Is it possible to run a business with your ex?

“How did you and your business partner get into business with each other?” “Well…. we were in a relationship when the opportunity to start Breathe came along, but we’ve broken up since and that makes him my ex-boyfriend.” This is often followed by awkward silence or comments about how we are still able to work together.

We had been dating for a year before taking over Breathe. We broke up after 5 years of dating, but are currently still business partners. It is not uncommon for businesses to fail because of a break up. With the hindsight of time, I have been able to reflect a little on why and how it worked out for us, and also how we could have done it better. For us it boiled down to four main reasons.

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  • Distance and space

The initial months were the hardest. We were lucky to have distance, 3803km to be exact, between Shanghai, where I was, and Singapore, where he was. It gave us space to allow the frustration, anger and resentment to settle without causing any permanent damage.

  • Boundaries

Running a business together while being in a relationship for 5 years meant that our lives were irrevocably intertwined in all aspects. We had joint accounts, joint property, overlapping social circles. I was used to sharing my stresses, emotions and daily life with him. Drawing boundaries and deciding what was appropriate as business partner vs a  couple was something we had to navigate.

In the first few months, our fights were awful. They were everything the internet said NOT to do – bringing up unrelated past events, using each other’s vulnerabilities as weapons, yelling, harassing, ignoring, blackmailing. It was horrible and painful. Our solution to that was to create rules – to listen and not interrupt, to speak calmly and not raise voices and only sticking to the topic on hand. We would repeat these rules to each other before the start of every conversation.

  • Respect

He was handling the day to day operations of the business while I was in Shanghai, and having earlier set the course for the business together, I trusted the plan and his ability to execute it. I consciously backed off and disengaged from the business during the most heated initial few months. It wasn’t easy and I was constantly questioning my decision, but I trusted and respected him still and I knew that should I have persisted being involved in the business initially, the charged emotional states we were in might possibly result in catastrophic consequences.

Although our relationship failed, we still respected each other and recognised the traits unique to each other that have made the business successful thus far. Practically, it also made no financial sense for either of us to get rid of each other and/or the business.

  • Common Vision

Overarching it all, we still shared a common vision and goal to build integrated health centres throughout the region. Ending our partnership would result in none of us being better off and with both of us further from our goal. In all honesty, our relationship should have and would have ended a lot earlier had it not been for the business. We had mistakenly taken our common business goal to mean that we had similar life goals.

I suppose it was an evolution of our relationship.  It went from being a mix of personal and business to being only a business one. We just had to figure out what that meant in a respectful, kind and loving manner.

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