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The new DNA in your family’s gene pool

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How can you tell whether your son or daughter’s choice of a spouse poses risks to the family enterprise?

By Ellen Frankenberg

Your sons and daughters’ choices of life partners could have a more profound impact on your succession plan than all the accountants, tax experts, financial advisers, and attorneys you can assemble. Your new in-laws can contribute mightily to your family’s fortunes, or triple the risk for your whole family’s enterprise.

Unfortunately, even the most controlling business parents cannot predict which 22-year-old beauty their brightest son will bring home to meet the family. Will it be Jessica, with her Chicago MBA, or Jessie, with her penchant for sky-diving and gambling boats? Will the young man who lights up your daughter’s eyes and your phone bill—the scruffy guitar player with the earring—mature into a marriage partner you could welcome to the company table?

You know that arranged marriages don’t work, but what does? In spite of all the technological advances we enjoy, we remain in the dark ages about the chemistry of love. How will your successors choose their mates, and how will their marriages impact the family firm? How can a business capitalize on the new partners who join your family through marriage? Are there any reliable signs to tell whether your son or daughter’s marriage is likely to endure?

The 5:1 ratio

Psychologist John Gottman summoned the courage to spend 20 years of his professional life videotaping the interactions of 2,000 married couples over two decades. He and his associates assessed thousands of bits of communication—words, gestures, silences, behaviors—and categorized them as either positive or negative. In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail...and How You Can Make Yours Last (Simon & Schuster, 1994), Gottman wrote that he can predict, with 94 percent accuracy, which couples will stay married and which will divorce—very helpful information for family business owners developing succession plans.

Regardless of the emotional style of the couple, whether volatile or withdrawn, Gottman found that the couples who stayed together had an average of five positive interactions for every negative interaction.

The “positive interactions” took many forms: a hug, a smile, a thank-you. The nature of their negative interactions were also significant. These were couples who could disagree, get angry, and even fight without being overwhelmed by negatives. They were not automatons but self-differentiated persons who could vigorously disagree but still return to positive ground.

What, if anything, can you and your spouse do to implement the 5:1 ratio in the next generation long before your son buys the engagement ring?

It’s scary, but your successors have already learned a great deal about choosing marital partners from you and your spouse, even if they currently declare they will never do things the way you did them. In much the same way, you learned from your parents—positively or negatively—what kind of marriage you wanted or didn’t want.

When you walk into a home you can feel the warmth or the hostility, the gorillas or the icebergs, looming between husband and wife. The emotional fiber of the relationships that surrounds each child becomes the oxygen of life, as normal as breathing.

People who come from families with a tradition of loving, stable relationships have better odds of building another one themselves. The daughter raised in such an environment may become enamored with the “best–looking guy on the planet,” but if he turns out to be mostly iceberg or gorilla, she’ll know the difference. Her own uneasiness will tell her, eventually, that this relationship is not “normal” according to the template of her own experience. If you have helped her to identify what really matters in a marriage, your new son-in-law may be quite trustworthy, despite the earring.

Few among us had parents who were perfect models. Sometimes we feel their presence in our bones, and hear their echoes inside our heads, long after the lights are turned out. Dysfunctional feelings and attitudes from our parents’ generation can intrude into the most intimate moments of a marriage: “You can never really trust a man,” or, “No man can ever understand a woman, so don’t even try.”

Some marriage experts believe there may be at least four other people in bed with you and your spouse. Both sets of parents have affected the fundamental attitudes you have both developed toward self, toward the opposite sex, toward married love, toward when it’s safe to share your intimate feelings, and toward resolving conflict.

If you can appreciate how early primary relationships influenced you, you may understand more clearly how the next generation may also unconsciously continue to replicate the marriages—or divorces—they grew up with. If you want your successors to build strong, loving marriages, you may want to dust off your own best relationship-building skills, so they can see how it’s done. How about complimenting your wife—based on the facts, just the facts—at least once a day? Or turning down a golf date because it is her birthday and you had promised to spend the day with her? Or letting your son know that you won’t make a major decision affecting the family without talking it over with mom first?

Healthy individuality

At least half the parents of the children who will inherit your generation-skipping trust will come from families with different attitudes toward work and money, and different expectations of their children. Healthy individuality in the next generation is good news for the family firm. You really don’t want clones of mom and dad succeeding you, but individuals who can make their own decisions. Especially around the choice of a spouse, autonomy has its value.

If your beloved Benjamin or Amanda can attract a partner who has reached a similar level of psychological independence or “self-differentiation” from his or her own family, the new couple can choose to sustain the best practices from both families of origin. Their new marriage will then have a chemistry all its own, unlike any ever seen before, and each partner will be encouraged to develop his or her unique gifts.

One of the more delightful experiences I have had in working with families in business is meeting the young men and women who have married into the successor generation. Despite some initial concern from parents about bringing them into the family forum (where family members learn fundamental information about the business and help develop policies about the family’s future participation), my experience is that these new family members bring fresh energy to the table, and even some great business savvy.

As family firms develop global markets, and their own daughters and sons go to school in Luxembourg rather than Lexington, the odds also increase that your family will learn most about diversity through the newly married members of its own next generation.

Although conventional wisdom indicates that couples with similar backgrounds certainly have fewer obstacles to overcome, differences that can be managed successfully can become an asset in the new global business economy. The fundamental design of the human family is strengthened precisely because of its capacity to integrate new ingredients—new personalities, new DNA, and even new recipes.

Even if your new daughter-in-law comes from the “wrong neighborhood” or serves foods you can’t pronounce, she may still develop a remarkable synergy with her new family, especially if she is included as a valued contributor. If the marriage lasts, it will be partly because your son has discerned in her some qualities that are similar to yours, or his grandfather’s. She was already “familiar” in the original sense of that word.

You can’t control your son or daughter’s choice of a spouse. But you can control how these young, bright, independent-thinking in-laws are educated about the business. It’s better to have them working with you to support the family enterprise than to leave them out in the cold. They are entitled to receive correct information from someone besides their spouse, so they get “the big picture” about the company’s long-range strategies. Otherwise, they may be tempted to gossip or manipulate behind the scenes to learn whether they or their children have a future in the company. Even if they never work a day inside the company, they can often offer practical ideas from their own experience or add the perspective of consumers and parents of the next generation. Over the years, they may even learn to articulate the core values of your family better than you can.


Ellen Frankenberg is a family psychologist who consults with families in business. She welcomes feedback on this column at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


Marriage aids

Good marriages by your sons and daughters can enrich both the family and the business. A few things you can do to help support and sustain them:

  • Identify and reject negative influences about marriage inherited from previous generations.
  • Celebrate the individuality that emerges within your own family.
  • Express positive stuff at least five times more often than negative stuff.
  • Educate newcomers about the potential of the business, and respect the contributions they can make.

  • Enjoy your grandchildren, knowing you can influence them but not control them.

-- E.F.

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