Dealing with stress of family businesses

Family businesses don't always bring families together.

In fact, many a marriage has been damaged, even destroyed, by the day-in, day-out stress of husband and wife working and living together.

And anyone who has tried to be parent/employer for their own children/employees knows we often wind up with the worst of both relationships.

Now, I grew up in a family business - and not just one that involved my parents, but my aunts, uncles, cousins and sometimes relatives I didn't even know I had.

Surprisingly, at least from my vantage point as a child, people did get along reasonably well. Enough so that I came away with overall positive feelings about mixing family and business.

As a family therapist, however, I have encountered more than a few families who have had quite the opposite experience. I have seen family businesses become the primary cause for couples divorcing, children suing their parents, and brothers and sisters becoming estranged for decades.

And I've seen the businesses themselves neglected, crippled, even forced into bankruptcy as family members fight to the death over issues of power and profit.

Certainly, some families simply bring into the family business their already dysfunctional relationships. The tension, conflict and hostility that gets acted out in the family business was going to be a part of family life anyway. Whether it is running a business, running the household, or just running to the store, such families are determined to self-destruct no matter what they do.

Often, however, it is the additional stressors of running a family business that push families over the edge. Capitalism is not for the faint hearted.

Small businesses especially (which most family businesses are) come with a whole host of challenges - legal issues; startup costs; cash flow problems; employee hiring, training, supervision and, all too often, firing; not to mention, of course, getting customers.

And sorting through all this falls on the shoulders of family members who must suddenly figure out how to be partners or employers and employees while still being husbands and wives or parents and children.

Adding to this stress is the reality that with a family business we are always at work. We don't say good night to our co-workers and head home to our family; our co-workers are our family. There's no escape.

All the stress from our work life simply gets carried over into our home life. And vice versa - if we had a squabble at the breakfast table there is no chance to cool off at work, we just take it with us.

Such additional stress can simply be too much for otherwise fairly well functioning families.

Ironically, the business which was supposed to ensure the families' economic future instead threatens to cheat it of any future at all.

I'm not going to offer any quick and simple "10 steps to healthy family businesses." Family businesses are just too complex.

I do suggest, strongly suggest, that if you are involved in a family business which is slowly - or not so slowly - beginning to undermine the family itself, you consult a well-trained family therapist as quickly as possible. Losing a business is disappointing, losing a business and a family is tragic.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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