The Marriage Hack for Business Partners

Some of the latest research on successful marriages has direct implications for successful business partnerships. As he outlines in “The All-or-Nothing Marriage” and in his popular Ted Talk , Dr. Eli Finkel observes that over time, our expectations of marriage have evolved to place ever-greater demands on the marital relationship. This is due, in part, to the fact that our in-person (as opposed to online) social networks are shrinking, so we have fewer close relationships with friends, co-workers, neighbors and family members, and this can put additional pressure on marriage to fill a void of social connection. Satisfying these needs for connection can yield greater happiness, serenity and depth of inner life, but only when a couple is willing to make a substantial investment of time and energy into the quality of the relationship.

If this shrinking social network places greater pressure on our intimate relationships, it stands to follow that our business partnerships may also feel the squeeze. The research suggests that the quality of these close relationships is more critical as the quantity of close social connections declines.

Ominously, Dr. Finkel’s research shows that in the majority of marriages, marriage satisfaction peaks in the early years, and continues to decline over time. It doesn’t just level off. It’s a sad and steady decline in satisfaction. Major bummer.

The statistics for business partnerships are even more dismal than those for marriage. Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman’s research, outlined in his book, “The Founder’s Dilemmas,” finds that 65% of startups fail as a result of cofounder conflict.

All is not lost, however. The good news is that something can be done. For spouses, the earlier in the marriage the couple starts implementing what Finkel calls “The Marriage Hack,” the better. Co-founders can do this too. Here’s how it works:

Unsurprisingly, the single biggest predictor of a flourishing marriage is the way a couple navigates conflict. Dr. Finkel and his collaborators had 120 couples complete a questionnaire about the quality of their marriage. They were also directed to write about the most recent serious conflict they experienced in their marriage. In the second year of the study, half of the couples were directed to write about the same argument from the perspective of a neutral third-party who wants the best for everybody involved.  Participants were also asked what obstacles they would face when trying to adopt this perspective, and how they could surmount these challenges.

While all couples experienced a decline in marital happiness over the first year of the study, the couples who practiced taking on a third-party perspective in the study’s second year experienced improvements in the quality of their marriage, compared with those in the control group. Best of all? The exercise took participants a mere 21 minutes per year to complete.

An effective and harmonious business partnership is like a marriage in many ways, and is probably just as dependent upon healthy navigation of conflict. The next time you find yourself in conflict with your business partner, try writing about the conflict from the perspective of a benevolent neutral third-party, and see what it would take to adopt that perspective. When partners practice seeing the bigger picture and expanding their perspective, breakthroughs can happen.