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Working partners: Ups and downs for spouses on the job

Diana O'Neill, 52, of Garden City, has been the office manager for her husband, Pete, 51, a dermatologist, for four years. "Before, we had a comfortable and easygoing lifestyle that intersected mornings, evenings and weekends.

"Now we have a totally enmeshed life together that includes all the prior qualities and has an added dimension that couldn't be achieved any other way," she said.

Eileen Caplin Wysel of Jericho started a nostalgic candy and toy store with her husband, Ronnie, in 1982. "At 56 and 59, we're just a couple of baby boomers who get to play with toys and cars and eat candy every day ... together," she said. The couple converted part of the auto repair shop Eileen's parents opened in 1946, Bobb Howard's Community Service Station and General Store in New Hyde Park.

"My husband says the best part is being able to sleep with his secretary," joked Karen Reisman, 55, of Roslyn, who has been secretary to her husband, Dennis, 57, a lawyer in Great Neck, for the past 16 years.

The many couples who work together on Long Island are partners in nearly every sense of the word, sharing domestic life and careers. And in today's fast-paced lifestyle with grueling work hours, being in business together can help couples feel connected. There are advantages -- trust, camaraderie, flexibility; and disadvantages -- reliance on one business and being together 24/7.

And as couples get older, there are significant phase-of- life issues, too -- such as retirement time frame, the reliance on one business as an income source and the responsibility of health coverage.

Retiring on the same day

These joint ventures can transform the issue of retirement timing. In a partnership, the logical solution, and often the only solution, is retiring together, because one spouse needs the other to continue the business. A husband and wife pursuing different careers have individual options, enabling greater independence and security.

Reisman noted that she and her husband plan to retire "on the same day," because, as Karen points out, her job as secretary to her husband is dependent on Dennis working.

Though all retirees have concerns about medical expenses, couples in business together often carry their own health insurance, unlike couples on separate career tracks who typically have the option of choosing from each other's company or union benefits.

"We have always paid for our own health insurance, and that is a great expense," said Reisman. "Sometimes I felt if I worked as a teacher, for example, we wouldn't have had that expense. But, then I wouldn't have the other benefits and flexibility of working with my husband."

When it comes to togetherness, many business partners boast of having an edge over couples who carved out individual careers, the former anticipating less of an emotional and psychological transition from employment to retirement since they are used to spending so much time together.

Wysel sees a richer retirement than husbands and wives who worked apart. "One of the greatest hurdles that couples encounter is the excessive amount of time they find themselves spending together all of a sudden," Wysel explained. "The biggest gripe we hear is that they need their 'own space' and the other spouse needs to get a hobby really fast before they kill each other! We, on the other hand, are used to being together 24/7 and actually enjoy each other's company."

Couples working together in a family business often address the issue of retirement sooner than couples with jobs independent from each other because a succession plan may already exist.

Ethel Terry, 55, and her husband Fred, 67, operate the family-owned, centuries-old Terry's Farm in Orient. Farming isn't a job, it's a lifestyle, and one not suited for a union in which one partner commutes into the city for a 9-5 job. Fred is up and out at 5 a.m. starting with tractor work; at 4 a.m. Ethel heads to one of many farmers' markets on the Island to sell fruits and vegetables. "I know exactly how he feels when he walks in the door at night," said Ethel, who boasts with pride: "We farmers feed America!"

"My son Tim is planning to take over our business," said Ethel. He has been farming since he was 12. "He is now 30 and loves what he's doing. And I think my niece will want to carry on as well. We are so very lucky to have them."

Handing over the reins

Family-run businesses can provide an easy transition into retirement for one generation and a livelihood for the next.

Alan Cohen, 62, began working in his father's company, Aljay Insurance Brokerage in Greenlawn, in 1964. His wife, Sharon Cohen, 59, joined in 1983. The two have worked side-by-side ever since and plan to retire in three years. "My sisters and I will assume the daily business duties when they retire," said daughter Shaun Cohen, 31, referring to herself and her sisters, Greer and Farryl.

But even when a plan is in place, handing over the reins can be difficult. Retirees may be feeling insignificant and devalued, explained Michael Zentman, founding director of the Adelphi University Postgraduate Program in Marriage & Couple Therapy. "The next generation must be sensitive to the significance of this transition: giving up control, entrusting a cherished entity to someone else and grappling with retirement and mortality," said Zentman.

Couples working together cited benefits such as reliability, flexibility and respect. Jo Eisman, 51, and her husband, Ira Grushack, 49, of Long Beach, are chiropractors in practice together, married 26 years. "The benefits of being in business with your spouse are mutual respect and understanding," said Eisman. "Financially there is no jealousy or competition to speak of because it's all going in the same place."

"Who could you trust more than your spouse to 'have your back' and truly care about the business?" said Peter Kanaris of Smithtown, who specializes in marriage counseling. "Sharing another of life's vital endeavors can enhance the connection and even intimacy." On a more practical note, a team successful at parenting, running a household and problem solving is likely to be successful business partners.

Gail Nelson, 55, and her husband, Mark, 56, of Northport, own Oceans' Bounty Seafood in St. James and say they have found their yin and yang. "Mark is the 'back of the house,' and I am the 'front of the house,'" said Gail. "I run the retail operation and handle the majority of the customers, as well as book most of the parties. As I sell something from the stand, he is already replacing it. He cuts all the fish, does all the ordering and helps with the cooking. We don't even have to talk. I am one hand, he is the other."

But the joint venture of marriage and business isn't always idyllic. There are plenty of challenges, such as the financial stress of one income source, the isolation of a small business and a 24/7 relationship. Identifying each other's strengths and weaknesses and dividing responsibilities can benefit the business and ensure time apart.

Karen Blicker, 65, of Hicksville, worked with her husband, Al, 66, for 20 years in a small room of their home. He was a collection agent, she handled the clerical work. "Not having women to chat with at the water cooler or go to office parties was very isolating," explained Karen, who retired over a year ago. "I couldn't ask, 'How was your day, Dear?' nor tell him about mine, because it was one and the same.

"The worst was if you have a bad day at work, home might be your refuge," Blicker said. "When I had a bad day -- and I had many -- then I had to not only make the boss dinner but sleep in the same bed!" It was a successful business on a small scale that paid the bills and the kids' college tuition, but for her, it took its toll.

"Honest and open communication about feelings and needs is the key," said Kanaris, who recommends that couples acknowledge the importance of having time apart from each other.

Couples working together say they can find it particularly challenging balancing career and home, as domestic squabbles inevitably filter into the office, and business issues are served up at dinnertime.

Liz Goldman, 46, of Huntington, fell in love with the boss. She was in high school working part time at Goldman Brothers sporting goods store in Hicksville, the family business of her husband-to-be, Win. Twenty-five years later, both business and marriage are thriving, though issues arise.

"The first thing I was careful about was establishing boundaries," said Goldman. "At work, there is no room for personal issues -- like why didn't he clean the dishes last night? And at home, we didn't want to spend our entire dinner hour talking about work issues."

It's normal for work and home to overlap

Couples often develop a natural capacity to keep the two worlds apart. When worlds collide, the answer may be compartmentalizing -- emotionally segregating aspects of life temporarily, said Zentman. The couple needs to realize that it's normal for work and home to overlap. Then identify the problem and resolve it in a direct manner.

The business arrangement often affects the relationship. Who's the boss? Who founded the business? What are each partner's responsibilities? Some working relationships have developed when "his" or "her" business turned into "theirs."

Debbie Cohen has owned Get Healthy America in Plainview for 11 years. More than a year ago, her husband, Marty, 63, tiring of his Manhattan commute, joined forces at the store.

"I am not the best sharer," said Debbie, 60. "It was a tremendous adjustment." She suspects it might have been an easier transition had they started the business together and advises others to take constructive criticism from each other "and be able to find the love and humor in this at the end of the day."

"We're married for 23 years, and even after all this time, and all these hours together, we would still rather be together than apart," said Gail Nelson of Oceans' Bounty Seafood, who noted that they haven't had a day off since March. "Although we do look forward to having a day off eventually, we'll still probably spend it together!"

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