Why Aren’t We Talking About The Divorced Entrepreneur?

The following is a guest post by Bill Douglas about divorce and the entrepreneur.

I got divorced when I was 24 years old while running my first company. I was fortunate that I didn’t have any kids so it was more like a nasty breakup after a long relationship, but the added complexity of marriage, family linkages, and all the emotional stuff surrounding it was one of the big (but not the only) input into the multi-year depressive episode I had.

I continued to run my company until we sold it when I was 27. But the struggle, stigma, and pain of the divorce lingered in the background for a long time. Fortunately, I ended up in a relationship with my now-wife Amy (I used to refer to her as my “current wife” – now she’s definitely the “last wife I’ll ever have.”) This relationship helped me get through this period of my life while running my company while dealing with all of my own shit at the same time.

If you are a divorced entrepreneur, Bill runs a closed Facebook group for divorced entrepreneurs (I recently joined it.) And, keep reading – his post is powerful.

I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life and I’ve been divorced for seven years now. Going through divorce was excruciatingly painful. Not just because of the divorce itself and splitting up a family, but because of the added loneliness common for most entrepreneurs.

In the past few years I’ve become acutely aware of the plight of the divorced entrepreneur. This seldom-discussed topic almost seems taboo in business circles. So many become isolated in this precarious, solitary, often disastrous, post divorce quandary, which I believe deserves more attention within the entrepreneurial community.

This is a real and significant problem. Since I began writing about this topic, so many entrepreneurs have contacted me. I’ve become immersed in the issue and am passionate about helping others in this stage.

The positive qualities that spark the entrepreneurial fire can become a liability when self-reliance inhibits the ability to self assess and acknowledge the need for assistance. That positive and driven nature can isolate, leaving one shouldering the weight of the world.

Entrepreneurs understand the stresses, the loneliness, the life of being the founder, the visionary, the reason you have a company. Add to that the pressures of a divorce process and it’s a recipe for depression. The entrepreneur becomes no longer alone simply in the business, but post divorce he/she is alone at home and in life, too.

I’ve seen entrepreneurs walk away from successful companies because they were so worried they were going to lose their relationship with their kids. They sought balance, but abandoned their assets and income. Yes, our kids are always more important than our work, No question there. But this is not an either-or scenario. We can be divorced parents and also be successful entrepreneurs.

I’ve witnessed entrepreneurs struggle with whether to tell shareholders and key personnel what they were going through at home, for fear of losing the confidence of those that believed in them. I know I struggled with this, and when I finally told my team they were upset I hadn’t shared earlier. Every one of them was incredibly supportive; it was my own fear that kept me quiet.

I personally know several entrepreneurs that struggle with anxiety, and even worse, depression after divorce. Their world is turned upside down. Their entrepreneurial “freedom” becomes their mental prison of loneliness and failure. For months after my divorce, I would take my sons to school and return home to get back into bed. I escaped the real world, and all the negativity that came with my emotionally imprisoned reality, by sleeping.

Without any doubt, keeping those negative feelings inside only harms us. Refer to How Keeping It Bottled Up Can Kill The Divorced Entrepreneur. “Particularly because I kept my emotions bottled up inside, as a divorced entrepreneur I became demoralized to the point that I and my company suffered.”

Eventually the day came when I’d had enough. I decided to begin rebuilding after divorce. I’d made the trek through the mud of divorce and now wanted to craft a new life, revive my business, and design my next chapter. Even when I made this critical and conscious decision, I had to do the work and be relentless through the process.

And, yes, there is a process. Winging here it is dangerous, not to mention painfully slow. As entrepreneurs we’re bold and often fearless. Age and experience have taught me to ask more questions and assume I don’t know, even when I think I do. In this case, I asked for help and sought experience shares. I had a counselor. I devoured books. I journaled. I did the self-work.

Going from simply existing in life and in business, struggling with depression, lacking the vision, energy and fire I once had, to mastering the family/life/business balancing act and onward to living ferociously again was a massive shift. This is no simple feat. It was exhausting on every level, but rewarding in ways I’d never imagined.

If you are an entrepreneur and you are rebuilding after divorce, I recommend beginning with these:

  • Take a respite, a sabbatical of any length. Spend time away from work and home.
  • Do a reboot. Your healthy body and mind are needed for healthy relationships and wealth creation.
  • Invest in yourself. Create space and boundaries for you.
  • Be active. Move each day. Don’t be sedentary. If you can do cardio or resistance exercise, even better.
  • Stretch your circles. Seek new places, new rituals and new friends.

Note that none of these actions correlate directly to your business. The recommendation is to work less and rebuild you. Until I broke my patterns, all the angst was trapped inside me. That’s where the stress ate me alive. I wouldn’t wish that emotional dungeon on anyone.

Regarding stretching my circles, I related well with others in the same spot as me post divorce. I was fortunate to be in EO Colorado and there I found several other entrepreneurs exactly where I was in life. We collaborated, we shared stories, advice, books, tears, laughter, and yes, even drinks.

For this reason, I moderate a free but closed Facebook group for divorced entrepreneurs and invite all that fit this description to join here. Everything and everyone is there for the support of entrepreneurs rebuilding after divorce.

After I completed what I call the recovery shift, I worked much less and made much more. I became healthy and truly happy again. I am closer now to my sons than I’ve ever been. I don’t say these to boast. Instead, I share these to give you hope. If I can do this then anyone can – particularly an entrepreneur!

  • A critical resource. For those who are in a rocky spot and haven’t taken the divorce plunge…marriage counseling is worth a shot.

    • Marriage counseling with a good counselor is worth it.

  • Joah Spearman

    Thanks for this, Brad. I got divorced a year into my startup and followed some of your recommendations here. I took about 6 weeks and drove 11,000 miles around the country visiting friends and family. I got back re-charged and focused.

  • OmarSayyed

    Great article. From time to time, I thank my lucky stars to be married to an amazing wife who really understands my struggles as an entrepreneur. I lucked out. When falling in love with someone (not that you can control for this fact) but marrying someone who either is an entrepreneur or comes from an entrepreneurial family really helps.

  • An excellent post. Why only for divorced entrepreneurs, this post can even save a few marriages if both the partners read and respond to it with an open mind..

    • Once you make the jump to divorced your life is different than prior to the divorce. Makes sense to me.

  • Awesome. Divorce is incredibly painful. I am fortunate never having been through one. I saw some friends go through it and it destroyed them. Saw some floor traders just close up shop until it was over. I don’t like to ask people about relationships in diligence, but having a great relationship versus an adversarial one with a significant other really affects your mental attitude.

  • This reminds me of the life events checklist / chart – you can only handle so many major ones (death of a parent, loss of a job, etc.) at a given time. My own experience is that if you’re deep in as a founder, you’re basically at a 2 out of 3 already… divorce added on top of that is enough to break nearly anyone, which makes Bill’s perspective and support that much more important.

  • I can’t comment from the perspective of being divorced (I’m a second wife, so I suppose I have a related perspective!), but one of the things that jumps out at me here is that I’ve observed in my community / circles that men are not typically great at building personal support networks. I see men interact as the other half of a couples dinner, for example, but I don’t really observe a “book club/girls weekend/listserv [SMS]” type of intentional, men only, prioritization of time and outlet with needed support and community. I know this is a rather gross generalization, but when I think about that coupled with with the “it’s lonely at the top” reality of being the lead of a company (…and that we’re typically dealing with a male entrepreneur, because …. reality), I can really see how the isolation and depression and pile on.

    All a long way of saying: I love the concept of the closed FB group for this. What a great safe space.

  • Maybe we don’t blog about it, but face to face conversations with other divorced entrepreneurs happen with me at least annually, at least since my own divorce six years ago.

    My first question is always, “Sorry or Congratulations?”

    And my advice is to remember how serial entrepreneurs handle failure. Do your post mortem. Find the root causes. Don’t make the same mistakes the next time. Don’t trust in fate to find your next life partner.

    More happily married than ever before.

  • TeddyBeingTeddy

    Make no mistake – despite what they tell you upfront, women will eventually demand you give them more time and attention than anything else – except maybe the kids.
    They might initially love your ambition, your passion, and your work ethic – they psychologically associate that with you being a good provider/protector for the family someday.
    But eventually that respect turns into animosity when you appear to be making more sacrifices for work than them. “I do it for the family” – they don’t care. “we need this deal to close, other people are relying on me here” – they don’t care.
    The only way to keep a demanding job and a wife, is to create the perception that they are both your #1 priority. Good luck with that CEOs…
    -Happily married with kids for 12 years

  • JB

    I enjoyed the article, but frankly my divorce was about liberation from depression for both me and my wife. The depression manifested itself in weight gain, poor performance, feeling the weight of the job. When I finally decided to take action on relationships (including firing a co-founder that wasn’t performing), it helped to recharge my career and business.

    I’m in more control, now, than I ever was before. Yes, there are lonely nights. Yes, I miss my kids sometimes, but the time I spend with them is more concentrated and impactful.

    On top of it all, I’ve met a ton of new friends and taken the opportunity to realign some things that are important in life.

    That being said, I lost half of my equity in my company, but my wife was very supportive in building the business and managing the household while I was away, so I’m OK with it on some level. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s the price to be paid for me to be happier and take control over my life.

    Divorce sucks, but isn’t always a bad thing.

  • David Fox

    How about divorced entrepreneurs who are still in business with their ex – a very special “opportunity for growth” I’ve experienced over the past three years…

    • That is an especially complicated one that I don’t have any experience with.

    • David – here’s one for you. A couple work together at a florist shop in my town. They divorced, but still work together. She remarried, and her new husband joined the company. Then he remarried, and his new wife joined the company. The four of them have been working side by side for 15+ years…

  • One of my earliest “Angel” investments was with a great couple… after the market crash we all decided that the company wasn’t going to be scalable, but survived for a few years as a small agency shop. When they divorced, I ended up selling my shares back for $1 – I had taken a small gain on my investment in the first few years as paid compensation. It was easier than the hassle of my shares being worked out in the divorce. She kept that company, and the husband has granted me a small position in his new Boulder area robotics start up. Pretty civilized, huh?