When I met my husband, Luke Malek, in law school ten years ago, working with him was the last thing on my mind. Sure, I loved the man, but as an ambitious, accomplished, up-and-coming attorney, I was focused on growing my career independently. I was more than happy to just do our best to eat dinner together during the week.
Luke and I pursued different areas of the law. He served for six years in the state legislature, most weeks commuting from our home in north Idaho to the capital city, Boise (a seven hour drive). I took a job working as a special assistant and later an assistant United States Attorney with the Department of Justice, which meant that I was in Boise full-time, prosecuting criminal cases at the federal level. Because my job required complete confidentiality, our conversations at home became, at best, a bit one-sided. Meanwhile, Luke had started a law firm with a longtime friend and was pursuing a run for Congress, adding yet another dynamic to our relationship. By the time we ended our respective days (often in different time zones), the last thing either of us wanted to do was rehash our work days.
So, after eight years of pursuing careers on opposite ends of the nation’s 11th largest state, Luke and I had a come-to-Jesus meeting. He was my confidante and teammate in life, and I wanted more than a weekend wingman. He felt the same. We explored what might be possible if we combined our professional superpowers. Luke’s law firm was growing quickly and needed a litigator. I was interested, but only if I joined as an equal partner, and we began a long conversation about our rules of engagement for managing our personal and professional lives. In February, 2018, I joined Smith + Malek as partner, and we’ve never looked back.
To build a successful law practice together and supervise our growing team, Luke and I had to establish a few hard and fast rules to keep our professional lives thriving and our marriage sane and connected. I hope these five tips will help guide others who may want to collaborate with their spouse in business and in life.
1. Respect that behavior should be different in a professional setting.
Respect is absolutely critical in any relationship. In the professional realm, especially in leadership roles, spouses need to be cognizant of how they are treating each other at work. Terms of endearment, while completely appropriate at home, can feel condescending in the workplace. In addition, cutting off your spouse just because you know what they are going to say is annoying in any setting, but especially dangerous at work. It shows you don’t value his or her opinion, and others will quickly pick up on that. Temper the familiarity you show each other in verbal and non-verbal ways at the office.
2. Disagree fairly.
Notice I didn’t say "fight fair." You don’t fight with colleagues at work — you disagree. Same goes for your spouse. Stick to the facts, and stay far away from conduct and statements you wouldn’t share with a regular colleague.
Your personal struggles with your spouse should never be the subject of any conversation at work. Ever. Keep your personal life personal, and avoid the temptation to overshare with coworkers. They are not your marriage counselors or mediators.
4. Decide together if you’ll take work home or leave it at the office.
Before you combine forces in business, decide at the outset whether you want to discuss work matters at home. For some couples where each person works outside the home, this agreement may feel familiar. Figure out what your work-life boundaries will look like, and then stick to them — or renegotiate if circumstances change. Communicate frequently and honestly about what’s working — or not — in your arrangement.
5. Protect your personal time.
Just because you spend all day together at work doesn’t mean that this is quality time with your spouse. Make the time to do fun things together and keep talk of work off-limits entirely during these times. When you work together, it’s even more critical not to lose your sense of self in the marriage. Hang out with your respective friends together and without your spouse. Hold tight to your individuality, because it’s why you and your spouse matched up in the first place.
Lastly, if you make the leap to work together, keep it fun. Make laughing a regular part of your daily routine in order to diffuse stress and deepen your connection. I’m glad Luke and I made the decision to be a team in work and in life. For compatible couples, know that it’s possible to design the life and career that works best for you and your marriage.