After MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough confirmed their engagement on Thursday, they became the latest couple to publicly tie their professional lives to their personal ones.
When we spend 90,000 hours of our lives at work, it’s easy to see how all that time together can be enough time for sparks to fly. As Scarborough himself put it before the relationship was confirmed, “We have a crackling on-air chemistry, and a crackling off-air chemistry, too.”
From mom-and-pop shops to companies founded by romantic partners, businesses run by couples are a significant trend outside of newsrooms as well. In the U.S., it’s estimated that 3 million small businesses in 2000 were couple-owned.
In couple-run businesses, women earn more
Family businesses can be rewarding —you spend more time with your loved ones— and fraught—professional arguments can become personal ones. But there is research that finds economic benefits to it. A 2014 study of over 1,000 Danish entrepreneur couples found that these business couples were more likely to join forces because the female partner had “limited outside opportunities in the labor market.”
In these cases, co-entrepreneurship between partners raised the income of the wife during the life of the business and even after it ended.
The study’s researchers suggested that these relationships work because “co-entrepreneurial couples are likely to trust each other better and to have more valuable carrots and sticks to force the other to invest in the business relationship.”
Downsides: gendered stereotypes persist between couples at work
A different 2014 study came to the opposite conclusion, however. Using 2005 U.S. population data, they found that women were less likely to be in charge if they co-founded new businesses with their husbands.
Gendered expectations of who gets to be a breadwinner and who has to be a homemaker were brought into the businesses: “women would face relatively fewer disadvantages in leading businesses, were it not for effects of masculine/feminine accountability embedded in spousal relationships.”
Although using merit-based criteria like a formal business template has been found to make work more equal between teams, only 20% of spousal teams made formal ownership agreements, compared to 45% of non-spousal teams in the study.
The presence of children also altered working dynamics. Although men were three times as likely to lead the business when there weren’t any children, that likelihood decreased as the family grew. The magic number is three children for women: women were more likely to take the lead in businesses when the couple had three children.
Set boundaries if you marry your co-worker
The main advice everyone gives if you do decide to become a spousal team is to set boundaries. For Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, who share a desk during their on-air job, it may mean making sure to build separations outside of their shared identity. For others, that may mean physical separations: working in separate rooms, taking separate lunches, or working on opposite sides of the building.
If you can avoid reporting to each other, do that. No one wants to be a direct report to their partner. One couple that worked at the same engineering firm said what helped their marriage and their careers was that “our roles are very, very different.”
Harvard Business Review advises cultivating a “work voice.” At home, you can talk over each other informally, but at work you need to treat your spouse as a co-worker when they raise concerns: “Listen actively. Don’t interrupt when others speak. Ask for clarification when you don’t understand the other person’s point of view. Participate equally.”
Above all, spousal teams can be rewarding—you go into work knowing that someone is on your side— as long as you lay the groundwork first.