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spring 2021

The Business Of Marriage

Long-Lasting Love Requires a Solid Investment Plan
Written by: Gary and Janet Smith

All the professional accomplishments in the world don’t count for much, at the end of the day, if you are miserable in your personal life. In more than 30 years together as a married couple and business partners, we have learned a thing or two about winning at work and winning at home.

First, we want to nix the notion of the “work-life balance” some people talk about. That makes it sound like there’s a formula, but it isn’t that simple. In reality, work and the rest of your life coexist, and not always necessarily so well. In fact, being able to recognize that is part of the solution.

We think more along the lines of striving for an integrated life. For example, Janet is a self-confessed workaholic, whose primary idea of fun is work! She can “do” other kinds of fun, but she has to be encouraged to. Gary is more of a lifestyle person. He believes in hard work, certainly, but he also has an eye out for new experiences. When most consultants get into town, they’ll go straight to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep before the next morning’s meeting. Gary will be looking up the best restaurant in town, and energized by the visit the following day.

Because we met while we were both working at IBM, our professional lives have always been a part of our relationship. Even with that awareness, we have found that you have to have an unwavering respect for your spouse, because at any given moment the relationship might be out of alignment and need some adjustment. Respect means that you have an unwavering belief that you are each pulling your weight, though you may be doing it slightly differently, and that you know you are both committed to finding your way to contribute to the greater good.

Couple Image

“There shouldn’t be anything you can’t talk about in a way that is respectful.”

Talk straight, fight fair

Above all, you have to be able to talk through the stressful times, which are bound to come. We have always been able to talk to each other about anything and be very direct. We’re respectful, but we cut to the chase. Really pay attention to how you communicate with each other. Are you able to go deep? Are you able to talk about absolutely anything? That’s so critical; there shouldn’t be anything you can’t talk about in a way that is respectful. If you can’t talk about it, eventually it’s going to be a big problem.

And you have to learn to fight fair. The problem is, many couples don’t. Your spouse knows everything about you—what you’re afraid of and all your weaknesses—and could use that knowledge as ammunition in the middle of an argument to destroy you. Our rule of thumb: don’t say something that is going to leave a mark.

Having said all that about straight talking, we believe in being cautious about talking too much with others. Before we got married, Janet’s father told her, “Don’t let anybody else into this marriage. It’s just you two. If anything happens, don’t tell me; it’s just you two.”

Now, if really difficult things are happening at home, of course you need to find someone to confide in. But we believe you don’t need to be talking to your girlfriends or your buddies about everything that’s going on in your marriage. Because you will forget and forgive but they will not, and that could prove to be disruptive down the road.

While we’re sharing parental wisdom, Gary’s dad also had some great advice for us. He always talked about how, when you get married, you have a family of your own and so you may actually have to tell your original family “No” in order to honor your new one. You have got to protect the relationship at all costs.

“Eliminating that need for perfection goes a long way in a happy relationship.”

Celebrate, don’t tolerate

Specializing in diversity, strategic planning and change management in our IVY Planning Group consulting and training group has benefited our personal relationship. To be an effective diversity equity and inclusion consultant, you need to develop three things: trust, like and respect. It’s great to have all three, but you must have at least two, and that’s so true in marriage.

We have learned other things at work that have helped at home. At IVY we emphasize being able to truly value difference—accepting that different people come from different places and have different views—and not just tolerate it. We need to remember that because while we are similar in so many ways there are also areas in which we’re really very different. So we have to value each other’s differences and see what’s good about them.

And we have learned at work that everything doesn’t matter. We’re not saying you don’t strive for the best, but most things at work that succeed aren’t perfect. Eliminating that need for perfection goes a long way in a happy relationship. Everything doesn’t have to be do-or-die. Unfortunately, the mistake most couples make is they put their relationship in play for everything. But for us, an argument is just about whatever we’re arguing about at the time. It’s not the end of the world, like they didn’t like my idea and now they have stopped wanting to be married to me.

Fit, finances and faith

We were both fortunate in what we saw of marriage growing up. Gary’s parents had been happily married for a long time and were his model. They were both from big families and they taught Gary that when you get married, you end up with three families—his, hers and yours.

Janet’s parents were married for 25 years before they divorced and each remarried. Then each of their spouses passed away over time, and they reconnected as friends before her father died, so she saw both how great and how difficult marriage could be. We both went into marriage with our eyes open.

When someone who is contemplating marriage asks us what they need to consider, we emphasize three things. First, you have really got to figure out are you compatible? That doesn’t mean being the same in every way—as we’ve said, diversity is a strength—but there has to be some level of “fit.” For example, what are your sensibilities about risk? If only one person has an appetite for risk, you’re starting to put a whole lot of pressure on the marriage.

Then you really have to figure out where you stand in regards to money. How much does it mean to you? Keep in mind it’s not just about the amount: there are couples that are broke and happy and there are couples that are rich and miserable.

And you must, must, must consider spirituality. What is the role that religion and God should play in your life? It’s good to have someone who is prayerful as your partner, someone that isn’t always trying to solve problems to their own understanding, because if you try to solve a lot of earthly problems in an earthly way, you’re going to come up with earthly solutions—and some of those aren’t going to be good ideas!

Gary and Janet Smith are co-founders of IVY Planning Group in Bethesda, Md., a full-service management consulting and training firm whose clients include Fortune 100 companies, large nonprofits and government agencies. They have been married for 36 years and have three grown sons.