Startup Couples – When Is It Time To Ask For Help?
Last summer, Amy and I spent a long, wonderful lunch in Paris with Cliff Shaw and Christy Clark. Cliff is CEO of Mocavo, a company that went through Techstars that we’ve funded, and I deeply enjoy our friendship, even though we don’t see each other that often. I remember our lunch with great pleasure, so when Christy and I had a brief conversation about her reaction to Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, in encouraged her to write a guest post with her thoughts on the entrepreneurial couple and when it’s time for couples counseling.
Christy is a licensed professional counselor with a private practice focused on intimate relationships and sexuality based in Boulder, Colorado. Her post absolutely blew me away with its power, clarity, and intimacy. She’s brave to put her and Cliff’s struggles – and their solutions – out there. I hope you get as much out of it as I did.
Navigating an intimate relationship is never simple; doing so with an entrepreneur adds a whole additional layer of unique challenges. I’ve come to think of it as a somewhat advanced maneuver: the triple axel of relationships, if you will.
This is a subject I am particularly passionate about. Not only have I been partnered with an entrepreneur for the past eighteen years, but I am also a psychotherapist with a practice focused on intimate relationships and sexuality. Much has been written on the topic of entrepreneurs and their partnerships, including “Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur.” Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor, a couple I know and respect tremendously, packed their book with great information and ideas about navigating your partnership in the context of a startup. I imagine many couples are able to incorporate the thoughtful ideas and tips on their own with great success.
However, I want to talk about the couples who cannot.
Every couple has different standards and agreements for their relationship including frequency of sex, need for communication and expectations of time spent together. Running a startup will undoubtedly test the boundaries of these agreements. When one or both partners steps outside the shared expectations, problems might occur. From both personal experience, and years of working with people in crisis, I recognize that it can be difficult to assess when it is time to seek outside help. It seems simple enough. You are having problems, things have changed, you get help. The reality is much more complicated. I think our personal story best illustrates this dynamic.
It was 2005. I was finishing my last year of my masters in a counseling program and my partner Cliff was working on his second startup, Pearl Street Software. High school sweethearts, we had been together for nine years and were both deeply committed to one another. I woke at 3:30 in the morning to find the space in the bed next to me empty, as usual. The feelings of helplessness and frustration rose in me immediately and then came the thoughts: “He’s working himself to death, he didn’t sleep, AGAIN!” “He’ll be exhausted all weekend and we won’t spend time together, AGAIN!” “He promised me he would be to bed by 1am.” “He broke his promise, AGAIN!”
I walked down the stairs to find him sitting alone in the dark on the couch. “I’m so scared,” he said. “All I can think is what if everything I’m doing isn’t enough?” The “everything that he was doing” was working seven days a week, sixteen plus hours a day. He had zero self care, existing on caffeine, adrenaline and fast food. Between his work and my graduate school we were becoming virtual strangers. As was our pattern, I moved immediately into the role of soother. “It is enough,” I said. “How could you possibly do more?” Secretly, I was wishing that he would show me even one percent of the attention he gave his work. I was deeply and profoundly lonely. He was beyond unbalanced and rapidly coming unhinged. We were up to our eyeballs in debt. Cliff wasn’t taking a salary. We were living off royalty payments from a previous company, leveraging every cent we had to keep the company afloat and pay the employees.
The fear and panic bubbled up between us, and the fight began. The same fight we had over and over. It was filled with anger, hurt and tears. I yelled, he yelled. He told me I was filled with resentment. I was. He explained, that he was doing this for us. “How can you not see that?” he raged. I told him he was neglectful. He was. We sat in our living room in the early hours of the morning and tore the seams of our relationship apart with words. The threads keeping us together became thinner and thinner.
It hadn’t always been this way. But now, most anything could trigger a fight like this: a perceived slight by one of us, his failure to help me around the house, any unmet expectation. I used words as weapons, sarcasm and eye rolling. He became defensive and iced over. We had almost no quality time together. He had no boundaries around his work. Any agreement we made to do things differently lasted less than two days. I was emotionally wrung out from being his cheerleader, advisor and sole emotional support. I was also filled with contempt, which I often directed at him. Our combined anxiety was so great it felt as if it could swallow us whole. We were in trouble.
Several weeks later, after another particularly bad fight, Cliff came to me with an ultimatum: we go to therapy or we end the relationship. We had kicked around the idea of therapy a few times that year, but we always seemed to come to a resolution after a serious fight, even if it only lasted for a few days. One or the other of us would often reject the idea of getting help. We both used it as a threat, a last resort. It was the gold standard for personal failure. “Do we really need therapy?” I lamented. The irony of this statement is not lost on me. “We can do this ourselves,” I told him, not only because I was wrapped up in my identity as a budding therapist, but because I really thought we could. I’ve come to learn since that no woman is a prophet in her own land, regardless of degree or title. He just stared at me blankly. “Alright,” I finally said, “I’ve heard about someone good through friends at school. I’ll call him on Monday.”
While we continued to see our therapist off and on for years, what ensued after just a few sessions can only be described as miraculous. It was clear that we needed a third party. We needed his objectivity and his challenges. We were able to hear what the other was saying for the first time when someone else didn’t allow us to interrupt. We managed to stick to our agreements when we knew we would be held accountable the next week. It became easier to table recurring and unresolved arguments until we could be in the presence of a supportive mediator. It was hard work. It was painful. It saved us.
I think our story illustrates the primary reasons why couples in a startup relationship might wait too long to seek support. It helps to start by looking at the common personality traits of a startup CEO. These are people who come up with and pursue ideas that sometimes change the world. Passionate self-starters, they inspire and motivate others. As modern day pioneers, most have a mentality of rugged independence. They are trailblazers who can be single minded in their pursuit of success. The entrepreneur’s sense of self-worth can be completely tied to the success or failure of their company. The thought of failure can feel like dying or drowning.
The above traits, while amazing, don’t always lend themselves well to asking for help. Even if you have positive feelings about therapy, the simple acknowledgment that you need support, or your relationship is in trouble, might feel like an admission of personal failure. In the mind of an entrepreneur who spends every waking moment ensuring their company lives to see another day, it can feel like there isn’t room for failure in any corner of life. People in this position often push the limits of their relationship to avoid such feelings. In our case, while Cliff was ultimately responsible for getting me to make the call to a therapist, it took him a long time to acknowledge that his lack of boundaries and balance were not only failing our relationship, but he was failing himself as well.
For other people entrenched in the startup world, it can seem like taking any time from work at all, let alone time to sink into an emotional space with a partner, could derail them from their goals completely. Every day, entrepreneurs suit up in their own personal armor and head to the office to the fight the battle. What happens if they remove the armor and focus on their emotions? The soft underbelly becomes exposed. It’s vulnerable. It’s common for entrepreneurs to feel that there is no time for personal vulnerability when other people’s money and livelihoods are at stake.
Finally, for most people, whether or not they seek outside help is directly tied to their knowledge of and ability to notice the signs that their relationship is in trouble. Relationships rarely go bad overnight. It is generally a slow progression of little deaths perpetrated by both partners. Add to this that when we are in regular conflict with our partner we move into a “fight, flight or freeze” mindset. This is a primal and deeply physiological place that does not lend itself well to objectivity for either partner. We ignore or simply don’t notice the red flags. When the adrenaline is pumping one or both of you might feel as if you can save the sinking ship if you just try harder. This fight, flight or freeze mindset is often mirrored in the entrepreneur’s work environment, compounding the problem.
One of the factors which impacts the efficacy rates of couples therapy is the amount of time a couple waits to get support. Even the most skilled therapist can’t always help salvage a relationship where the resentment, anger or neglect has been building for years. By that point, one or both members of the couple has often emotionally or physically exited the partnership.
Here are some signs that you might need outside help. If you and your partner are struggling, find a moment to review this list.
- Recurring or unresolved conflicts that tend to revolve around the same topics
- A marked decrease in your sexual relationship
- Frequent feelings of resentment
- A sense of loneliness or distance from your partner
- Staying stuck in entrenched patterns of interactions (ex. you always pursue, your partner always flees)
- A general sense that your relationship has changed and not in a positive way
- Unfair fighting: treating your partner with contempt or using insults, shutting down or icing over, globalizing (you always, you never), bringing past fights up during current arguments, interrupting, defensiveness
- Avoiding your partner
- Considering an emotional or physical affair
If you recognize these red flags in your own relationship you might benefit from some outside support.
These days Cliff and I navigate challenges on our own 95% of the time. However, when we can’t, we acknowledge it quickly and we make an appointment with our therapist. He has seen us through the sale of Cliff’s second startup, our wedding, the birth of our child and the birth of Cliff’s current company Mocavo, all major life transitions. Just like running a startup, being in relationship with another human being can be one of the most rewarding and challenging life experiences. When difficulties arise, find and access the support that is right for you and your partner. It can make all the difference.
*In a relationship where there is emotional or physical abuse, couples therapy is not always indicated, due to power dynamics. If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship seek help immediately