formed as a result of two companies merging.  Mergers are always performed to improve the profitability of the two companies involved.  Profitability is defined as net gain.  Good partnerships result from a careful choosing of partners that have a shared vision for a company, complementary skills, and similar long-term goals.  How each partnership defines these parameters will vary depending on the type of partnership in question and in general defines your partnership’s business plan:

  1. Net gain:  Is it lots of money?  Lots of travel?  Lots of romance?  Lots of stimulating conversation?  Just what does each partner view as the main benefit 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 apart?
  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 kids?  Does she want to live in the suburbs?
THE MATCHING PRINCIPLE

If one company takes over another, you don’t have a merger—you have an acquisition.  Acquisitions aren’t about the coming together of equals.  Acquisitions are about one company absorbing another into itself while retaining the essence of its original identity, an identity to which the absorbed company remains subservient.  Certainly, many marriages are built on the acquisition model.  And not that it can’t work, but because people in general tend to grow more independent over time, the acquisition model may become problematic as the subservient partner feels increasingly less inclined to remain so.

Though acquisitions are difficult, true mergers—where two companies come together as equals to create a blended entity resulting in a new whole greater than the sum of its parts—are even harder.  Though opposites may indeed attract, as the saying goes, in my view usually (though not always) in a mutually pathological way (e.g., the attraction between an overly dependent person and a person who needs to be needed).  In general, to be successful as a new company, mergers must abide by the Matching Principle, which states that the two companies involved must be evenly matched in certain key areas:

  1. Physical appearance.  We don’t like to think this matters, but if one of you is significantly more attractive than the other and one or both of you is insecure about it, the marriage could easily find itself poisoned by jealousy.
  2. Intelligence.  Too great a difference makes enjoyable conversation between partners difficult.
  3. Educational level.  Same comments apply as in #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 lie too far apart, the friction may generate enough heat to cause irreparable damage in the long-term.
  6. Interest in children.  Hard to have a successful marriage if there isn’t 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. Grieving styles.  A psychologist friend of mine once suggested that couples don’t divorce because they suffer devastating losses, but rather because they have incompatible styles of grieving.  (Or because one partner refuses to let the other grieve as they wish).  Unfortunately, most couples will eventually grieve together over something.  I discussed grieving and grieving styles in a previous post, Letter To A Widow.
EIGHT STRATEGIES FOR LONG-TERM SUCCESS IN PARTNERSHIPS

Certain business processes, if followed, will help safeguard the long-term health of your partnership.  The problem most partnerships face isn’t that they don’t perform these functions but that they don’t perform them consistently.  The reason standard operating procedures (SOPs) work to make businesses successful is that they’re actually “standard”—that is, they’re applied by every member of the partnership.  SOPs aren’t a part of every business model, but businesses that use them are in general more successful.  Here are some important SOPs you might want to 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’s the “foodie.”  Know who is responsible for each task that maintains a home and a relationship and do your best to distribute the tasks in a way that feels equal to you both.
  2. Reserve adequate self-time.  One partner may need more, the other none at all.  But agreeing before the merger how much each needs and is willing to give is crucial.
  3. Review your partnership goals .  First, establish some.  Second, ask on a regular basis if you’ve met them.  If you haven’t, why not?  Make business decisions.  Fix what’s broken with merciless precision.
  4. Compete together.  Studies suggest when couples compete on the same team against others, whether Scrabble or beach volleyball or whatever, it brings them closer together and makes them feel happier with the partnership.  Pick activities you both enjoy.
  5. Plan “theme” nights.  Examples include date nights, alone time periods, and goal setting discussions as described above.
  6. Periodically reexamine and reinvent your partnership’s business plan.  How you define your partnership’s net gain, vision, complimentary skills, and long-term goals will change whether you discuss them or not.  As an example, the way a start-up defines these terms will necessarily be different from the way a mature corporation does.  Don’t let circumstances define them for you.  Being proactive works to ensure 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 make the important cares of the other their own.  I struggle far more than she does to care about things that aren’t intrinsically interesting to me but that are only on the table because they’re important to her.  But the reason I take the struggle on is because I’m convinced she’s right.
  8. Define a strategy for communication.  Poor communication is the number one weakness of even the most successful businesses.  Companies often have no clear method of getting their messages communicated internally (even though email, for example, is ubiquitous, it’s consistent use is not—not everyone looks at every email they receive or has an efficient way to sort important from unimportant messages).  When making corporate changes, companies often fail even to make communication a part of their plan at all, or if they do, they place it at the bottom of their list of action items.  But the best change strategy in the world will fail if:  1) no one knows about it, and 2) no one adopts it.  To achieve adoption, actively involve key stakeholders in the change so they don’t feel that change is being done to them but being done by them.  You cannot communicate too much or too often.  Get in the habit of cc:’ing or Bcc:’ing your partner on email correspondence to outside vendors that involves 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 might try, for example, writing the message down as a memo.  When you make a regular habit of sending messages to one another about your relationship in the form of emails or written letters, communication often becomes not just a SOP, but a remarkably smooth and effective one.  Writing ideas down also has the beneficial effect of helping you to clarify your position and analyze your feelings about it—as well as to calm you down.  I’ve written many a memo that I’ve never sent, having learned in the writing that the fault I attributed to my wife was actually my own.  Have fun with this:  maybe even create a corporate logo for your marriage.

Despite the use of these and other strategies, even the healthiest marriages remain in constant danger of failing.  Truthfully, marriages aren’t just like businesses; they’re also like flowers:  in need of constant watering.  But—whenever you get fed up with your life and really mad at your partner, obsessively focused on his or her negative qualities, and find yourself gleefully fantasizing about leaving and finding a new partner at some other superior company where those negative qualities are absent—pause a moment and remember why you chose your current partner in the first place.  If you chose wisely (and admittedly that’s a big if), you might just realize all the positive qualities you saw in the beginning are still there; that the virtues that made your partner such a great match for you in the first place still makes him or her the best choice you could have made.  At least, that’s what always happens to me.

NEXT WEEK: Your Neighbor Is An Alcoholic

22 comments to Marriage As A Business Proposal

  • trudy

    I seem to recall reading some years ago that the effect of marriage on happiness was that the happiest people were married men and single women. I’m just saying :-)

    Trudy: That could very well be true.

    Alex

  • Tat Svam Asi

    It is interesting that “comunications strategies” ends the piece, when the category contains the most information. I would say that it all grows from the first look that brings each to another’s cognition, and then the die cast in each and every utterance hence.

    For me, from the arch Hallmark cards left to commemorate an outing to the decision to just defer to the docket at the final hearing in court, where the defendant is polled and and the plantiff as well: Is there anything you wish to say…?

    “Well no, as in, what is left to?”

    For me, that moment accreted into 20 plus years of courtship and fiducuary commitment. Yet in the wisdom of the theory that suggests that my marriage (What? My marriage? Er, our marriage) failed due to the unresolved conflicts we carried with us into the partnership from our host families seems something intracably profound.

    I would judge her always less than my iconicized mother who way in advance of the Friedanian, secured both a bevy of sons and a college degree, she would judge me in the Freudian, always as suspect as her father, who philandered while his wife wasted from ALS.

    Ultimately, as the initiator of a “last chance stand”—after a bout of personal therapy to break free of those familial bonds and strike a new emotional bargain of equality—to free the partnership of those constraints, I found her unwilling to change her rules of the game.

    So, the capacity I had developed to take a breath from all those hurtful assumptions finally came ironically as a cataclyismic exhalation over such a mundane issue as her sex by appointment scheme.

    The passive agressive silent partner now in full.

    Now nine years later, a partnerless life allows me to retrieve my daughter’s embargoed affection and look to its denoument (life) with a quiet hope of securing the cognition of another “other” before evaporating.

    Maybe yes and maybe no.

    Tat: Painful to read your story. I guess I’m struck by how often devastating experiences are the most common things that, as you suggest, motivate us to “break free of those familial bonds” or whatever bonds may be shackling us. Also, the reason I left “communication strategies” for the end of the post is that endings seem to grab our attention the most, whether in relationships or writings.

    Alex

  • This list is wonderful advice. As a long-time married I especially agree with:

    Play to your strengths—it divides up the labor & makes you both feel like “the expert.”

    Your wife’s advice: “If it’s important to you, it’s important to me.” Without this—why be married?

    Reserve adequate self-time. To which I add—be sure to spend some time with your own friends. Our partners can’t be expected to share all our interests.

    On our 37th anniversary (yeah, we got married right out of college), I sat down to reflect on how we got that far. “Luck, the 5-1 Ratio and Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day.”

    http://www.happyhealthylonglife.com/happy_healthy_long_life/2008/12/happy-anniversary.html

    As always, thanks for your very thoughtful writing.

    Librarian: Thanks for your link—a great post. Two things about it struck me as great things to add to the list: 1) “your nice-to-nasty ratio must be 5:1″ and 2) “Your children depend on your relationship with your spouse. Make sure your marital relationship is solid and your kids will be fine.” Couldn’t agree more.

    Alex

  • Acceptance. Many difficulties in a marriage or friendship can be put to the back by accepting certain personal traits or conditions as permanent. By not putting all that effort in trying to change the other, the issues over time become insignificant, thanks to resignation.

    Joseph Addison (1672-1719) puts it quite nicely this way: “Two persons who have chosen each other out of all the species with a design to be each other’s mutual comfort and entertainment have, in that action, bound themselves to be good-humored, affable, discreet, forgiving, patient, and joyful, with respect to each other’s frailties and perfections, to the end of their lives.”

    Ken: I completely agree. Trying to change your partner is a bad strategy that almost invariably fails (and yet remains so tempting…). Thanks for stopping by.

    Alex

  • Great article. I’ve been married once, in a long-term live-in relationship for another two years with another partner, and have now been single for over two years.

    I am happier single than I have ever been in partnership, primarily because I’m getting clearer on who I am and what I want for my life. I am reminded of the saying that you must first decide where you are going before deciding who is going with you. I trust that when that becomes solidified for me, my next partnership will manifest itself accordingly.

    In the meantime, I enjoy a great business relationship with myself. ;)

    Penguin: Glad you liked the post. And I really liked your last sentence. Thanks for stopping by.

    Alex

  • been there

    Today’s essay is something I imagine I could have written (less comprehensively, to be sure, but I explicitly used the merger vs. acquisition analogy) 20 or 30 years ago, when I, too, imagined that problems in a marriage could be dealt with like problems in a business: by naming them and then addressing them. Unfortunately, the psyche is not like a bad employee; it cannot be fired when it refuses to do what it’s supposed to. And the damage that some people’s psyches have sustained, though often well-hidden from others and even from their owners, sometimes cannot be repaired. In fact, the damage may manifest itself specifically as an incapacity to do what would be necessary to repair it. Perhaps there’s a little of this in Tat’s post, above.

    It would be wonderful if we always knew what we were getting into when we married, but only a few are so fortunate. Perhaps that’s what you mean when you say “choose wisely.” But many things need to line up just so for that to happen, it seems to me.

    Just as we imagine we will recover when we get sick, most of us imagine, when we marry, that we will be able to work through whatever difficulties come up. But guidelines for well-care aren’t especially useful when a serious health issue surfaces and matching principles and strategies for successful partnerships will not treat serious marital issues when they arise (nor prevent them from arising). At that point, as with cancer or ALS or some other life-destroying disease, grace may be the only thing that makes going forward possible.

    Been There: Thank you for such an articulate and important comment. Your point that “guidelines for well-care aren’t especially useful when a serious health issue surfaces” is right on. It helped me to clarify in my own mind that the prescriptions I offered in the post were really for partnerships that are basically healthy. Ill or broken partnerships must be considered another matter, I think. Unfortunately, even what seems like the wisest chioce when you make it can turn out to be not so wise later on.

    Alex

  • Jan Who-tries-to-listen-to-herself

    Not too long ago I lived in an intentional community setting. It was not a successful environment for me.

    There were tons of meetings, discussions, group projects, and so on. However, in my experience with these folks I found that: 1) compromise was a dirty word, and 2) few were interested in solving their own personal problems. Needless to say there was a bit too much of things like: gossiping, judgmental attitudes, there-is-only-one-right way—my way!, and so on. I think that compromise, communication and consideration are hallmarks of successful human partnerships and interactions.

  • Following Through – Pink Sandbox

    [...] Marriage as a Business Proposal Despite the use of these and other strategies, even the healthiest marriages remain in constant danger failing. …fantasizing about leaving and finding a new partner at some other superior company where those negative qualities are absent—pause a moment and remember why you chose your current partner in the first place.  If you chose wisely (and admittedly that’s a big if), you might just realize all the positive qualities you saw in the beginning are still there; that the virtues that made your partner such a great match for you in the first place still makes him or her the best choice you could have made. [...]

  • Pete

    Glad my daughter has you as her life’s partner!

    Pete: Sure glad you think so!

    Alex

  • Tony LaPorta

    Alex,

    The 7th strategy: “If it is important to you, it is important to me.” You stated, “I think she is right.” Not a good answer. If you want to stay married, Rhea is always right…END OF BLOODY STORY.

    Tony

    Tony: I stand corrected. ;)
    Alex

  • Andrea

    I was really touched by Pete’s comment. You must be doing something right. A very wise man said to me: “Romantic love is never unconditional.” It’s a tough business.

    Andrea: Thanks. It IS a tough business. And I try. But so does my wife.

    Alex

  • “Unfortunately, even what seems like the wisest choice when you make it can turn out to be not so wise later on.”

    Wisdom for the ages!

    The Pennsylvania Dutch say: “We grow too soon old and too late smart.”

  • Joey

    Thanks to a very dear friend who stood in for my father-in-law in our wedding for posting this article to your site. RSS has now been invoked & this article passed on to my friends as it was passed on to me.

    Another very dear friend proposed this very thing for the union of his soul-mate/wife/girlfriend/better half and it has been the foundation of the changing of my views towards the foundation of marriage for me. All rhetoric aside, the basis of marriage TODAY in the United States has nothing to do with religion—it is a legal contract—religion/preacher not required (no attempt to bring up that argument here; just a simple statement of fact based upon the country I live for the following statements). The friends I speak of did try to enact this in two different states, which had the results you and most everyone else might imagine; the utter shock and amazement (and denial) of those who they approached and actually understood what they wished to accomplish.

    I applaud you for your organization of your content and believe that your placement and length of the “communication” topic is perfect; for communication is key in any type of relationship (business, marriage or otherwise). I speak from my own personal experiences in which they have failed (my previous marriage where we had both stopped listening) and where they are the cornerstone (my current marriage to my soul-mate).

    One interesting omission that I did happen to note. You stated that: “…All the remarks that follow can be applied to same-sex relationships as well…” I can easily see the same being applied to a polyamorous relationship as well. Each partner being no different or unequal as any of the others. I am also curious to hear how you would describe a dominate/submissive 24/7 relationship (in which one partner willingly and happily surrenders control of their company and any “controlling interest” in the newly formed company).

    Regards,

    Joey

    Joey: I’m so glad you liked the post. I hadn’t actually thought about polyamorous relationships when I wrote it, but I know they exist successfully in many places. I suppose the appropriate analogy would be to think of them as conglomerates. But as partnerships are difficult enough, I imagine like having more than one child people who choose to be in polyamorous relationships find them both rewarding and more challenging (though, not being in one myself or even knowing anyone in one, I’m just guessing). Regarding a dominant/submissive relationship: I suspect many marriages start out this way and manage to work successfully. However, as people tend to grow and mature with time (though certainly time provides no guarantee of growth by itself), the risk here is that the submissive partner may gradually become less willing to remain submissive and want to rewrite the terms of the original contract, so to speak. When one member of a partnership changes substantially, often significant tension ensues risking a “corporate” breakup unless the other member of the partnership can change as well.

    Alex

  • alfaprima

    Thanks for your proposal! I was thinking in the same vein when writing:

    “Here is a working definition, based on the idea of marriage as an ongoing association dedicated to the development of solutions to reciprocal needs:

    ‘A healthy marriage is a learning, mutually satisfying relationship committed to both partner’s ongoing growth and personal development by providing reciprocal support and respect for each other’s individual characteristics and life purpose.’

    Let’s examine the traits that would better serve this definition.

    What if we consider that getting married is going to help us to grow up? It has been said that marriage is the last chance we have to grow up. Then, what helps is to have a contract with our loved one to share with him/her our personal project and set goals to be pursued…

    I can hear you saying: isn’t it making a marriage too similar to a business relationship, complete with a contract and all?

    Well, in a sense “contract” here means the explicit sharing of personal, individual goals that were important to us before we got together in a permanent relationship, and need to be included and respected.

    These goals and aspirations were our mindset before marriage, and will be there after marriage…it’s a mistake to believe that marriage will change them automatically, because they are part of who we are.

    Negotiating these individual goals into a shared set of common goals is what makes a marriage healthy and successful. If this conversation about ‘where do you want to go and be and experience, and where I want to go and be and experience’ never takes place, we are cheating each other from the basic duty to support the other to fulfill his/her life mission. Then you have a relationship based not on real but imaginary aspects of life, and it will be weak to accept and manage the inevitable differences.

    All issues to be necessarily negotiated along the duration of a marriage, from decisions about money, sex, children, work, friends, vacations, education, retirement, etc. will test the existence or lack of this basic consensus, because each one stems from who we are in life and what do we need to accomplish in this life term. Each issue is seen in the light of: ‘How does….help or hinder me in accomplishing my life goal?’ We can only ignore this situation to our own peril, because it will not disappear!”

    The basic idea in an equity partnership, where both strive to help each other…so simple and so easy to leave behind when we begin pushing for control and dominance by managing our personal insecurity by humiliating our partners.

    “How Healthy is Your Marriage?” is a free ebook to be downloaded from http://creativeconflicts.com

  • Adam Miner

    According to this article, I should be a very successful businessman. My wife and I have been happily married for nearly 10 years. I feel that a great marriage and healthy relationship is one of the surest ways to happiness.

    Check out this blog post that compares happiness to food:

    http://www.politicalpolarization.com/2009/06/vending-happiness/

  • The Facts

    This is an idealistic article. It does not reflect reality.

    In the real world, if the woman makes more money than the man, is she is the “bread-winner,” the man will be punished. If the man supports his wife’s career to the detriment of his own, he will be punished.

    Society looks down on men who support their wives’ career at the expense of themselves. Women pay lip service that such men are wonderful, etc. but in fact do not respect them.

    If you are a man, only take on traditional male roles or you will be disrespected by your wife. Your marriage will be in danger.

    If you enter family law court (divorce), you will be at a huge disadvantage if you are not the main wage earner but instead stayed home to take care of the children. You will be punished by the court for not making more money. The court will not believe you are a good father but will instead believe the lies put forth by your ex-wife. When she claims to be the primary care-giver to the children.

    “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”—Tolstoy

  • Another Day

    To Mr. The Facts,

    Sorry to hear of your troubles. After some period of time I hope you will be able to dust yourself off, revisit the first two sections of the article (structure and matching), and give it a go again. Not all women are the right women, but neither are they all the wrong women. But you have to be able to not hold one experience against others. Good luck. I’m pulling for you.

  • There are no solutions… there are only tradeoffs. « Stardust

    [...] So is that a loyalty mechanism? On that same note, why haven’t I ever thought about marriages as mergers and acquisitions? Marriage does bring about revenue increase, cost costing, synergy, and future [...]

  • Arne N. Gjorgov, MD, PhD

    Amazing! Biological side of the intimate, woman-man relations has not been even contemplated. ‘Sex’ was mentioned only once, as a passing reference, in one of the commentaries (alfaprima). No wonder that Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, asserted that the Western world, including Americans, is ignorant and primitive when it comes to sexual matters. This is perhaps the shortest explanation of the main if not sole reason for the perplexing and excess breast cancer epidemic in women of reproductive age, as well as of the rampant anorexia-bulimia disorders (conveniently, but wrongly called “eating” disorders) in schoolgirls and other young women (daughters).

    Long ago, in a hypothesis-testing study, initiated and carried out at two American universities, in the mid-1970s, the evidence was corroborated that the CONDOMIZATION of female sexuality was significantly associated with the development of breast cancer in American married women. The evidence of the significant condom-use and breast-cancer link was fully confirmed in a while by the (explicitly predicted) natural experiment of breast cancer upsurge and intensity of a rapid and unabated rise and spread of the current breast cancer epidemic, ever since the early 1980s.

    Inferences were drawn from the study results about both a potential of primary prevention of breast cancer as an epidemic disease(s), and a new, inclusive definition of the most enduring, basic human institution, the marriage. Besides the customary definition of marriage as a psychological, social, legal, economic (‘business’ in this case) unit, the marriage along with love, sexuality and family life was comprehended as a profound biological woman-man union, with physiologically powerful impact upon the spouses, particularly woman. The harm to marital relations and woman’s health, life and happiness was done by the misconceived, mass scale promotion of condom-use barriers which have deeply corrupted / upturned the intimate (sexual) ecosystem of the couple, by introducing technical effects of absolute male sterility in marriages, with effectively eliminating the putative protective seminal factors in the interhuman micro-environment. No wonder that the women are those who in majority file for divorce nowadays, rather than the males.

    The biological meaning of marriage, love and women’s needs and functions would perhaps be better understood along the way of the anticipated efforts for elimination (‘eradication’) of the current breast-ovarian cancer epidemics to a rare and low level of scattered cases at individual, familial and community stages.

    Arne N. Gjorgov, M.D., Ph.D. (UNC-SPH, Chapel Hill, NC)
    Author of “Barrier Contraception and Breast Cancer,” 1980: x+164

  • [...] dimension of love—has nevertheless served my wife and I well: marriage as a business proposal.   Full Article Source Posted in Very [...]

  • Tansy

    Love your writing although I feel this comparison of marriage to a business partnership knocks the magic and soul out of the enterprise.

    Would also like to share that some of the comments here seem to be written by over intellectualized creepy old men. Stop blaming your wives for your sexual frustration and ask yourselves if you would want to sleep with a mind who has no heart.

    Tansy: My purpose here was to suggest an analogous lens through which to view marriage that I’d hoped would provide insight otherwise hard to grasp. I didn’t intend for anyone to view marriage only as a business.

    Alex

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