Being CEO can kill a marriage. Here's how to prevent that

Richard Branson: I'm a great believer in people working from home
Richard Branson: I'm a great believer in people working from home

The power. The pay. The perks.

It's good to be CEO. But it can be hard on a marriage.

Few marriages are easy, of course. But the pressures on couples when one spouse runs a company can create new problems in a relationship or exacerbate old ones.

The No. 1 reason why CEO marriages fail is lack of time for family, said attorney Laurence Hirsch, who represents clients in high-net-worth divorces at Jaburg Wilk in Arizona.

CEOs are almost always at work and when they're not, they're thinking about work. What's more, blowback from a bad quarter or PR crisis can consume their attention round-the-clock for weeks.

So whenever they are home, their energy, attention and patience can be in short supply.

That can be perceived by spouses as the CEO's lack of commitment to family, Hirsch noted. That's likely to sting their partner, who might be tempted to counter that without their commitment to the job, the spouse and kids wouldn't have such a cushy life.

Over time, spouses may feel taken for granted or unappreciated, especially if they shoulder all the domestic responsibilities, even though they themselves may have a job.

"You end up with these fractured relationships where the husband and wife are almost living two separate lives," Hirsch said.

Discussing the demands of a CEO position as a couple before accepting an offer can help manage expectations, according to Dr. Marilyn Puder-York, a psychologist and executive coach.

"You can mitigate a lot of despair and misunderstandings," Puder-York said.

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But even when a couple expects their personal life to take a hit, the demands on a CEO's life may surpass their threshold of tolerance, said Dr. Peter Pearson, a cofounder of The Couples Institute in Silicon Valley.

Then it's like, "I knew the water would be cold, but I didn't know it would be this cold," Pearson said.

And that risk is greatest when someone is a first-time CEO.

Despite the outsized pressures, CEO marriages can and do work, but usually only when both partners make allowances and keep in mind:

A CEO is not the boss of everybody

A marriage is an interdependent, non-hierarchal relationship, Pearson said.

So while nobody at your company will say no to you if you're top dog, your spouse will and has every right to.

"CEOs get so used to being completely in charge. But that doesn't work in a family situation," Hirsch said.

Indeed, he noted, the second biggest reason for CEO divorces is that the CEO never realizes he or she must be different at home.

How you talk to your spouse matters

Being a decisive, results-oriented problem solver may underpin your career success. But in personal matters, applying that same skill can read as cold or brutish.

That's because how you explore a tension or grievance — such as your partner feeling distant or isolated — is as important to the marriage as how you fix it.

"You have to slow it down and be really curious. You have to deal with the emotions," Pearson said.

For Steve Tobak, a former tech executive, his preferred time frame for tackling a problem is right this second.

"I want to resolve it now. I want to get things off my plate," said Tobak, who currently advises CEOs and other leaders on business strategy.

But that approach is hard on his wife, who prefers to work issues out more slowly, he said.

Know what the other person really wants

Leaders succeed when they learn what motivates the person across the table, Tobak said. "Yet at home we tend to forget that."

Remember your best customer

Pearson notes that just as you always court your best customer at work, do the same at home. Try to do some of the things you did that attracted your spouse to you in the first place.

Marriages and businesses fail for similar reasons

Pearson cites three: You don't learn from past experience. You don't adapt to changing conditions today. And you ignore warning signs and therefore fail to prevent future problems.

You actually do have a choice

When you're chief and expected to be available 24/7, it's understandable to feel married to your job above all else.

But to say you don't ever have a choice to prioritize your actual marriage at times is simply false, Pearson said.

He cited the example of former Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops, who encouraged his coaching staff to go home at night and be with their families.

Even small changes can make a positive difference. Pearson often advises couples to triage what they think is most urgent to address a partner's grievance and attend to that first.

In other words, given your limited time and energy, what is the most important thing you each can do to make the other feel valued and appreciated?

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