Entrepreneurs

I'm a CEO who's been married to an entrepreneur for 19 years—here's how we make it work

Whenever I give speeches or sit down with someone who wants advice on starting their business, I'm struck by how often questions come up about my marriage.

For while my career has taken many twists and turns, I've been happily married to Patrick O'Loughlin for 19 years, and we've been together for 25! This in and of itself intrigues people, but what seems to be of even more interest is that like me, Patrick is an entrepreneur — a profession known to be hard on relationships.

While there is plenty in my life I've miscalculated, there's much I've done right in my marriage, and the following is the relationship advice I give to all who ask for it:

1. Share the buy-in

Entrepreneurs can get a little myopic, even self-absorbed. But an entrepreneurial endeavor is a joint one. It is a financial, emotional, mental commitment from both parties, because it will affect both people. Like the decision to have a child, it shouldn't really be made by one partner and not the other. And if buy-in is there, you each acknowledge that the other has an important role, even if you're not both at the same office each day.

It's easy to think that no one else can possibly understand what you're going through. I'm lucky that Patrick gets entrepreneurship in his gut, but a start-up is a shared experience whether you're both in the business or not. If you don't take the time to share the experience together, the marriage can slip away.

Remember, your start-up venture is a moment in time. Your marriage venture is for a lifetime.


2. Never blame.

Patrick started a business that did not work out, which led to some tough times. We lost our savings and then some. I was devastated and angry. But I didn't say, "How could you do this to me? This is all your fault." And I did not deride him. I love him and respect him, and anger could coexist with that, but never blame.

I agreed to go forward with the venture and so it was our decision, not just his. We are and always have been on the same team, and I knew what we were risking just as well as he did.


Sarah Marcella Photography

3. Make time.

This sounds easy … until you try to do it.

When you are immersed in a growing company, it feels like there's no time for anything else. If you've got other people's money on the line, if there are jobs at risk, it can feel selfish to spend time anywhere else. But the reality is that the business needs you to be happy and healthy in order for it to thrive. Taking breaks is a part of this, as is having the support you need from those in your life.

Even during our busiest periods, Patrick and I always spent time alone together and took trips just the two of us. We both recognized that our relationship was foundational to everything else, and we needed to do the work to keep it solid.


4. Remember your values.

Write them down. Hold each other to them. If "time together" is a family value, what does that mean? How much time? Doing what? If one of you falters, the other can point to the values as he (kindly) calls you out.

I suffered from anorexia, and so "nourishment" is an important family value for us. Now if I'm absorbed with work to a point where I'm not focused enough on my health, Patrick flags it and reminds me of our values. I appreciate it and get back on track.

While these guidelines have served our entrepreneurial family very well, they are adaptable to all sorts of pairings of people and professions. I hear far too often from people in demanding jobs who think they just can't have a relationship. In reality, it might be the best thing for you. I know it has been for me.


Sheryl O'Loughlin is the author of Killing It: An Entrepreneur's Guide to Keeping Your Head without Losing Your Heart. O'Loughlin was the CEO of Clif Bar, cofounder of Plum Organics, and is currently CEO of REBBL Super Herb Beverages.