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The Odd Couple: In Business and in Love

By June Campbell

Mr. and Ms. Caveman were probably the original business partners. Not only were they a family but they operated a home business that involved hunting, gathering and protecting themselves from predators. And just like modern day spouses and business partners, they faced the challenge of dealing with certain, uh... differences in work styles.

A typical conversation may have gone something like this: Ooga tidying up the cave, mutters ominously: "Curse you, Org. You've thrown your clubs on the cave floor again. What a slob." Meanwhile Org tosses his dirty pelts in the corner and growls, "Loosen up, you uptight neatfreak. Forget the cavework and come on down to the fireside feast."

Ooga and Org may be the original Odd Couple, but in 1999, modern day partners encounter the same problems. Neat and Messy couples are everywhere - and when they share a work life, the problems escalate. Take the case of Roger, an engineer who operates a home business with his wife and business partner, Beth. "We were really busy on this one occasion," recalls Beth. "We were getting ready to send out promotional packages to a number of prospective clients. I discovered that Roger spent the entire morning prying staples out of the papers and re-stapling them so the staples all lined up evenly. I wanted to kill him."

Then there is the "in business together " couple that almost divorced after discovering a dead gerbil under a pile of files and papers. It had been missing for six weeks. Or Edwin, the real estate broker who called in the Fire Inspector to have his messy garage declared a fire hazard. His wife and business partner habitually chucked all junk mail, newspapers and other unwanted material in the garage for indefinite storage. Edwin wanted to park his car indoors again. Or consider the guy who stored his dirty dishes in the oven while his wife was away on a business trip. "I had no choice," he explained. "The counter was covered with my unwashed laundry."

Funny, yes, but if you are part of an Odd Couple, you may be tearing your hair out. How will you ever learn to get along when your irritating partner makes you crazy on a daily basis? It's true that opposites often attract. Therapists believe that when selecting a partner, whether for romance or business, we subconsciously seek wholeness through the attraction. "The tidy one may initially be attracted to the messy one's spontaneity, warmth and humor, while the messy one is attracted to the other's orderliness, ambition and organizational ability, " said Ruby Duxbury, a family therapist from Winnipeg, Canada. "The couples give balance to one another."

Strangely, the very traits that initially attract us are the ones that later become a source of annoyance. "The seeds of discontent are sewn right from the first moments of the relationship," according to family counselor and columnist, Krisanna Jeffery. Krisanna takes couples back to their first meeting and helps them get in touch with what attracted them in the first place. "Surprisingly, it is usually the very thing that's irritating them now. This awareness usually creates a warm feeling and reduces the irritation."

"Opposites may attract," said Julie, a Web-site designer who is involved in an Odd Couple relationship with Kevin, her husband and business partner. "But when opposites live and work together, it takes work and understanding. Kevin is organized, gets up in the morning, and loves order. I'm disorganized, live for spontaneous moments, and am happy if I can stay up 'till 3:00 AM every day. I have a much greater tolerance for clutter and disorder than Kevin does."

Julie and Kevin make an effort to understand one another's differences and both know that they can't change one another. Stubbornness helps too. Kevin remarked, "Probably the single biggest factor in our continuing life is a monumental storehouse of stubbornness. We're both too stubborn to give up when things get tough."

When Kevin and Julie turned to personality testing to help them understand their differences, they found that they were completely opposite in every category. Tests like the online Keirsey Test or the Myers and Brigs Temperament Indicator provide a framework for understanding the differences among personalities. "We have learned that it's not a case of good and bad, or better and worse. We are simply different. We understand each other better since taking the test. Now when conflicts develop, we make jokes like, 'Stop being such an extra-terrestrial.' It usually lets us laugh at the situation,"Julie explained.

And laughing at the situation is good advice.

Patti and John have been an Odd Couple in business and in romance since 1992. Patti describes herself as the "Oscar" -- free spirited and right brained. John is "Felix" -- organized, left brained, and a packrat. "John's the President of the Company and my title is VP, Marketing. One way that we keep the relationships working is that I am self-employed and his company hires my company for sales and marketing services. That way, I don't consider myself an employee and feel free to take other interesting assignments and time off without having to ask permission. Another way that we make the relationships work, is we will say 'now I'm talking to you as my spouse' (not as a co-worker) and that indicates that different type of support and listening is needed," Patti related.

More help for Patti and John came in the form of a book called The Odd Couple Syndrome - Resolving the Neat/Sloppy Dilemma, by Selwyn Mills and Max Weisser. "There's a scene where the Oscar- like guy pulls up to the other's home in a ratty old dirty back-firing car and throws overflowing plastic bags onto the coffee table. The Felix-like one has a snit, thinking that his table might get scratched -- the place is immaculate. Well, that scenario could be John and me. I read this story with the tears of laughter pouring down my face, as my uncapped black felt-tipped pen was staining our duvet cover. This happened twice within about 10 minutes, after I swore to take better care. John was not amused, especially the second time,"said Patti with a giggle

In many cases, it's the neat one that has the hardest time coping with the situation. "After all, the messy one isn't bothered by neatness. They just don't want to do the work of keeping things tidy," said family therapist, Ruby Duxbury. "The neat one, on the other hand, is bothered when things are messy."

Apryl and Chris, another in-business couple use a closed door policy to help them keep their sanity and to ensure private space. Apryl remarked, "I m not disgusting messy, but more clutter messy and Chris is organized beyond all belief. I have my own system -- I know what is in each clutter. How do we live together without killing each other? I keep the door to my office closed. That is the one room in our home where I can be as messy as I like."

If having separate rooms isn't a possibility, therapist Ruby Duxbury suggests that you decide upon an equitable agreement around what compensation the tidy one gets for tidying up. The messy one trades something in return for being messy.

In extreme cases, Odd Couple incompatibilities can lead to divorce and an end to the business relationship. Sandi, a writer from Chicago discovered after her breakup that she suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). "The nagging about my mess just made me feel horrible about myself. I thought there was something really wrong with me because I just couldn't get my brain to organize things, no matter how hard I tried. Now that I know about ADD I understand that I am just wired differently. Perhaps things might have been different if I had understood about ADD. These days you can hire organizers who help you learn how to find systems for paper, junk, old clothes. I'm thinking of hiring one when I get the money."

Before it comes to a breakup, Ruby Duxbury offered one last piece of advice. "Both of you should keep a picture in your minds of the most wonderful moment you've ever had together. For the business arrangement, think of a successful event that happened because of your shared talents. Then, when you're tempted to annihilate your partner, you can call up the other side of the picture and regain appreciation," finished the therapist.

Ten Tips for Getting Along
  1. Remember what attracted you to your partner in the beginning.
  2. Keep a picture in your mind of the best moments or successes you've shared.
  3. Make a list of the assets and positive qualities your partner has brought to the relationship and to the business.
  4. Use personality testing (i.e. www.keirsey.com) to better understand one another.
  5. Learn to laugh at yourselves.
  6. Allot private space to each one. Respect one another's space.
  7. Negotiate an equitable arrangement in which the tidy one "gets something" in exchange for tidying up
  8. Realize you can't change the other.
  9. Communicate, compromise, respect and enjoy one another.
  10. Seek professional counseling if the situation becomes too stressful.
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