I often hear startup-related horror stories about founders who choose the wrong co-founder. But I rarely hear startup-related horror stories about what is arguably an even more important partner when it comes to startup success – your spouse.
I’ve been in the software industry for almost 20 years now. For the past decade, I’ve run a reasonably (but not impressively) successful consulting firm. I’ve made a few attempts at marshaling my consulting resources into product launches, but have never managed to get past closed beta. Whether tackling consulting or product development, I never seem to have quite enough horsepower to push things from the realm of the also-rans into the realm of real successes.
Part of this is the seduction of consulting revenue. Even without putting out a product, I’ve been able to take home $150,000 to $190,000 per year. Knowing that signing a single new consulting project will net me more revenue in 6 months than any product I think up will likely net me in 3 years has been a powerful disincentive.
But that’s all typical consulting vs. startup stuff. Everybody knows about those tensions between “money now” and “money later”. That’s not the primary reason why I haven’t been able to summon enough horsepower to either make my consulting firm big enough to dedicated resources to product development, or why the products that I have attempted fizzled.
The real primary reason I haven’t spent so much as 1 day giving my business 100% is because I haven’t had 100% to give. Why? Because I have been, on a daily basis, drowning in the fear, risk, threats and chaos stemming from the crazy behavior of my addict spouse.
I know that sounds like a cop-out. Years ago I would have thought so, too. But looking at it from this side of the line, I am stunned at the amount of emotional and physical energy that simply living with an addict can bleed out of a person. Remember the old story about the Sword of Damocles? No? OK, go here and read it, it’s short and I’ll wait:
Cicero really said a mouthful:
Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?”
For better than 10 years, I have been the person over whom some fear always looms. That’s a tougher environment to operate in than it sounds like.
Imagine that no matter what you’re doing, what you’re working on, or how lucrative or important it is, you are constantly waiting for the next in a series of violent, dangerous, or financially risky incidents to happen? Imagine that there is no question of if such incidents are going to occur, only when they are going to occur. Imagine that the source of these recurring violent, dangerous or financially risky incidents is the person closest to you. The person you’re supposed to be able to trust implicitly. The person you have to lie down next to and sleep every night. Imagine that these incidents are clearly time to take advantage of the moments when you are at your weakest.
Aside from having a huge chunk of your mental and emotional energy bled off by being in a constant state of anxiety over questions like “is my spouse going to drive my kids home from school under the influence today?” or “is my spouse going to flip out and be violent today?” or “has my spouse pissed away all of our money today?” or “is my spouse going to disappear for hours on end tonight, driving our car all over God’s green earth while under the influence?” there is another set of questions that stared to creep into my professional activities:
- Why bother to build up my business, if I’m just going to end up losing half of it (or more) in an eventual divorce (there’s no way I can put up with this forever)?
- Why bother to build up my business if I’m likely to end up losing it all in a civil suit when my nutty addict spouse finally kills someone, driving under the influence?
- Why push too hard to launch an app when I know there’s a 100% chance of my addict spouse pulling some BS in the next 10 days that will drain me of either the time, money or energy required to keep it going?
- Why work hard at all when I know there’s a 100% chance that the moment I’m in any kind of position of weakness (tired, sick, broke, up against a hard deadline), THAT will be the moment my addict spouse will choose to pull some kind of BS?
At first, I was able to adhere to the “suck it up and just work harder” ethos consistent with the Puritanical work ethic I was raised with; home is home, and work is work, and never the twain shall meet. But eventually, as my home situation worsened and substance-fueled incidents became more frequent, I found myself being ground down more and more. Eventually, my work was impacted for the simple fact that the guy doing the work was – for lack of a better word – impaired.
Eventually, a combination of circumstances compelled my spouse into a treatment program. At the moment my spouse has been sober for about 90 days.
This is a good thing, but the truth is, relapse rates are horrible. I have no realistic expectation that my spouse is going to stay sober for life, or even for a year.
You know how we, in the startup world, tend to have a survivorship bias when estimating the chances of our startups being successful, ignoring the thousands of failed startups and focusing only on the ones that made it? Well, I have found that they do something similar in addiction/recovery circles; at support meetings you will hear speeches from people who have 10, 15 and 20 years of sobriety. The takeaway is that this is a reasonable outcome to expect .
It is not. The statistics tell me that it is only a matter of time until my spouse uses again. Although it is undeniably a good thing that my spouse is sober right now, instead of each sober day feeling like a triumph, I cannot help but regard it as merely one less peaceful day I have until the next violent, dangerous, or risky incident fueled by substance use.
And THAT is what living under the Sword of Damocles feels like.
At this point, to avoid getting bogged down in the minutiae that internet commenters seem to love to focus on, let’s agree to stipulate to this:
I have already reached out to all the places you’re supposed to reach out to for help – family, domestic abuse hotlines, police, therapists, support groups, and family law attorneys. Amazingly, I found that at every turn the system is set up to offer very little remedy to an abused, responsible adult trying desperately to cope with the actions of an abusive, irresponsible adult. The entire system is geared toward rehabilitating and excusing the addict, and gives the victimized individual few good options. What remedy there was often carried strings that threatened to make the situation ever worse (as hard as it may seem to believe that is possible).
I found this pretty shocking, and it served as a secondary source of depair, compounding the despair from my home life.
So please, let’s not focus on “you should do this” or “you should do that”. I’ve already been there, and continue to go there, and will attempt to extricate myself from this situation as soon as the circumstances are in place to do so. Trust me, there are complications that I need to be very careful about.
Back to the main thrust of this story. I continue to run my reasonably successful consulting business, and I continue to work toward product development, although I cannot shake the feeling that it’s all slowly circling the drain. My business simply isnt what it used to be, because I am not what I used to be.
I feel traumatized, drained and impaired, and am trying hard to be smart and use this period of relative calm while my spouse is sober to recharge myself from the past 10 years of chaos. But it’s not really working.
You know those dogs you adopt from the shelter, who flinch when you reach out to pet them because their previous owner abused them, even 10 years after you’ve adopted the dog and treated it well? That’s the closest analogue I can think of for how I feel.
The question is, how common is this? How many of you out there in the startup world have spouses who are addicts? How many of you out there in the startup world have had to try to maintain a demanding career while also struggling with the chaos created by an addict spouse? And more importantly, how did you deal with it? Tons of therapy? Divorce? Did you just ignore it until your addict spouse made it impossible to ignore?
There is no way that I am the only one who has been through this. It is possible that I am the only one willing to talk about it, but there is no way I am alone in this.
Founders, how have you dealt with this?