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The good divorce

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How to make the best of a marital divorce between business owners.

By Ellen Frankenberg

On the surface, the owners of Pete’s Photo World in Cincinnati seem to enjoy the best of all worlds. Pete Koerbel’s technical expertise and his engaging way with customers, combined with Linda Koerbel’s savvy management and marketing skills, have built their chain of seven stores into a local household name. During business hours they provide little hint of the truth about their relationship: The Koerbels are divorced.

When the Koerbels decided to end their marriage five years ago, they nevertheless decided that they still functioned well as business partners. For one thing, the family business was their most significant asset. For another, their only son, Michael, a purchasing whiz now in his 30s, provided the third leg of their management team—and he loved the business, too.

Inconceivable as a scenario like the Koerbels’ may seem, the U.S. divorce rate has hovered around 50% for some years now, and family business owners are not exempt.

The good news is that a growing body of information about how to manage a divorce (dare I say “successfully”?) is now available. A marital divorce between business owners gives new meaning to the term “limited partnership”—a partnership that focuses on sustaining a business or providing for children, even though the marriage itself has legally ended.

There is no “one size fits all” divorce. Some divorcing couples become so hostile and vindictive that they can’t possibly continue to operate a successful business together. But others really can develop cooperative relationships to accomplish significant goals. After intensive research with 98 couples, therapist Constance Ahrons defined five different types of divorces in her 1994 book, The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Falls Apart. A look at those “divorce types” (in descending order of civility) may help you determine whether or not your own family members may be able to sustain a “limited partnership.”

Perfect Pals are high communicators. They continue to speak with each other once or twice a week and trust each other as friends. They remain involved with each other’s extended families, often raising children through shared parenting arrangements. But just 12% of Ahrons’ couples fell in this category.

Cooperative Colleagues (38% of Ahrons’ sample) are functional communicators who talk to each other when necessary and can collaborate as parents for their children’s benefit. They can usually divide holidays and vacation time without calling in lawyers, because they can “compartmentalize” the issues they must resolve and compromise when necessary. These colleagues maintain fundamental respect for each other. They can attend major family events, such as graduations or weddings, with civility and perhaps conduct business together, if they have separate turf and clearly defined responsibilities.

Angry Associates let their unresolved anger smolder barely below the surface. Even if they’ve been legally divorced for years, they remain connected through the electricity of their anger. These couples, 25% of Ahrons’ sample, replay the same fights over and over, often about financial control or parenting issues. When they do communicate, they have difficulty resolving issues in a rational way, since anger continues to dominate their relationship.

Fiery Foes, another 25% of the sample, can’t tolerate any contact with each other, especially after a highly litigious divorce. If they do meet unexpectedly, any tinder can rekindle their rage. Because they usually feel that their just rights have been violated, perhaps by infidelity or other deceptions, they continually build evidence of the other’s alleged wrongdoings, since they expect trouble again in the future.

Dissolved Duos are not counted in Ahrons’ study, because one of the parties wasn’t even available for interviews. Usually one spouse has moved out of town, and contact with their children is unpredictable. This is a truly single-parent family, with only vague memories of a married life.

Since divorces can evolve in so many different ways, business owners need to first assess the degree of hostility within the couple. Perfect Pals and Cooperative Colleagues (who together make up half of the divorced population) may have a chance to continue working together effectively, especially if their common interest and talent motivate them to sustain a business. Members of a Dissolved Duo will function like single persons. But Angry Associates or Fiery Foes will foment conflict wherever they get together. The business stands at risk with such couples at the helm, especially if both spouses persist in maintaining both their conflict and their association with the company.

If divorce is inevitable, how can you at least avoid these worst outcomes and develop a “Good Divorce”—good enough for the former partners and good enough for the family business? Here are some suggestions.

1. Let go of old myths about divorce: that it always results in a “broken” family; that it’s a personal failure and the worst thing that can happen.

Some relationships become healthier once the family is restructured and tension is reduced. For abusive or addictive behavior, sometimes the reality of divorce is the only shock that gets an individual—and the whole family—into therapy. Divorce then becomes a relief, a source of safety.

I once met a couple who said that, because of their religious beliefs, divorce was absolutely out of the question. Instead they continued to fight and demean each other, certain that, no matter how nasty it got, neither would leave. As painful as divorce may be, without it as an option, some of us would be much less motivated to change.

2. Recognize that your family is not ended, but changed. Children raised in a household with two biological parents who love each other, work together effectively as parents and have the skills and resources to sustain a stable, nurturing home are lucky indeed. But that’s not the only alternative. Some single-family homes are quite healthy, especially if a “co-parent” is around—a relative or another single parent who provides practical and emotional backup when needed.

There’s really no such thing as a “blended” family. “Blended” implies smooth, as if everything folds in together without lumps or streaks. “Bi-nuclear” is probably a more accurate term to describe a family that now has two centers, with many differences between Mom’s house or Dad’s house.

3. Recognize that kids are resilient but also vulnerable. Many children adapt amazingly well, especially if they’re told the truth, without unnecessary adult details, and neither parent uses the children as weapons against the other. If grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles continue to reach out to them, kids figure out new ways to be family. Grandparents develop new, essential roles. The sibling relationship often becomes stronger, since brothers and sisters share only with each other the unique experience of moving back and forth between bi-nuclear homes.

4. Understand that when divorcing parents are under maximum stress, their children’s needs are maximum, too. Some parents “lose it” for months following the shock of a divorce and work so hard to keep body and soul together (to get everybody fed and to school on time and to ensure that bills are paid) that they miss their children’s emotional needs.

Meanwhile, your children may protect you from their pain, because they know you are overwhelmed. Or they may idealize the absent parent—the one who doesn’t make them take out the garbage every day. If you can’t focus on each child for at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted time each day, call in the reserves—relatives, family, friends, ministers, counselors, coaches, teachers, pediatricians, whoever can help your child sort out this major disruption in his/her life. Can you still have a family meal once a week, even if one of the chairs is empty? Can you play a game or shoot some baskets? You and your children may heal each other.

5. Remember that the process of divorce is predictable—it can be charted. No matter how upsetting the initial shock may be, the psychological process of a divorce follows a pattern, even though it seems like a roller coaster of denial (This can’t be happening to me!), rage (How dare you put our family through this?), bargaining (I’ll change whatever you want changed), cool compromise (If you want the football tickets, I’ll take the time share in the Caymans) and resolution (How can we get through this in the best way possible?).

Support groups with other divorcing persons can really help manage strange, new emotional reactions, because you learn you’re not alone. If you can’t concentrate, sleep, eat normally or carry out your job most days, it’s time to consult a professional counselor or consider an antidepressant to help you manage stress, until you can stabilize your life again.

6. Realize that it takes two to five years to get over a major loss such as divorce. So be easy on yourself, knowing that you must first get through all the seasons of the year in a new way. Usually new customs develop, and the pain dulls. But divorcing persons who move quickly into new relationships, without working through the agony of what went wrong in the original marriage, may be condemned to repeat the same mistakes.

7. When making business decisions in the midst of a divorce, wear your business hat. Especially if the family business is your primary financial asset, the last thing you want to do is lose that, too. A brief leave of absence may be appropriate for some divorcées; for others, work becomes essential to give structure to each day.

Of course, in a vindictive divorce between Angry Associates or Fiery Foes, the business itself may become the target. I don’t believe anyone gets married with the goal of getting divorced. But the family business needs to protect itself in advance from such a possibility, through buy-sells that keep the business stock in the original family, or through prenuptial agreements. Even when an amicable divorce happens between owners, retirement plans need to be revisited, in order to support two households rather than one. Divorce highlights the necessity for each family member employed or holding stock in the family business to have an exit strategy, and a way to redeem stock fairly and gracefully, without putting the business at risk.

Every family I know, including my own, has at least one divorce within it. Family business owners can’t pretend it will never happen to them. They can educate themselves, protect the business from the worst ravages of divorce, and determine that a “Good Divorce” will no longer be only an oxymoron.


Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D., heads The Frankenberg Group in Cincinnati, which advises business families. She is the author of Your Family, Inc., published by Haworth Press.