Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Marriage As A Business Proposal

What can the corporate world teach us about personal relationships?

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 I well: marriage as a business proposal.

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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 (eg, the attraction between a 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 think 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 like 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. Literally. 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 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 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.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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