We're two couples in business together -- and the other wife is psycho!

I thought the four of us could function well as a company, but she's driving me insane.

By Cary Tennis
Published October 19, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband ("Paul") has owned part of an out-of-state company for several years now, working for it in his spare time. Last year we decided to quit our jobs and move to work for ourselves -- and this company. So three months ago we packed up our lives and moved a good way across the country to start this new life that we and our business partners (husband and wife -- "Mark" and "Janet") seemed to be excited about.

Paul and Mark have been friends for years. They worked together at a different company and have that sort of easygoing friendship that men seem to have much more than women. Other than a few visits over the years, I haven't spent much time with either Mark or Janet, but from what I saw and experienced it seemed that Janet was a sweet, pleasant, uncomplicated person whom I looked forward to working and becoming good friends with.

Oops! Too bad she's psycho! Over the past month or two, Janet has proved to be anything but the sweet person I thought she was. She doesn't seem to understand that giving up my life to move here is hard for me, and thinks it's wrong of me to take time out from going out to eat and other social things to just sit in our room and think about our new life and all the things I miss about the old one. She thinks it's selfish and rude and has said as much; and worse. At one point she said that she could, under no circumstances, work with me, and that either I had to go or she would.

Paul and I were packing to leave when Mark called us so we could all sit down and talk about it together. During the conversation, Janet wouldn't even look at me, but she and I ended up sitting down together and having a chat. I apologized for everything I could think of -- things I didn't do, things I might have done, things she thinks I did -- anything, to try to make her feel better and to make this work. I asked her what I could do differently, what I could do better. Basically, I kissed her ass hoping that it would help the situation.

What did I get in return? Absolutely nothing. Not once did she even pretend to apologize for all the seriously hateful things she has said to me, not once did she ask what she could do to help the situation, and twice she referred to me as an "employee," which I am obviously not. She displays absolutely no understanding of what it is like to leave behind everything you love for something unknown, something that is turning out to be very, very sour.

OK, I lied. I didn't get absolutely nothing out of all the apologizing, I got less than nothing, because responsibilities that she and I were supposed to share -- things that I was excited to be involved in -- have now been delegated solely to her. Why? Because she can't share. Because every time I did or said something that was not in complete agreement with her, she would throw a temper tantrum (I'm not kidding; she whines and cries and leaves work in a tizzy) until her husband gives her her way -- which apparently includes me being pushed completely out of the picture.

Cary, I'm fed up. I feel like so much has been and is being taken away from me; I feel like I embarrassed myself apologizing for shit I didn't even do -- especially when the point of all the apologizing turned out to be moot. I can't find anything redeeming about her, I'm still waiting for an apology, and meanwhile my husband and hers are caught up in this crap. I've talked to Paul, and he is completely on my side (and he would be honest with me if he thought I was the one with the problem, I fully believe that) and Mark says I need to just give her space and let her work it out. But in the meantime I'm supposed to sit back and take this shit? I don't deserve this; I've done everything I feel I should have, and a lot more that I shouldn't. She barely talks to Paul or me, when she has no reason to be mad at me and less of a reason to take it out on him. Our whole life is filled with this completely unnecessary tension and it's killing me.

So I spend a lot of my spare time trying to figure out what it is about me that rubs her the wrong way. Is she jealous? OK, what would she be jealous of? I'm more intelligent than she is -- not that she's stupid and certainly not that I'm a genius, but it's something that is pretty obvious -- and I have developed a good working relationship with Mark. We get along very well, and sometimes he gives Janet a pretty hard time -- something he doesn't to do with me (then again I screw things up on a much less regular basis than she does). Is she threatened by me? Does she think that if we start to share tasks I'll end up taking them over because I'll do them better than she will? Is she just that much of a princess that I'll never be able to please her? And why should I have to please her? Shouldn't she have to please me a little bit?

What sense can you make of this? Do you have suggestions for me? I feel lost and broken and small and it's ridiculous. I should feel important, right? I own part of a company at the ripe old age of 24, business is pretty good, I'm married to a wonderful man and, although they're now a bit farther away, I have friends who love me and think that I'm a caring, thoughtful person. I work my ass off, I'm not mean or violent. So what's wrong with me? Why does Janet hate me so much and can I change that? Is it time for us to give up, only three months into this adventure? I want to scream, I want to throw things -- at her, most of the time. But I don't. I hold my anger in with hopes that I'll get my apology, that time will calm her down. But how do I deal with this in the meantime? How can I make peace with this so that, if she ever does come around, I can accept her without resentment?

Fuming in the Background

Dear Fuming,

I'm guessing that Janet is deeply threatened by your presence. I'm also guessing that she is not a thoughtful, reflective person, that she is not in the habit of examining her own emotional reactions to others. A thoughtful, reflective person might realize to her great surprise that over the years she had allowed her personal identity to merge with her role in the company, and that she now felt destabilized by the prospect of change; she might realize after you arrived that she really, truly never wanted to do this, that she let her husband talk her into it, that she liked things better the way they were before, that she resented this intrusion, that she disliked you personally for reasons yet unclear to her, that she had become fiercely protective of her turf and was experiencing an intensity of emotion about your arrival that surprised her and baffled her. She might have the wisdom and the maturity to act with caution around you, to take her own responses with a grain of salt and realize that you, too, are in a vulnerable and confusing position. She might rein in her feelings and try to make the best of things.

But she is not doing that. Instead, she is apparently the kind of person who cannot separate what she feels from what she believes and does.

My gut sense of it is that if you give her time, she will find a way to reclaim whatever equilibrium and security she had before you arrived, and you will be able to work together. But the way in which she regains her equilibrium may not be to your liking. She may not ever want to collaborate or share tasks. She may have to have autonomy over some defined area in the company, and work mostly with her husband. She may work to keep you subordinate to her. She may undermine your initiatives. So this collaboration may well never be what you may have imagined it would be -- the four of you happily building wealth and prosperity in an atmosphere of mutual respect and shared competence. It may be more like an unhappy family that does its best to get along, but in which there is always an underlying tension.

So, as in so many situations that involve conflict with others, the first thing you need to do is decide on a course of action. If you can get away from the situation for a few weeks until she is able to define her routine, perhaps that will help. If you can buy out your share of the company and get another job, that might also be best in the long run. Or, if you can tough it out, bite your tongue and hope the company grows quickly enough that you aren't elbow-to-elbow with her for too long, that may be an option as well.

In the meantime, aside from making concrete decisions, you may want to take this opportunity to do some serious thinking about your own role in this conflict. While you apologized to her in the hope that you could satisfy her, you have probably not done the painful and deflating work of examining, with cruel and ruthless realism, what is really driving you, what your own motives are, and what is putting you into conflict with others. That may be because you see nothing wrong with what you are doing. I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong with what you are doing. I am suggesting, however, that virtue can be the greatest blinder of all; it's our unquestioned virtues that get us into trouble; it's our virtues that are so irksome to others. It's hard to accept that, but it's often true. It may be those very qualities that you think everyone should like and respect -- your forthrightness, your intelligence, your hardworking nature, your desire to please -- that put you into conflict with her. Because there is something in others that hates a winner. Winners threaten us. "Winner" implies "loser." If you're a winner, somebody's going to be a loser. That's a threatening reality. We all have a dark side that comes out when we are threatened.

I'm not saying any of this is "your fault." I am saying that there is great value in looking at yourself with ruthless, uncompromising clarity, as others might, until you can say yes, I can see how I'd want to slap me across the face, too. Can you do that? Can you get in touch with that evil, conniving, nasty, brutal, hateful, dark, resentful, bitchy side that everyone has, and try to see what it would feel like to come in contact with sunny, world-beating you? Can you imagine -- don't be rational about this, just try to feel it -- why someone might be threatened and just want to kick your ass? Can you imagine that? Have you every wanted to kick somebody's ass just because they were too nice, too competent, too reasonable -- too much of a winner? If you can imagine this nasty, irrational hatred, it may help you to treat her with the kind of caution that her type requires. That is, realize that being reasonable and accommodating is not going to help.

Sometimes people are angry, distrustful and aggressive because they've suffered things the rest of us haven't suffered; they've been beaten or neglected and they carry around the memories of that; or they've been often shoved aside by stronger family members and so they are fiercely protective of their space. They snap at you when you get too close. The only way they know to protect themselves is to keep you off balance, to keep you weak and on the defensive. It's not that they want to harm you; to them, it seems they're only protecting themselves; they believe, in spite of your sunny facade, that you are there to take something from them, and it's their job to prevent it. What might you be taking? Well, their security, for one. Their place in the hierarchy. By your very presence, you invite comparisons; are you prettier or smarter than she is? Are you more graceful in tense situations? Is your husband taller than hers? Do you come from a higher social class? Did you go to a better university? Do you drive a nicer car? Is your ring more expensive than hers? Is your father more advanced in his profession? Do you have a kind of easy confidence that comes of a good and secure upbringing?

She may have had to struggle through unimaginable hardships, and she may be hiding a great deal of pain. She may have chemical imbalances and mood swings; she and her husband may not be getting along. If she has children, the demands of being a mother and a business partner may have left her with no time to herself. In short, she may be a big emotional mess, and while you've done nothing wrong, there may be plenty of things about you that get her goat.

So figure out what you're going to do, and beware of the dark side.

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