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Ex-etiquette: Doing business with an ex

Jann Blackstone

Q: My husband continues to own a business with his ex-wife, and they are constantly discussing financial matters in front of me. This makes me uncomfortable. I feel they are too close and should liquidate the business, but it is quite lucrative and supports us all — his kids, her kids, and our kids. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A: Good ex-etiquette is good behavior after divorce or separation — and being completely honest about financial matters is excellent ex-etiquette.

So the real question here is, are you uncomfortable because they seem too emotionally dependent on each other or financially dependent — or both? And, would liquidating the business truly be the answer to making you feel more comfortable, especially if this business supports three families that are very intertwined?

There’s always the chance your husband and his ex are being insensitive and too casual in their communication style. If that case, it would be natural for you to feel a little insecure as a result. But, the truth remains — you knew these two people owned a firm together before getting married; therefore, I wonder if their relationship has changed or if your attitude about it is what has changed.

Using the Ten Rules of Good Ex-etiquette for Parents as criteria for my answer, one rule easily applies — rule No. 4, “Parents make the rules; bonusparents uphold them.” Granted, this usually refers to “house rules” and discipline when co-parenting or combining families, but the principles are the same. You knew prior to your marriage that these exes shared a business. Therefore, it’s your job to support their decisions, not put pressure on them to terminate their business agreement now that you are in the picture. You should have aired your concerns before the wedding.

That said, there are a few things exes who continue to own a business after they break-up can do to make the going a little easier. It’s tricky, readers, but it can be done:

1. Find your niche: Assign responsibilities and stick to them. If one is better with numbers and the other better with design, for example, that’s their niche and don’t deviate. Doing so you will step on people’s toes, factions will form, and there’ll be a war in the ranks.

2. Have a forum for conflict resolution in place: Know exactly how you will solve problems if there is a disagreement between exes before the issues arise. What will you do? Step one, step two, step three. The final step can be an agreement to employ a mediator or an attorney or a therapist as a third party — a non-bias person to help the players solve disagreements when they can’t do it themselves.

3. Set clear boundaries: Business is business/home is home. Workers do not perform well when there is a hostile work environment — and if exes continue to own a business after a break-up, any residual relationship conflicts (or conflicts with new partners or family members) can easily bleed over into the business and compromise decisions. Therefore, keep the boundaries clear and priorities straight — your ex is your business partner. Do not confide intimacies about new relationships or explore “remember whens.”

Finally, you may all need the help of an “uninterested” third party to help design the framework so that this works for everyone.

Contact Dr. Jann Blackstone at dr.jann@exetiquette.com.