Judy Rosenberg and Eliot Winograd, the co-owners of the venerable Rosie's Bakery chain, at one point tried to avoid being in the same shop together. Their marriage was unraveling, and tensions were high.
More than two decades later, they describe themselves as akin to a "brother and sister," say they trust each other completely and have learned how to manage both a growing business and the times when they still disagree. They are ex-co-preneurs, and it works.
Going into business with your lover is tough, as I wrote in my last column. It's easy to step on each other's toes at work, and the constant proximity can be suffocating. Work-family conflict is a top stressor for such couples, a 2006 study by the University of Minnesota shows. Not surprisingly, the "drop-out" rate, when one spouse quits the business, is high.
But what happens if the romance ends? Emotions are raw, and the business - the couple's entrepreneurial "offspring" - can fast become a pawn in a bitter chess game. One ex-spouse often winds up buying out the other, says Judith Poller, an attorney who heads the matrimonial department of the New York law firm Dreier LLP.
"It's hard enough to get divorced when people don't share a business, but you add that element in, and it's much more complicated," says Poller. For instance, the business is often the main asset supporting a family, she says.
And yet, against all odds, some tenacious ex-couples stay in business together, including fashion designer Kimora Lee Simmons and her husband, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, and high-profile women's designer Tory Burch and her venture capitalist husband, Christopher. Both couples are separated.
The Simmonses remain partners in "various businesses," said Keesha Johnson, a spokeswoman for Kimora Lee Simmons. The Burches, meanwhile, still co-chair the company that carries her name. "Their troubles have not interfered with the business," says Bill Smith, a managing partner at Global Reach Capital in New York, who is an investor in the company and is close to both Burches.
Rosenberg and Winograd have a one-word starting point for keeping a business partnership afloat after a marriage ends: trust. They attribute their continued working relationship in part to their unwavering mutual respect, even during the initial, rocky year after their breakup in 1982. They were married for two years and a couple for six.
The post-breakup days, however, were tough. Their operations manager sometimes had to play middleman to their arguments; afterward, they'd bring her presents to apologize. They sometimes avoided each other. Business therapists were brought in.
"The business and the personal collided for a while," says Winograd, who became a full partner in the firm several years after their divorce. "Occasionally we would bang heads, and it was very uncomfortable."
Adds Rosenberg: "We might get huffy and angry and immature, but always in the end, we worked it out."
The romantic breakup of co-preneurs puts their company in "real jeopardy," says Margaret Heffernan, author of "How She Does It: How Female Entrepreneurs Are Changing the Rules for Business Success" (Viking, 2007), and a visiting professor at Simmons College n Boston. "How happy employees are, how streamlined processes are, how good communications are - all these things are at risk." The ex-couples who can stay in business together are "few and far between," she adds.
Carving out well-defined and fairly separate roles at work is a plus for co-preneurs, but crucial for those transitioning past a divorce. Kathy Paulsen, for example, manages the Suffern, N.Y., flooring business she previously co-owned with her husband, Gary. When they divorced in 2005 after a 30-year marriage, she gave her half of the business to him and became the company's only salaried worker.
Some people are "horrified" when they learn that the ex-couple still work together, and ask " 'How do you look at each other all day,' " says Paulsen. But in reality, "I basically run the store, and he's out installing and doing estimates."
For many divorcing co-preneurs, however, working together is not meant to be. Lucia Weir now owns the Soiree catering business in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., that she originally founded in 1979 with her ex-husband Ray Walsh. Meanwhile, he owns Gourmet Kitchen, a Neptune, N.J., prepared foods business that he began as a sideline to Soiree in 1985.
Divorced in 1991, the two are on good terms, both remarried, and are successful in their own rights. Would they run a business with a spouse again?
"I will never do that again," says Weir. "That was our downfall."
But Walsh thinks differently. He's partnering with his wife, Doreen, to open a crepes restaurant this summer in Bradley Beach, on the Jersey Shore.
Maggie Jackson, author of What's Happening to Home: Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.