What do marriages and long-term business relationships have in common?

[3-minute read]

Here is a situation I have seen all too often, and it always saddens me when I see it happen. People who genuinely like each other and want to create something get together but are stuck in unhelpful communication, wondering how things got that far…


A group of friends create and build a business. In the beginning, all is great. The business grows, clients are happy, and employees are motivated and engaged. However, after many years of success and great fun, cracks appear in the leadership team.

I am always surprised by how the dynamics in such business partnerships are similar to those in marriages and families. People love each other, yet the relationship does not feel quite right any more.

You hear people say things such as, “we used to go to lunch together once a week, and we could discuss everything, but it has been a while now”, or “it has become very complicated with my partner”, or “I don’t know why, but every time we talk one of us seems to get upset”.

Other symptoms that something is not right is when you start hearing more and more statements that start with “you always…”, “you never…”, “I always have to…”, “nobody here ever…”, “it is always me who has to …”, or “I have been trying to say for years but you never …”

What do people do in these situations? The same things that couples do. Some start to withdraw from potential conflict, while others keep nagging about the behaviour of their partners.


Having observed such situations repeatedly, I wondered why this happens. Reading Paul Watzlawick’s works about human communication, however, I discovered that asking WHY is the wrong question. Rather than asking WHY communication works or does not, it is more helpful to ask HOW communication works.

HOW do we communicate with each other?

When we communicate, we normally do this in a certain way. The longer we are in a relationship, the more we default to certain communication patterns we use with that person. It is the nature of long-term relationships that, after some time, certain communication patterns start to repeat themselves. Some of these patterns are helpful, some dysfunctional, and others toxic.

The problem is that we tend to default to a limited set of communication patterns, irrespectively of whether the patterns work or not. As an outside observer, it is sometimes baffling to see partners, be they business or private, using the same repertoire of communication patterns, even when they don’t work.

Two common patterns in long-term relationships are nagging and withdrawal. The irony is that one pattern may trigger the other. The husband may withdraw because the wife keeps nagging, and the wife sees the husband’s withdrawal as a justification for her nagging.

Invitation for Action

If what I wrote above resonates with you, I invite you to try the following three-step process: Shift – Observe – Evaluate.

1) Shift: Change perspective and try to take the position of an outside observer. It is essential to take a non-judgemental stance. What you are trying to do is observe, not judge. You are trying to find out HOW you communicate and not WHY you do it in a certain way.
2) Observe: Identify and try to describe your default communication patterns. You can do this by answering the question, “when my partner does A, I usually react by doing B”.
3) Evaluate: Ask yourself if the patterns you identified in step two have been helpful. It is not about judging if the default behaviour is good or bad but evaluating if it is helpful.

The key insights you want to get from this exercise is the answer to the question: What are the default patterns I use, and are they helping me achieve my objective of maintaining a healthy relationship with my long-term partner?

I find that it is quite difficult to go through these steps alone. So I invite you to find a friend who is a good listener and go through these steps with him or her.

Or, you can have a short chat with me, as I have been able to help many leadership teams who genuinely what to improve the way they work together.

You can book a time using my scheduling link.

Take care, stay safe, and get meaningful work done



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