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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

How Not To Murder Your Business Partner

Updated: May 18, 2022

The old adage goes that an unhappy business partnership is like an unhappy marriage but with one exception, it is cheaper to get a divorce than to end a business partnership.

That can be devastating, especially when you have put up your time, capital, creativity and reputation into making the business work.

Anyone facing this prospect will know that they are not alone. There is a long list of unhappy business partnerships, most ended acrimoniously, few emerged unscathed, and the fall-out can years, decades or even a lifetime. Of the more high profile partnerships, Rolls and Royce hated each other, Bill Gates and Paul Allen went their separate ways in circumstances that have never been fully explained, Martha Stewart ended up 'buying out' her first business partner Norma Collier.

So what to do when things go wrong? Is it possible to turn things around? And at what point do you say enough is enough?

When things go wrong

Many people stuck in an unhappy business partnership ask themselves: 'if we didn’t argue so much, would the company would be more successful?' Or another scary thought, 'is this tension the creative grit we need?'

But a business partnership is no different from any other relationship; it does not need to be a Darwinian struggle; respect, kindness and compassion is not a career bonus, it is your starting point for running a successful business.

Being in a business partnership, relationship boundaries may feel blurred at times, all parts of yourself will be seen, there will be no hiding.

And of course there will always be three of you in the relationship: You, your business partner and the business itself. At times it can feel like looking after a baby, and then a toddler, and then as the business grows, a teenager. Like all parents, a sense of self can get lost, the 'adult' part of you, that brought both of you together in the first place, may get sidelined as you go into parenting mode, looking after the ever growing and at times challenging 'baby'.

As we know, people have very different parenting styles, some plan like a military operation, others are creative, and then there are those who are uninterested. Whatever your style, this way of working is very different from being an employee, but of course, many people who decide to set up their own business, and go into a partnership, do so because they have become frustrated with some of the strictures of working that way.

It takes courage, determination and a bit of luck to set up a business. Ego strength is essential. Ego strength is about having a healthy sense of 'I', 'you' and 'us' whilst being self-assertive, empathic and collaborative; it is a relational process.

Of course, with two ambitious people in the mix, a ‘clash of egos’ will happen now and again; what may be experienced is grabby behaviour, undermining and grand-standing. The shadow of ego is intransigence, a lack of empathy and even aggression. Being on the receiving end of this can bring out paranoia and a break down of trust. As one MD once told me: ‘it wasn’t enough for my business partner to take all the glory, they had to annihilate me in the process.’

The rebuilding of trust is key. As the writer David Brooks reminds us, 'people in companies filled with trust move flexibly and cohesively. ... People in trusting cultures find it easier to organise and operate large corporations. Trust creates wealth.'

Is it possible to turn it around?

When things do go toxic, communication is the first thing to go. So can things be turned around?

I believe they can. People push the ‘nuclear button’ in relationships because they feel like they are not being heard, frustrated in the belief that they have no more options.

But there are always options. As relationship psychotherapist Esther Perel reminds us:

'People fight because they want to feel that they matter, that the other person respects what they're going through. A simple 'I can see where you're coming from' is deeply validating. When your experience is acknowledged, you feel sane. The two of you don't have to agree, but you do have to acknowledge that there's another person who experiences the event very differently from you.’

Stepping back may involve taking a line that you have never considered before.

You will need to own your part in the breakdown and to explore why you respond the way you do to other people’s behaviour. This is not about self-blame rather it's about knowing yourself deeply, including those shadowy parts we tend to ignore and disown, and using that knowledge to benefit the business partnership.

This is where counselling comes in. Often in small businesses there is no HR department to mediate, (your experience of HR may not even be that satisfactory), and being at the top can be lonely. Deciding to do counselling will allow you to be heard, acknowledged and validated. Through this process you will begin to understand why you respond the way you do to your business partner’s actions. You will be able to communicate your feelings more effectively. This will not only benefit your business relationships but personal relationships too. It is a win win all round.

I currently offer one-to-one business counselling, which may give you some individual space and reflective time to explore what you bring to your business and way of working. However if you and your business partner would prefer a 'couples counselling' approach, please feel free to contact me as I have trusted colleagues who work in this way.

Whichever you choose, counselling is much more productive than ruminating on what makes your business partner tick or trying to change them.

You may want to do just that of course. After all, most self-help books focus on the problem; we have all seen the titles about ‘narcissists’, ‘borderlines’ and ‘psychopaths’. Whilst the temptation may be to do a diagnosis of your business partner, this is generally not helpful and at worst it can be interpreted as unempathic and even bullying. The fact is, all human beings have narcissistic and borderline traits; the entrepreneurial world is full of 'alpha narcissists'. People like this can be extremely hard working, charismatic and successful. Their shadow may be that they are domineering and controlling at times, but of course not everyone experiences even the most complex characters in the same way. And just to reassure you, it is extremely rare to meet a malignant narcissist which may be defined as a pathological disorder.

The temptation, when a relationship is not working is to work harder on it, but sometimes you need to step back from the day to day tribulations. If you take the focus off your business partner, and focus on yourself, you will begin to create a more meaningful life for yourself, which can only benefit you and the partnership.

Enough is enough

Of course, one outcome of counselling may be that you decide enough is enough. Sometimes we need to take the time, and have the space, to come to that decision. The key here is not to attribute blame but to see that the relationship has run its course.

There may be good reasons for deciding it is time to end a business relationship: dishonesty, a lack of business acumen and issues around drugs and alcohol, are just some examples, and again, counselling can help you explore why you have tolerated that for so long, and what it would be like to step away from the chaos that these issues bring to your life.

The end of a business partnership is a form of bereavement, which can be acutely felt. With that can come a sense of shame, guilt and relief. There may be a loss of status, sense of self and a readjustment around friendships and colleagues.

Counselling can help you come to terms with, and reflect on, all of this as you move on in a way that acknowledges your experience and lesson learnt. Because of course, the end of a business partnership is also the beginning of a new chapter. What that looks like will be up to you.

Further reading:

David Brooks: The Social Animal

Esther Perel: Mating in Captivity

Brene Brown: Braving The Wilderness

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