Steve Gordon: Welcome to the Unstoppable CEO podcast. I’m your host, Steve Gordon, and today this is going to be a fantastic interview particularly if you’re trying to run a business and have a family at the same time. I’m talking today with Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson and they have specialized in helping couples transform their relationships for over 30 years.
Ellyn and Pete are co-founders of The Couples Institute in Silicon Valley and they help entrepreneurial couples better understand and overcome the unique challenges involved in managing a business and a marriage simultaneously and do that successfully.
They have now been married for over 36 years, which I have great admiration for, and they bring personal experience and clinical experience to their clients. I’m just really thrilled that they’ve taken some time to invest with all of us today. So, Ellyn, Pete, welcome to the Unstoppable CEO podcast. Thanks for being here.
Ellyn Bader: You’re welcome. We’re glad to be here. Looking forward to a dynamic conversation with you.
Pete Pearson: Yeah, listen. I’m looking forward to it, Steve. Thanks for the invite.
Steve Gordon: Absolutely. I think this is going to be a lot of fun and I think it’s going to be very educational for everybody listening. So I touched a little bit on your background in the bio, but help fill in the gaps for folks. How’d you become experts at helping entrepreneurial couples?
Ellyn Bader: So yeah, let’s go back to the very beginning for a couple minutes if that’s okay. Long ago when we got together and got married we decided we wanted to do something together and we didn’t even know what it was. So we called it X for about a year. And then we figured out we were both in the field of psychology and so anyway, we figured out that we wanted to specialize in couples and there’s a whole back story behind that. So we started specializing in couples. We developed an institute called the Couples Institute where we began working intensively with … well, we began working with couples in the San Francisco Bay area and over time we ended up with 10 other therapists working for us, training therapists all over the world. And working with so many entrepreneurial couples and began to realize how much the entrepreneur’s marriage has its own unique stresses.
So over time we’ve just come to specialize in working with the entrepreneur and their spouse to create a strong, thriving relationship in the context of having an entrepreneurial business.
Pete Pearson: And if you are an entrepreneur, your spouse is involved in the business either a little bit or a lot, but they’re not totally separate.
Ellyn Bader: And they’re impacted. They’re always impacted by … if you have a successful business there’s going to be an impact on the marriage.
Steve Gordon: Always. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges in running a company is understanding how to navigate that relationship. I’m excited that we’re going to get to dive into that today. So you started the business together and you’ve grown it over the years. I’m sure that wasn’t just a simple and easy process every day.
Ellyn Bader: Yeah, just simple and easy every day.
Steve Gordon: Okay, so you’re the one. I’ve been waiting. I’ve done 112 interviews and you’re the one that was simple and easy. So I would imagine there have been some challenges. What have you done together when things get tough? How do you deal with that within your own business to keep pushing forward and stay unstoppable?
Ellyn Bader: I guess I would think about a few different challenges and times. One of them way back at the beginning was really getting clear on our roles in the business and not having to make every single decision together all the time even though it was a joint business. And so that early role clarity made a big difference. One of our challenges was we used to run a lot of intensive programs for couples away from California and then we started to have kids and all of the sudden it’s not so easy to both get on the road all the time and do that. So we had to work out a lot of issues around what does it mean to do what we’re doing, what we love doing, and raise a family and have that factor involved.
Pete Pearson: There are so many inter dependencies in a marriage. It’s food and fitness and family and finances and friends and fidelity. You know, there’s a lot of good F words in a good marriage. And all of these require problem solving, negotiation. And then when you start working together, the number of inter dependencies increases even more. So the opportunities, actually the opportunities to connect and grow your relationship increase and the opportunities to collide increase as well.
Steve Gordon: Yeah, I can imagine. It’s almost as if the challenges sort of multiply themselves. Even though you’ve got this great asset of having each other to work together similar to if you had just a business partner. There are also all of these challenges of the operating relationship between the two of you. I’ve witnessed this a couple of times. So I’ve witnessed my parents actually. My dad is an accountant, now retired, and my mother worked with him for years. I never could figure out how they quite made that work.
And then the first company I went with had a husband/wife working in the business as well. It always seemed to be a really challenging thing to balance, but they navigated it fairly successfully.
Pete Pearson: At least on the surface.
Ellyn Bader: Well, you know what I was going to say is that I’ve been interviewing recently a lot of entrepreneurial couples and what I’m finding … I mean, who work together. Specifically couples who own a business together. And they either fall out on one end of the continuum or the other. They either love it and it’s great and it enriches their marriage and they’re really glad they’re doing it or they think it’s just too hard and a disaster, but there’s very little in the middle.
Steve Gordon: I can imagine. And I would imagine that it could very easily turn very, very negative and destroy both the business and the marriage. When you see couples that are involved in entrepreneurial business like that, do they tend to work out well or do more of them tend to have challenges and ultimately end up impacting both the business and the marriage?
Ellyn Bader: Well, it’s a great question. And one of the things that we do our two day intensives with individual couples and the first place that I start when I do those is getting clear about the commitment each person has to the marriage and the commitment each person has to the business. And really seeing those as two very different and very separate things. And sometimes couples have never really stopped to think about that or they know what their marriage vows were, but they don’t really know. And so sometimes somebody’s been dragged into a business and doesn’t really want to be there and that’s impacting it. And so it’s enormously clarifying when we start to really get down in black and white what’s the commitment that each person has to the business.
Steve Gordon: Very interesting. Well, what I’d like to do, I’d like to take a quick break. And I want to come back and when we come back I’d love to dive into the work that you’re doing with couples now and really for the audience that’s listening, give them some concrete ideas that they can walk away with. That they can put into practice in their relationship, in their marriage as soon as they listen to this. So we’ll be right back with more from Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson.
Hi, this is Steve. I hope you’re enjoying this interview. We’ve got more to come in a minute, but what I’d love for you to do right now is rate this podcast. Leave us a review. Rate us on iTunes. It will really help others discover the podcast and help us help other CEO’s, other business leaders, become unstoppable. So if you go to unstoppableceo.net/iTunes you can find instructions there and links that will take you right to where you need to go to review the podcast. Thanks so much. Now back to the interview.
Hey everyone, welcome back. I am talking with Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Pete Pearson of The Couples Institute and we left off talking a little bit about couples who actually are partners in the business or both involved in the business in some capacity. I want to pivot a little bit and talk about probably the more common scenario which is where you’ve got one partner in the marriage who is the entrepreneur and then you’ve got the spouse who’s either got their own separate career or is supporting the family in some other way.
I know that can be just one of the most difficult things to balance. I deal with it in my own relationship all the time. It can be very difficult. So as you’re working with couples, where do you begin having this sort of conversation to help them unpack and understand how to navigate these relationships?
Ellyn Bader: So let me start with the fact that if you’re an entrepreneur you’re running a business and the business is successful or maybe it’s falling apart, but if you’re an entrepreneur running a business it impacts your marriage. And a lot of the entrepreneurs that I’ve worked with at first don’t want to acknowledge how much of an impact it has and how much their families have to organize around their schedules and their businesses.
And so a starting place is just the acceptance and the ownership, the acknowledgement of hey yes, we want this to be successful and that’s going to mean some certain sacrifices and it’s going to mean some ways that the family does organize at times around the business. And it’s also the reason why having something that’s clear couple time does make a difference. I mean, it sounds trite and I always hate answering questions like this because every magazine in the world will say have a date night. Well, I’m not saying have date night, but I am saying that something in your week that’s reliable that both people can count on is one thing that helps keep a marriage strong in the face of entrepreneurial endeavors.
Steve Gordon: It strikes me that it’s just very different than a situation where you’ve got two couples who are both employees of a business.
Pete Pearson: Right.
Steve Gordon: The stresses are different. The demands are dramatically different because there’s no one really there to share the load with the entrepreneur. At the end of the day, that entrepreneur is the one that’s responsible for the business. And so I think it puts a different sort of strain on it. Is that really the root of some of the issues that come up that make this different?
Pete Pearson: That’s one of them for sure, Steve. But when we start working with a couple, we talk about there are six skills actually that successful entrepreneurs already are doing and those same skills can be applied to their marriage. And when you do that, you really create a stronger team. And I like the acronym for TEAM. A lot of people have heard it, but I still like it. T-E-A-M. Which is Together Everyone Accomplishes More. And when you and your spouse start practicing … when you get your values in alignment and you get the purpose of why you’re working in this business, why you’re doing this business so that your skills and talents and values are in alignment, it’s one cracker jack team. That’s for sure.
And one of the skills that successful entrepreneurs do … well, let me ask you this. If you have your best customer, Steve, and you never acknowledge them, rarely appreciate them. The only time you have contact with them is when you want to sell them something more. And if that continues over time, what happens to your best customers?
Steve Gordon: They go away.
Pete Pearson: They go away. So it’s taking that same principle that entrepreneurs know. The importance of acknowledgement and appreciation and communicating to your best customers that you value them. Well, let’s apply that to your marriage as well. And so we have couples start right away practicing what we call the daily double which is once or twice a day find a way to express how you value, appreciate, respect or love your spouse. And do that every day. And it can be any number of things. You can send them a text message, an email. You can give them verbal strokes and appreciations. You can wash their car for them, fill up the car with gas, bring them a cup of coffee. Do a chore for them around the house that they normally do. Find a way every day to express how you love, appreciate, value your partner, your spouse.
And that does a couple things. It starts orienting your attention toward what you do evaluate instead of just letting it drift off and take each other for granted. And in almost every distressed relationship we see, we noticed it began with a lack of expressed appreciation. And they just take each other for granted and they slowly start to drift away.
Ellyn Bader: Can I chime in?
Pete Pearson: Yeah.
Ellyn Bader: Yeah. And one of the things that can be so challenging in a entrepreneurs marriage is the entrepreneur has worries. They have stresses that the spouse may not understand. But many times the spouse is carrying the load at home and has also stresses and challenges that the entrepreneur doesn’t understand. And so we do help people learn how to get out of themselves a little bit and into a deeper understanding of the world that the other person lives in. And that doesn’t necessarily mean all the facts about the budget or what’s coming up at the shareholders meeting or whatever. But it does mean really appreciating the challenges that your partner lives with and being able to comment on them instead of … because we’ve so many couples that just inadvertently make horrible comments to each other.
I mean, a typical one is to say to the spouse who’s at home well, all you do is sit on your ass and eat bonbons all day. Which, of course, when you have kids at home isn’t the truth at all. But it takes some effort to get out of yourself and into the other person’s world.
Steve Gordon: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. And one of the challenges along those lines that we hear a lot and I experience this occasionally with our clients and have been in a number of CEO peer groups over the years where this has come up that there are things that entrepreneurs often feel that they can’t share with their spouse. And I don’t think that’s done in a malicious way or in a way that anything’s being hidden. It’s that you don’t want to worry the spouse.
Sometimes because you don’t have full information yet and maybe there’s nothing to worry about, but you’ve got this concern. And sometimes it is a true worry, but you don’t want to add further stress on top of whatever situation you’re in.
Pete Pearson: That’s a totally, totally understandable perspective to take. It’s a way of wanting to protect your spouse. Not wanting them to worry. But if you take it too far. I’ll give you an extreme example. What you just describe about not wanting to worry your spouse, that attitude is endemic in police departments. And so they really don’t tell their spouses about the stress the feel, sometimes the danger they were in. And it’s understandable. They don’t want their spouse to worry. However, the incidents of alcoholism in police departments is around four to five times higher than the population. And here’s even a scarier statistic. The incidents of suicide in police department runs about four to five times higher than the bad guy shooting cops.
Cops will take their own lives at four to five times the rate of getting shot themselves. And the cops have this kind of thing. I don’t want to worry my spouse. They keep it to themselves. But here’s what you can do to get around that. If you have a worry that you are debating whether or not to tell your spouse, I would say give it a shot. Experiment. But do it like this where you say to your spouse honey, there’s something I’m worried about and I’m concerned about and I would like to talk to you. And when I talk to you, and here’s where you tell your spouse the kind of reaction you would like from them. When I talk to you I would like to vent. I would like you to just sympathize with me. I would like to brainstorm solutions with you. I just want you to give me a hug. I want us to think together how we can get through this.
If you tell your spouse the kind of reaction you would like when you’re carrying a worry, a concern or even if you want to bring up a problem to your spouse. If you say I want to bring this up and the kind of reaction I would like from you is dot, dot, dot. Most of the time spouses can’t read your mind and they don’t know what a good reaction would be. It helps enormously to coach them.
And what we have found is that when you coach your spouse by saying I would like this kind of reaction, they’re glad to do it. And you can get through a lot tougher discussions by doing that one trick.
Steve Gordon: I like that and I think that now gives folks listening a bridge to take that stuff off of your plate. Because, in my experience, at least with my wife she knows when there’s something going on that I’m processing or stewing.
Ellyn Bader: Good point.
Steve Gordon: You know. So I’m not exactly keeping any secrets and I imagine-
Pete Pearson: Thank you for saying that. That’s a good point. We think we’re being secretive and the reality is most of the time we’re not.
Steve Gordon: Yeah. And I think for most people they’re not intentionally trying to keep things.
Pete Pearson: Right.
Steve Gordon: It’s just, you know, sometimes it takes a little bit of time to process things and understand what you’re even dealing with.
Ellyn Bader: Also, building a process of understanding in a couple takes some time especially on things that are charged or tension creating. And I’ve heard so many, particularly actually male entrepreneurs say to me I wish my wife understood me better and understood what I’m doing, but they don’t actually tell them what they’re doing or they don’t develop a process where they say just listen to me tonight. And they want their wives to be interested in them and what they’re doing, but they don’t know how to get those conversations going.
Steve Gordon: Yeah, absolutely. So you talked about six skills. What are some of the other skills that entrepreneurs can take from the business world and apply into their relationships?
Ellyn Bader: Okay. So I’ll tell you my favorite one of the six and Pete will probably take another one. We teach couples and business partners how to apply a process of decision making and when people do this they find almost an immediate positive result of doing it. And so I’m going to run through this pretty quickly with you, but if something’s not clear, please tell me. So one type of decision is we get to make it equally, 50/50. So equal decisions can have more conflict in them, but if people hang in there and work it out and make a decision together, there’s usually more buy in over time.
Pete Pearson: But in 50/50, either person can veto a solution which is often why it takes longer to get there.
Ellyn Bader: Then you have decisions that can be made unilaterally which essentially means one person is making the decision. They may not even be discussing it with the other person. It’s just understood in the couple or in the business that those decisions get made by one person. And then the third one is what we call 51/49. And in a 51/49 decision for example, we might decide I have 51 on a particular decision, but there’s enough trust that I’m going to solicit Pete’s input and really hear what he wants and why it’s important and what matters. And then I still get to make it, but he feels like he’s got 49 because he’s got a lot of opportunity to weigh in on it.
And the thing about roles, particularly when couple work together in a business, is you can use a variety of those in any particular area and it circumvents the amount of conflict really fast. I had a couple here for an intensive just a few weeks ago who had been fighting. They own a business together. It’s a construction business. And they have been fighting for years over what time the employees on the team that was going out to do the construction would start work in the morning. And they had never been able to solve this. And we solved it actually pretty quickly when they decided that she was the one who was scheduling the jobs and so we ended up deciding that she got unilateral say over what time they started on day one and she would schedule it with the home owners or the business where they were going to go do the construction. But then, from then on until the job was finished, he was the one running the team and he would have unilateral say for days two through seven until the job was done.
And as soon as they realized that they could segment it that way and they didn’t have to have one thing … because, you know, they were fighting over who’s in control. And for some good reasons.
Steve Gordon: You know, it occurs to me that foundational in all of this is really just getting extremely clear on expectations on each side and communicating that.
Ellyn Bader: Expectations and roles are super important. At home and at work.
Pete Pearson: I’ll give you another thing that we do, Steve, that helps couples. It’s kind of counter intuitive in a way. But think about it in business. To start again so we can translate business to marriage. If you’re in business and you have an important customer for whatever reason they are unhappy or irate about the product or the service that they are receiving, what the owner does is they hold their own emotions in check. Even if they think the customer is wrong. They are not going to start off by saying well let me tell you, if you would just follow those directions that are … and frankly, they were quite clear, you would not be having this problem.
They don’t do that. They resist the urge to do that and they say tell me more. You ask questions about going ever deeper into what the problem is and/or how it occurred. And along the way, if you’re really good at this, you will as a business owner start owning some of your part in the problem as well. When you own your part, it lets the other person know that you can see both sides. And they don’t have to push so darn hard to get their point across.
Now in marriage, what we do is teach couples pretty quick how to own their part when disagreements show up. And we do this kind of interesting. When couples first come in for the first session I will ask them instead of saying how can I help or why are you here which just basically starts in a fight. I will say Charlie, what do you think Sue’s major complaints about you are? And Sue, what do you think Charlie’s major complaints about you are? And each person then says well I think she complains that I’m unreliable. I don’t show up. I’m too messy around the house. Etc. And I will ask Suzie what’s your reaction when you hear Charlie own his stuff. Almost universally they say what a relief that is that he actually has been listening to me. I didn’t think he’s been listening to me. And vice versa.
We often think if we own our problems too quickly it’s like we’re bringing the rope to our own hanging. And so we’re kind of reluctant to own up to it. But yet, owning up to what you do when you’re at your worst actually ends up creating more trust. And trust that yeah, if my partner can own their side of it then they increase their chance that I believe they can see both sides and we can move forward easier and I don’t have to convince them of their part. Owning your part is huge. It increases trust. It makes it safer for somebody to bring up something to talk about that’s risky.
So on both sides if you can translate ownership of a problem at work and do the same on the home front, it creates actually a stronger team, builds the foundation for a stronger team.
Just one more thing. I like what Rudyard Kipling, the poet, said in one of his poems about teamwork. And he used nature as an example using wolves. And he said the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack. And it’s that wonderful inter dependency between the group and the individual. And the individual and the group. And ownership is one of the ways that you increase trust and build a stronger team.
Steve Gordon: Well, and the thing that I’ve observed with that is that as you take ownership, whether it’s in the business situation or in your relationship, it tends to disarm the situation.
Pete Pearson: Yes.
Steve Gordon: Instead of it being emotionally charged. It’s hard to be angry at someone when they agree with you.
Ellyn Bader: Absolutely. In fact, sometimes a quickie thing that we say to people is if your partner has just blasted you about something, if the first thing you respond with is here’s what I agree with about what you said … it does, it disarms it like you were talking about.
Pete Pearson: And then be curious instead of furious.
Steve Gordon: Yeah. And then you can begin to get past it. And I think in a lot of relationships you need to take the energy out of it so you can get beyond … and this I think works in business and just human to human relationship. You know, once you get the energy out of it you can then begin to work together and see a way forward if there’s a commitment to maintaining the relationship in the future.
You know, you also quickly find out if there’s not that commitment to maintaining the relationship.
Ellyn Bader: Yeah.
Steve Gordon: Which is also instructive.
Pete Pearson: Here’s a quick tip, Steve, to diffuse an argument that’s heating up. And it sounds simple, but it’s effective as heck if you can remember it and it’s only a four word thing. You can say a whole lot of negative things about your partner if you add these four words at the end of your tirade. What do you think? If Ellyn said to me Pete, you are the most selfish, narcissistic, inconsiderate person on this planet. You only care about yourself. You don’t care about me or anything else. What do you think?
Steve Gordon: Yeah. It changes their trajectory immediately.
Pete Pearson: It does. It changes it in a hurry by just saying, what do you think?
Steve Gordon: So you shared with me before we started recording that there are essentially three reasons that businesses and marriages fail and these are three parallel reasons. I would love for you to talk about that before we wrap up because I think that will be instructive for people. I think there’ll be things that they’ll be able to recognize in their own world and hopefully circumvent.
Pete Pearson: Great.
Ellyn Bader: Okay. Yep. I’ll take one. Pete can take the other two. One of the big ones is a failure to adapt to changing circumstances. And as you well know, in business first of all, things are changing all the time and people are making strategic plans or they’re trying to figure out what’s coming. And they are really paying attention often to noticing and adapting. But marriage is a growth process and relationships are changing and people are changing. Too often I hear couples say well he or she’s not the person I married. Well, that’s right. They aren’t.
But that means that you’re adapting and you’re making … you’re learning and you’re changing. And when you get too dug in to try to keep things the same, a relationship can die or atrophy or not succeed.
Pete Pearson: So the first one is the failure to adapt to changing conditions or a failure … either in business or in your marriage as things change.
The other two, one is a failure to learn from experience. And this is especially true in marriage. We keep having the same darn fight over and over again and we’re learning nothing except just building up even more resentments. So that is a failure to learn from experience and either in business or in your marriage.
And then the third one is a failure to anticipate probable future problems and take action. Two really dramatic examples of that are Kodak, the camera company. They actually invented digital photography. But they said no, people will never want digital. They’re always going to want paper photographs. And about 10 or 12 years after they invented digital photography, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. They wouldn’t keep up with what they even thought would be on the horizon.
The second dramatic one is Ellyn and I were talking to a former CEO of Blockbuster. If you remember Blockbuster. Many years ago Netflix approached the board of directors of Blockbuster and said would you like to buy us out for 50 million dollars? The board laughed Netflix out of the room. Well, the market cap of Netflix is well over 30 billion dollars today. We know what happened to Blockbuster.
So it’s the failure to anticipate probable future problems and take action.
Steve Gordon: And how have you seen that play out in relationships?
Pete Pearson: Oh my gosh. How about this-
Ellyn Bader: I mean, here’s a simple-
Pete Pearson: Go ahead, a simple one.
Ellyn Bader: Here’s a simple, simple one is honey’s pregnant. We’re about to have a new acquisition in the family and there’s no anticipation of the problems that are going to come about by schedules changing, needing child care, whatever.
Pete Pearson: Sleepless nights. Key. So a failure to adjust to changing conditions. Like expecting one person can keep on doing what they’ve been doing even though we’ve had a little acquisition come along.
Steve Gordon: Wow, yeah. And I can think of so many ways that could apply as you go through life. So I’d love for you to share with everyone how they can find out more about the work that you’re doing and I know you’ve got a whole host of resources on your website and maybe you can point folks to some great places to start with those resources if they’re interested. So, how can they find out more about what you’re doing?
Ellyn Bader: Sure. We have what we call the candor solution which is the description of the six skills that we’ve been talking about today. And folks can go download that directly if they go to couplesinstitute.com/unstoppableceo. So we put up a page special for your listeners. And that has the blueprint on it and it also has negotiation skills specific for couples. And both of those can be gotten there.
Pete Pearson: Say the link again, Ellyn.
Ellyn Bader: So couplesinstitute.com/unstoppableceo. So that’s one. And then, of course, our main website is couplesinstitute.com and there’s a couples blog on there. There’s so many articles about couples.
Pete Pearson: Communication, how to strengthen the connection, how to become a better team, etc.
Ellyn Bader: And then if people are interested in working with us, what we like to do is do a two to three hour consultation where we really take them through looking at the six skill sets and assessing what’s working and what’s not working and where they would start if they chose to do some more complete work on their marriage or their marriage and business if they’re also business partners.
Steve Gordon: And do they have to be in Menlo Park or California to be able to do that?
Ellyn Bader: No, not at all. At least the consult can definitely be done on Zoom or Skype. And if people get into wanting to do a more intensive workshop or a more intensive individual session with us that’s longer, people tend to like to come to Menlo Park, but it’s not a requirement.
Steve Gordon: Well, very good. I’ve looked at the website. For everybody listening, if you’re really interested in improving your marriage relationship as you’re running the business, go get the free guides that they mentioned. We’ll link to that in the show notes, but go browse around the website. There are e-books on specific topics. All kinds of stuff. Just a tremendous resource. So definitely go check out couplesinstitute.com/unstoppableceo and then once you do that go browse around the rest of the site. There’s just a wealth of information there for you.
So, Ellen, Pete, thank you so much for investing some time with me today. This has been a thrill. I’ve enjoyed learning a little bit of your wisdom and I think it’s a really, really important topic for those of us that run businesses. We walk a real tightrope sometimes between trying to run and grow the business and also at the same time trying to have a really awesome marital relationship. And so I appreciate you being here and sharing a little bit with us.
Ellyn Bader: Thank you. It’s been fun talking to you.
Pete Pearson: Thank you, Steve. Really enjoyed it. And keep up your good work too because entrepreneurs need all the support, help and assistance, resources that they can get.
Steve Gordon: Excellent. Thank you guys.
Pete Pearson: Thank you.