Workplace

Can't stop fighting with your co-founder? Try couples therapy

Do it for the sake of your baby, ahem, company.

Illustration of a silhouetted man and woman sitting on a couch

“It’s like a marriage,” said Nathan Baschez, who attends couples therapy with his Every co-founder Dan Shipper.

Illustration: iStock/Getty Images Plus; Protocol

You don’t really know a person until you move in with them. That’s when you discover all their quirks, both annoying and lovable. Maybe they love blasting music while showering at two in the morning. Maybe they’re an anxious cleaner, an invisible shadow dusting up the little messes you make in the living room. For Dan Shipper and Nathan Baschez, starting a business together felt a bit like becoming roommates. Even spouses.

“You get to know things about each other that don’t ever come up unless you mutually have a thing that you care about a lot,” Shipper said.

“It’s like a marriage, if you’re like, 'At some point the marriage will maybe run its course and we’ll do other things,'” Baschez offered.

The two launched Every, a media company offering a bundle of newsletters for business professionals, in 2020. They met around 2014 in the early-stage startup scene in New York and instantly became close friends. They had never come into serious conflict before, but the stress of startup decisions had them fighting all the time. Shipper had undergone couples therapy with a romantic partner previously. The conflicts felt somewhat similar, so they decided to forgo traditional executive coaching and tried couples therapy instead.

Every Tuesday for an hour, Shipper and Baschez hash out their differences with a licensed couples therapist. They swear by it. “You have a space where it’s dedicated and planned that you’re going to be diving into the more uncomfortable stuff,” Baschez said. “Almost like compartmentalizing, but in a good way.”

"It’s like a marriage, if you’re like, 'At some point the marriage will maybe run its course and we’ll do other things.'"

Tech co-founders have espoused couples therapy, or “cofounder coaching,” for some time now. The practice attracted a lot of media attention back in 2015 after the Genius founders told The New York Times about their therapy sessions. Most of the tech co-founders who have talked about couples therapy publicly are men, as are most co-founders generally. The pandemic, a crisis event that likely drove many of us to therapy, increased co-founders’ use of couples therapy as well. But it’s by no means commonplace among business leaders, especially outside of the startup bubble. Experts told Protocol they’re hopeful that growing acceptance toward therapy in general might also popularize therapy for business partners.

“Most of the co-founders that have come to me are already in a pretty bad place,” said Laura Kasper, a psychologist who sees both romantic couples and co-founders. “That was my experience as a couples therapist maybe 15 years ago, whereas now people who come to me for couples therapy are getting ahead of it.”

It’s like a marriage

The founder relationship is like a marriage but without the sex — usually, Kasper quipped. Sometimes the founders who come to her have a romantic past. “The crossover of romance and starting a business — I’ve definitely seen that,” she said.

Typically, though, the founders Kasper sees had a close friendship or at least an acquaintance before starting their business. One overlap between romantic couples therapy and business couples therapy? Money. Kasper helps founders work through tensions caused by spending or budgeting decisions, and thus uncover the power dynamics in the relationship. Companies are like children, in a way. They require constant attention, loads of cash and a healthy relationship between co-parents/co-founders.

“Part of your life and part of your value depends on the other person doing the right thing as far as you see it,” said Patrick Meade, a psychologist who also sees co-founders.

Matthew Jones, psychologist and creator of Cofounder Clarity, said theoretical frameworks behind couples therapy like the Gottman method or Imago Relationship theory can also apply to business relationships. But the intended outcomes are often different. While part of the goal is to improve the founders’ relationship, therapy is geared toward the best interest of the company. Sometimes separation is what’s best for the company. Kasper has had clients who parted ways, where somebody went to the company’s board and got rid of the other one.

“All of those factors might feel different than traditional couples therapy, where there’s an emphasis on just the couple in a vacuum and it’s less outcomes-driven,” Jones said.

The challenges are typically personal, Meade said. They might stem from one founder forgetting the other’s birthday, for example. Meade said he sees a lot of founders whose personal problems become heightened when coming up to a funding round. That new phase in a company can be the impetus for couples therapy in the first place.

Starting a company may be one of the most stressful work experiences imaginable. Co-founders spend an inordinate amount of time together, and the personal life/work boundary becomes blurrier. This is the case for Shipper and Baschez. “Boundaries? What are you talking about?” they joked. They have a level of trust that allows them to delve into more personal topics during therapy. The co-founder relationship is unique; couples therapy would not be effective among colleagues with different authority levels, Kasper said, because of fear of retaliation. Even co-founder therapy requires a great deal of trust and comfort with crossing into the personal.

“You have to really trust the person,” Shipper said. “They can really hurt you if they take things that you say or reveal about yourself and use it out of context.”

Founder couples therapists are sensitive to topics their clients might consider off-limits. Jones typically avoids delving into childhood issues, as he’s able to talk through patterns without discussing origins of behavior in detail. Kasper has found that the clients who come to her are already prepared to dig into personal issues with their co-founder. Meade thinks that many of his founder clients actually need to put more boundaries in place.

“Some of this work is about re-establishing boundaries and saying, ‘Hey, you’re actually spending way too much time together,’” Meade said. “You need a weekend day when you don’t actually communicate with each other.”

Coaching versus therapy

Executive coaching is already well established in the business world, as it was built for the business context. The difference between coaching and therapy is hazy. Some people, like Kasper, offer both. “Coaching is a little bit more action-oriented, problem-solution-focused than traditional, psychodynamic, let’s uncover the history of these patterns from your family,” Kasper said.

Therapists are equipped to diagnose clients and dig deeper into mental health issues, whereas coaches might avoid that level of depth. Coaching is more strictly business, while therapy is more holistic. Confidentiality is better protected in therapy than in coaching.

“Therapy has many more layers of confidentiality, ethical standards and more regulatory bodies at work to increase privacy of clients, whereas coaching is the Wild West,” Jones said. “Confidentiality practices are much more lenient, although many of the quality coaches that I engage with do their best to prioritize confidentiality as well.”

“Therapy has many more layers of confidentiality, ethical standards and more regulatory bodies at work to increase privacy of clients, whereas coaching is the Wild West.”

Shipper and Baschez think therapy is essentially equivalent to coaching, but have found it to be less expensive. They haven’t found lack of business knowledge to be an issue because usually the problem is emotional. It’s not about making the right business decision.

“If you feel like what you really need is the tactical business stuff, get a coach,” Shipper said. “But our experience is that 80 to 90% of the stuff is actually emotional and about interpersonal relationships and yourself.”

Less of a novelty

Many of the previous headlines about tech founders seeing therapists treat the practice as a bit of a spectacle (check out this incredible video of co-founders doing a live session with famed therapist Dr. Ruth). Right now it’s still a novelty, but experts think it could become more ubiquitous.

“It’s something that is going to go from this woo-woo, touchy-feely domain to something I think should be standard operating practice for a successful, venture-backed company,” Jones said.

Jones thinks it will grow in influence especially as younger people enter the industry, and there's less of a stigma about therapy as a whole. Leaders in the industry care increasingly more about founder mental health and getting in touch with your emotions as a manager. Sometimes people handle this vulnerability poorly: think crying CEO after layoffs. But in its best form, couples therapy can create more awareness of your leadership style and skills.

“It’s something that is going to go from this woo-woo, touchy-feely domain to something I think should be standard operating practice for a successful, venture-backed company.”

If founders went to therapy from the get-go, they might know when to step away and avoid blowing up the company or themselves. Maybe we’d have less infamous company downfalls, creating less fodder for buzzy Silicon Valley TV series. Maybe society would look like this.

It’s certainly a stretch to say that couples therapy will solve all of a company’s issues. But it can improve the health of your co-founder relationship, and by extension the health of your company.

“There’s a lot of things that go wrong inside of companies that therapy can make easier to process, or make it not such a disaster when it does happen,” Shipper said.

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