management & leadership

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A Survival Guide for Working with Your Spouse

by debra engelhardt-nash

Married couples’ working together is not a new idea. Husband and wife teams have run farms, small enterprises and families together for centuries.

A 2007 Census Bureau estimates about 3.7 million businesses are owned by husband and wife. And this author speculates that number has increased.

It’s not surprising then, that seventy percent of spouses work in the dental practice together and an additional twelve percent worked in the practice at one time.

When it works well, husband-wife business partnerships are spectacular. In those cases, they’re in sync and have such an intimate relationship that they can accomplish amazing things. But when it doesn’t work, it has the potential to be an incredible train wreck. It’s important to develop some guidelines to survive and thrive working together.

Construct a life plan. What are your personal goals for the next 3-5 years? Which of these are negotiable, and which are not?

What personal sacrifices are you willing to make for the sake of growing the practice? What about your spouse?

What business goals are you willing to sacrifice to fulfill personal desires?

How informed does the spouse wish to be about the business? Will bad news be shared (and there will likely be some) or will there be an attempt to preserve peace of mind?

Decide the partnership model. Determine the kind of business relationship you have. Below are examples different spouse working relationships.

Solo Entrepreneur with Supportive Spouse

In this model, one person owns and manages the business. The Supportive partner helps out with the business part time and is psychologically supportive. They may be employed outside the business as well as offering assistance dealing with the business side as well as patient side of the practice. The supportive spouse may not work in dental practice but still makes an impact. This spouse may also assist running the practice from home via the Internet.


In this scenario, both partners own and manage the practice and both work full time in the practice. The Copreneurs have lived the day together and understand the day-to-day operations. The Copreneurs spouse may be a clinical team member or business administrator.

What situation will work best for your lives?

Detail duties and designate a boss. Even if each partner has naturally slipped into a particular role in the business, it is critical to sit down, give both spouses a title and write down their job responsibilities. Show that the spouse has clear job description and boundaries and make the Team aware of who’s in charge of what. Establish definitions and working conditions upfront and be certain co-workers are aware of these terms to avoid confusion or resentment.

Formally evaluate these duties and responsibilities at least twice a year with the option of reconfiguring spouse’s role as situations or needs change.

Establish time for work and time for family. It is natural for dinner-table talk to turn to work when both parents work together. Some parents are so immersed in business they shut out their children, and others unconsciously impose their passion for the company on the kids. Sometimes a couple who work together can draw such a tight circle around themselves they shut others out. Aim for chunks of family time when no business talk is allowed.

Take the couple out of the office and the office out of the couple. Agree on certain rituals – lighting a candle, turning off the computer, changing clothes that signify to each other that the workday has ended and family time has begun.

Be disciplined about carving out technology –free stretches. Even if you don’t respond to the device’s whining, its presence at the restaurant, on the dining room table or by the bed affects the quality of your family’s shared time.

Avoid acting like a boss at home. Problems at work demand yes or no solutions.

At home, conversation, compromise and nuance matter. At work you’re accustomed to running things and being in charge. But when you walk through the front door of your house, you walk into a messy democracy.

Acknowledge your Spouse’s role. Whether the spouse works in the office or keeps the domestic machine running, your spouse helps you enjoy family life while reserving your energy for business. They save you money by working inside the business and by helping make it more profitable or they make the family money while working outside of it. Tell your spouse that you value their contribution. Some things go without saying… but not that. Make it clear to everyone in the practice – “We are collaborators pursuing a common goal“. Ensure that the spouse receives due credit in the eyes of others.

Be mindful that your marriage is showing. Spouses at work understandably lapse into discussions –sometimes-heated ones – about kids and car payments. Couples sometimes track their domestic lives into the office like muddy footprints.

That’s risky, because the Team may be looking for any signs of drama. Marital strife has the potential for juicy gossip.

If there is a disagreement about office protocols, the conversation should happen in private, not among the Team. If the spouse strongly challenges the spouse in front of others, it feels like a put down. Visible friction is a distraction and can erode Team morale and the sense of professionalism in the office.

Understand your status.

The spouse’s unique relationship with the doctor/entrepreneur also affects the treatment by the rest of the staff. The CEO is lonely at the top; by association, the spouse is also isolated from peers and colleagues. There is a fine line of distinction between the spouse as employee and the rest of the Team.

The Doctor can’t and shouldn’t pretend their spouses are just like any other employees. But neither should they go overboard trying to avoid shows of favoritism. One of my client’s spouses complained to me that her husband is often impatient with her at work. She said he never acted that way at home or with other employees. His behavior makes her resentful, and the employees – who notice everything- feel uncomfortable.

Ideally the couple at work will model a healthy, warm and respectful relationship. That, in turn, affects how other employees treat one another, and the patients.

Seek a sounding board. Many practices benefit from consultants who can lend an objective perspective. With outside help, spouse teams, in particular, can resolve many of the logistical and emotional stressors that naturally emerge. Family business advisers, couples therapists, advisory boards and coaches can be valuable investments for couple-owned businesses.

Conflict and confrontation are natural and healthy components of any relationship.

Utilize a mentor, or business coach to mediate when you disagree seriously over something related to work. An adviser is beneficial in opening the lines of communication.

To build a practice is to be subjective, passionate, futuristic and a risk taker. It is an entrepreneurial endeavor. You’ve got to be all in. And so does your spouse. If they can’t be, they may not want to be as active a participant as you would like.

Someone needs to be the objective thinker – responsible for making the day-to-day operations work. If both spouses are building the practice and have their dreams caught up in it’s success, an outside “third eye” may facilitate that dream being realized.

Take frequent inventory.

Recall all you’ve created together, all you’ve managed to survive. Maintaining a marriage through years of strain, sacrifice and possible uncertainty requires grace and grit. Maintaining a business together requires time, energy and passion. Succeeding at both is not accidental, but the result of a well executed plan.

debra engelhardt-nash

Debra Engelhardt-Nash has been in dentistry over 30 years. She has presented workshops nationally and internationally for numerous study groups and organizations. She is a repeat presenter for the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. She was a contributing editor for “Contemporary Esthetics and Restorative Practice” magazine and an editorial board member for Contemporary Assisting magazine and has written for a number of dental publications. Debra has been on several podcasts and conducted over 25 webinars for various groups and organizations. She has been honored twice as author of the year for her contributions to dental journals. Debra was also an instructor for the Central Piedmont Community College Dental Assisting Program and a guest instructor for Medical College of Georgia School of Dentistry.

Debra has been consulting since 1985 and offers in-office and skype training for dental practices throughout the country. She works with doctors and their Teams on strategic planning, office systems, patient engagement, treatment presentation and acceptance. Debra thrives on helping dental Teams enthusiastically reach their potential and increase practice productivity.

Debra is a founding member and served two terms as President of the National Academy of Dental Management Consultants. She is currently their President for a third time. She is an active member of the American Dental Assistants Association and serves on the Board of the American Dental Assistants Association Foundation. Debra is also an accredited member of the American Academy of Dental Practice Administration.

Debra has been listed in Dentistry Today as a Leader in Continuing Dental Education and Dental Consulting. In 2008, Debra was awarded the American Dental Assistants Association their highest honor – The Distinguished Service Award. She was also honored by in 2014 as Top 25 Women in Dentistry and is the 2015 recipient of the Gordon Christensen Outstanding Lecturer Award.