Trying to Run a Startup When Your Spouse is an Addict

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:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damocles#Sword_of_Damocles

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.

[TANGENT]

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.

[/END TANGENT]

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?

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Comments

  1. I hear you. I do not have any solutions though, sorry.

  2. For any one else going through this, Al Anon and Nar Anon are similar to groups like AA, but for family members of alcoholics and adicts.
    http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/ and
    http://www.nar-anon.org/

  3. I haven’t had an addict spouse like you describe, but I have lived with a high-functioning addict whose ‘other life’ I could only join be joining in the substance abuse. It had a devestating effect on my personal life, but through it all I apparently stayed humble and kind because it seems I have left good impressions wherever I went.

    The only thing I can offer to console you with is that you’ve probably built up a Herculean strength through your ordeal. When your veil is lifted don’t be surprised if you find that the stresses that would knock the average person out cold have little effect on you and that achieving the same results you do now with all your effort will take you the equivalent of an effortless jog.

    If you’ve lasted this long you’ll most likely find another Herculean task to pick up afterwards, but this time make sure it’s not one the benefits just a single person but one that benefits the world.

  4. The idea that you have little control is partially correct. You cannot change your spouse, you can only change you. Sometimes this means divorce or separation, which may help your spouse more in the long run than staying with them. Each situation is different. Try Al-Anon and Nar-Anon as suggested. They know exactly what you’re going through.

    - Programmer with 10 years sobriety.

    • Whoaah you are really in a very difficult situation, I think what I can only say is that if you don’t see yourself being in that situation for long term maybe you should end it as early as posible and consult a marriage counselor.

  5. I don’t have any cute words for you, but just picking up on one of the things you mention (the danger if having to liquidate your business in order to pay for your spouse’s foul-up), may I suggest that if you haven’t done so already, you incorporate your consultancy business? At least you can hive that off from any liabilities your spouse gets the two of you into.

  6. I had an addict brother while bootstrapping my own b2b startup. These persons are like a siphon, draining all the positive energy from within you. In the end, I counted my losses and moved on. My moving on being, to stop caring about him selfishly throwing his health in the gutter while hurting those that were trying to help him. My counting my losses being, watching my parents getting day by day more and more exhausted while dealing with his BS, until they both died of cancer, some years after he fatally OD’d. Sorry for the ugly details, but this is just how things happened.

    I feel very sad about my parents, but not a bit sad for him. I can hear you thinking, “what’s that cold-hearted bastard talking about?”. I assure you i am a very sensitive person, and i do my best to everyday help people as much as i can. But only those willing to help themselves. What was happening to our family was just not fair for anybody, except the person responsible.

    The whole experience has scarred me for life, but at the same time made me psychologically “bulletproof”. There is practically no situation that can make me nervous, i never cave when things get tough and the only thing strong enough to scare me, is a problem with the health & well-being of my family (God forbid).

    What i have to say to you:

    1. Consider if you are the one responsible for your spouse’s situation, of not being able to give up the addiction. If you think it’s worth the try, keep your consulting business to a sustainable minimum and spend a lot of real quality time with your spouse. Truly helping your spouse requires sacrifices, have you made them? (by your story it seems that you have, but i had to say it)

    2. Your “why bother” bullet points conceal a known truth. Building a successful startup has a lot to do with having a positive psychology and being optimistic against the odds, as you correctly mention. As long as you have a sword hanging above your head, you have more important things to worry about than starting your own company. This one problem, you have to solve it before going any further.

    3. You mention “complications that I need to be very careful about”, but i’m gonna go there. Any price to pay, whether economical or psychological, is not high, if it will buy you inner peace… Time goes by and never returns, every day going by under these circumstances seems like an enormous loss for you and maybe also for your spouse. Make a sincere self-assessment and see what your current situation is, and decide where you find your balance. Right now it seems you have grown weary of your situation and you are giving up on your dreams.

    4. I really wish you and your spouse the best. I hope your spouse remains sober, things work out and you build a successful startup.

  7. I have only two solutions that will hopefully give you insight when dealing with a loved one whose addiction negatively impacts you. Having been in a similar situation, you can do one of two things: Demand that they get help and offer yourself as a positive support system or leave. From a personal experience, leaving was the only option for self preservation if your loved one chooses to continue such a lifestyle. Otherwise, you may risk continuing the cycle and a life of co dependency. Get counseling or get out of the situation. Good luck to you.

  8. There are a number of things that you need to address an act on immediately.
    The first thing is the safety of your children. Arrange with someone you trust to get them to and from school. The children already know that something is wrong with their Mom. You need to address their safety. The second thing you need to do is remove your wife from all bank accounts and credit cards. Aside from the fact that she has access to funds to fuel her addiction, she is also in contact with dealers and other addicts who will drain your bank accounts and run up your credit cards. The next thing, is to get a safe and lock up your valuables. Now, for long term planning…you need to divorce your wife, for the time being and place her in a detox facility. This will at least get her out from under the influence and she will be able to this k clearly. Then you need to find a monitored halfway house for her to live. The set up a plan to get her money to live on or open an account for her, under her name only. Get her a car in only her name, this way, if she kills someone, you are not liable. The woman you married is now a Hybrid, of who you once knew. You see who syou married and came to know…add the addicts drive and altered personality and you have a hybrid….someone who you no longer know.

  9. Be prepared to look yourself hard in the mirror, then read (a lot) about co-dependency, being the spouce to an abuser is almost as addictive as being an abuser!

  10. Hi there and thanks for sharing. I’m dealing with a situation that is not exactly the same, but close enough to strike a chord. I’m probably about 10-15 years younger than you and am a new dad to a now 7 month old amazing little boy. He is wonderfully bright, animated, outgoing, curious and overall a treat to have in my life. The problem is his mom…

    She and I met while I was on a consulting project in SE Asia, while finishing up my MBA degree. We feel in lust, had a wild week and were seeming to wrap things up as I prepared to head back to the US. She didn’t see it that way – she wanted me to become her boyfriend.

    -Now I know what you are all thinking, SE Asian girl, wants to use me to get an American visa, right? Well, funny thing is, she’s actually a European citizen herself, so she enjoys much of the same liberties and opportunities that we have in the US. There is no green card jackpot here. -

    Anyways, we dated through skype for a while and really started to fall in love. Genuinely. She was a bright girl, understanding, sympathetic and seemed to have a good grasp one what it means to be in a caring relationship. A few months later, she came to the US to visit… for 3 months!

    The thing is, I had just finished MBA and was trying to launch my own consulting firm at the time. I was living with my parents, who live in the middle of nowhere, and so there wasn’t much to do besides… you know.

    By the end of her three months, i think we both pretty well knew that it wasn’t meant to be. It was all very romantic how we met around the world and bla bla bla, but we really just weren’t right for each other. When she left it was like a “ok, lets stay in touch and see how things go” with a backdrop of “probably never see you again”.

    Until about 1.5 months later, I get the call that has led us to where we are today: she was pregnant. Timing couldn’t have been much worse also because I was just then dropping the consulting and making the jump into high tech startup – building a whole complicated product and business from scratch. Well, now its not just my own security that matters, I just got 2 more mouths to feed.

    To come to a faster conclusion, let me wrap up by saying the last 8 months have been incredibly hard. I moved across the world to a country where I didnt speak the language (now have “everyday” abilities), am raising a kid with a woman who is emotionally unstable, is a sex addict, has alcoholism, depression and abuse all in her immediate family and has therefore completely separated herself from said family so that literally the only person that we have contact at all with in this city is with her EX-FIANCE, with whom she broke up with literally just 1 month before she met me.

    This is now my life. I live in a small 1-bedroom apartment with a woman who gropes me at every single chance she gets, has little to no regard for my own desires or interests, who doesn’t work, who cries about her family being f-ed up and then lashes out at me for causing her stress. I absolutely love my son, but I don’t know how much longer I can deal with this and I don’t know quite what to do.

    My business plans are to locate our eventual HQ in the US, so that means moving back there and really the only way to get my son to live in the US with me is if I marry this woman and get her the green card. I absolutely know that I cannot be with this person long term because we are completely not right for each other. We are on opposite wavelengths on almost everything, and I have to bit my tongue many many times a day just to let her say what she wants and for me to maintain the relative peace.

    She is a constant distraction and impediment to me building this business, even though she claims she supports me in it. I cant even get a full nights sleep because she accosts me in the middle of the night, almost every night. I’m sure some men will say that it’s impossible for a woman to sexually abuse a man, or joke about how could it be a bad thing when a girl likes to have sex a lot? Well trust me, its possible.

    I have a healthy appetite and I’ve been with enough women, and been in healthy relationships to know what is good and whats not. And to literally have to fight someone off of my body every night, multiple times a night just to freaking sleep is not normal.

    I am finally convincing her to get help and talk to someone, so we’ll see how that goes. But I know at some point in the not too distant future, I am going to have to make a very tough decision and I am not looking forward to it.

    So, while I dont have answers for you, I can commiserate with your situation and hope for the best for you and all of us.

  11. I am no founder and I have not been in such a bad situation. Yet, I have been together with someone who could not deal with reality for more than 10 years. Hope and social ethics supposed to be upheld kept me going but only for so long.

    The only person you are responsible for in the end is just yourself. It is also the only person you have any chance to change. You are obviously a tough guy and that is very impressive but you will find your limit eventually and that I promise you. Do what is most right for you and do it now. Do it while you are in control and not after you break apart and your mind and body will take over for you. Don’t wait. Take heart and help yourself. Only by doing so you manage to help everybody around you as well. Sounds scary? Shit yeah it is! It may be the most terrible thing that I ever experienced and most probably ever will. Unfortunately there are no alternatives …

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