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Advice to Copreneurs:
Don't Avoid Conflict...Just Keep it Simple*

by Jane Hilburt-Davis

Copreneurial businesses, in which couples work together, are like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead: when they are good they are very, very good and when they are bad they are horrid. First there's "very, very good": sharing work and play can enhance both the marriage and the business; both partners can be free of corporate pressures and limitations; the bonds grow stronger. But then there's "horrid": everyday tensions and frictions build up into tangled and bitter discord, discord that can destroy both the business and the family.

Experience suggests that couples in business find themselves in horrid situations not because they came into conflict-conflict itself is perfectly normal and healthy. Conflict turns horrid only when a couple does not know how to deal with that conflict. There are two different kinds of conflict: simple and complex. It's the complex ones that are really destructive, and these conflicts grow out of simple ones. Too often a couple in business will first ignore a conflict while it is simple. Then, when the conflict becomes too big and complex to ignore, the couple treats it as though it were simple-they use bandaids on a wound that needs surgery. What copreneurs need to learn is not how to avoid conflicts, but how to resolve them while they're still simple.

Two Kinds of Conflict

Complex conflicts are those in which the emotional issues obstruct the resolution of critical business decisions. The family issues and business issues are entangled in a non-productive way. (As the following example describes, Sam and Shirley could not separate the unresolved tensions in their own families in order to make sound business decisions about hiring Lillian.) Simple conflicts are those in which the family issues, although ever-present, do not get in the way of business decisions, and business dilemmas are kept out of family relations. Keep in mind that unresolved simple conflicts evolve into complex conflicts over time.

The Usefulness of Conflict

Conflict is a normal, healthy reaction to change and stress. The copreneurial relationship, which builds closeness, is also a breeding ground for conflict. Paradoxically, the closer the couple becomes through work and play, the more each partner may feel a pull for autonomy or independence. This is not rejecting of the partner, but a normal, human reaction to increased closeness. Every couple who works and lives together has felt this occasionally. "How many hours in a day can you be with the same person?" Shirley asked?

This natural pull for independence is usually expressed as differences of opinion. In this way, resolved conflict is useful in the life of a couple by:

  • serving to regulate an acceptable distance / closeness keeping a check on values and goals

  • building self-confidence as a couple

  • increasing intimacy in work and family

From Conflict to Crisis

Sam speaks: My wife and I started Eatery, Inc., a food service business, about eight years ago. We didn't have much money but we both had the same dream for the company. We were excited. Everything seemed to go well during the first few years; our company was growing. Working together was great for two newlyweds who loved to spend all their time with each other. Then, when the business was about two and a half years old, my dad died suddenly of a heart attack. My mom had lost not only her husband and best friend but her "boss," as she called him. She had worked for dad in his legal practice since he started, some 35 years ago. Mom and I decided that it was a perfect idea for her to come and "do our books" since Eatery, Inc. was growing and we needed help.

Prior to this, Shirley and Mom (Lillian) had gotten along fine although Shirley thought that I (an only child) was too attached to my mom, and that Mom was already too involved with our lives. Shirley and I had a terrible fight over this. She said that I'd never get out of the role of being too dependent on my mom. especially with my dad gone. Shirley and her three brothers grew up in a boisterous family that fought all the time. She always thought her brothers got all the attention, especially from her dad. I thought she was just stirring up trouble for the rest of the family and she was jealous of the close relationship that I had with my parents. We had to make a decision. We were overworked and stressed out and could really use Mom's assistance. But we couldn't even talk about it because it always led to a fight.

Simple and Complex Conflicts: Clues to Tell the Difference

Sam's and Shirley's arguments invariably led to a heated discussion of the past, in there-and-then: how Lillian had never let Sam be independent and how Shirley's family always caused trouble. Each accused the other of past crimes: "You've always been tied to your mother" and "You've always been jealous of me like you were with your brothers." (When you hear words like "always" and "never," you're inside a complex conflict.) Simple conflicts focus on the here and now. For example, in a simple conflict Sam and Shirley could get away from the past and attend to solving the present problem: hiring a business manager.

They concentrated on the problems; this argument reminds them of other conflicts they never solved. Hopelessly, they could only think of their failures. As Sam said, every time they start a discussion, each only remembers the other times that they have felt helpless and unable to make decisions. "It always leads to a fight." (When all you can think is "this isn't going to work," you're inside a complex conflict.) By contrast, simple conflicts focus on solutions: "How can we get help with our work and have Mother feel and be useful?"

Sam and Shirley were defensive. We raise defenses when we perceive danger, discomfort or difficulties. When complex conflicts become embedded in a couple's relationship, unresolved topics trigger off the defense mechanisms which then prevent a real, honest exchange. At this point, the defense mechanisms, such as avoiding, denying, attacking, sarcasm, "hitting below the belt", get in the way of solving the problem and making a sound decision. Sam and Shirley put on their armor and refused to listen to each other; they would fire accusations and then retreat. (When the anger is escalating and the silence is relentless, you're inside a complex problem.) In simple conflicts, each side takes into consideration what the other is saying and the decision-making process moves forward to a conclusion.


Conflict is a normal reaction to the changes and stresses of daily work and life. The goal for each couple in business together is not to eliminate conflict, but to learn techniques for solving and resolving it as it emerges in everyday experiences. Family businesses are fertile ground for complex conflicts, the kinds that begin in the relationship, grow, and impede sound business decisions and practices. By learning how to resolve conflicts early, the couple working together can become more productive and spend less time arguing and more time enjoying each other and the business.


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* This article is reproduced with the permission of Family Business Relationships, a publication of Family Business Publications.


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