My husband and I are fighting bitterly over our failing restaurant

He's cooking the books and starting to throw chairs. I got scared and hid his handgun.

By Cary Tennis

Published January 15, 2008 11:19AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been married about eight years and we own a business together. We are both on our second marriages. We live in a small community in the Northeast and own a restaurant in a larger community nearby. He is a chef (formally schooled) and I have a background as an accountant for a major corporation and much experience in the hospitality industry as well. We have two children and were doing OK for ourselves until we bought this restaurant.

We cashed in all our retirement money and borrowed about $70,000 from his parents (they considered it giving him his inheritance early) just to try to keep the cash flowing. The business would be doing OK if we didn't have to support ourselves as well -- it simply doesn't generate enough cash to pay our bills and the restaurant bills too. I work two part-time jobs in addition to being the bookkeeper for the business.

Our problem is that we have reached a fundamental disagreement about the way to run the business. My husband believes that we need to do anything in our power to keep afloat, even if that means being dishonest about the business financials. I strongly disagree. I believe that we have to operate within legal boundaries and maintain our business ethics, even if it means the end of the restaurant.

This came to a head because I asked him to file a report and make a payment -- he did as I asked, but he fudged the numbers and made a ridiculously low payment (to a government agency). When I discovered this I told him that he was going to get caught because the amount he paid was unbelievably low and would call attention to our business, and that he had to correct it right away. He refused and went into a tirade about how "they" were taking "our" hard-earned money, which "they" didn't deserve, etc.

The argument escalated to a point where my husband picked up a chair and started to throw it across the room. Then he decided to grab the laptop and hurl it instead. When he thought better of that, he knocked over a glass of water which began to soak my cellphone. I grabbed up the cellphone -- he grabbed my arm, began to pry the phone from my hand and muttered something about "killing." I did not misunderstand him. He settled down a bit later and we continued our tense business discussions. Later, while out on an errand, I stopped by the police department and discussed this with an officer. I also hid my husband's handgun from him and slept in the bed with one of our daughters in order to avoid being physically close to him.

The next day he told me that he was ashamed of himself and that he knew things had gotten out of hand and he was sorry. I told him that he had scared me and that I should not have to live in fear of my own husband. He told me that if I were a man I wouldn't think anything of him saying something along the lines of "I could kill you" because it's just a figure of speech and men don't take things personally like women do. I contemplated leaving him for the next two days, but I really don't want to yank my girls out of schools and communities where they are happy and also create a lot more drama that might just drive my husband over the edge. I told him that I would continue to help him with the business but only if things are done honestly and within the boundaries of the law.

Every time we disagree about something big (like money, the business, etc.) he attacks me personally by implying that I was financially irresponsible when we met, that I don't think right (whatever that means), that my knowledge about running a restaurant is totally overshadowed by his years as a chef. He absolutely belittles all my life experience and knowledge. It seems to anger him that I won't just go along with him on whatever he decides and I remind him that I am not his employee, that I am his partner 50/50. But he doesn't treat me that way. He has said to me that his opinion should count for more because he is there physically more than I am and he puts much more effort into the restaurant than I do.

I keep trying to point out to him that we would be better off just trying to escape from the restaurant. He works 60 to 70 hours a week and we rarely have any time together as a family. He constantly complains about how tired he is, how his back hurts, etc. He is not available to me emotionally. We are so much worse off financially than we were before we got involved in this restaurant. But he will not acknowledge that it might not be the best situation for our family, he keeps insisting that things are getting better. But I do not see the cash flow changing significantly and quickly enough to ever provide enough income to run both the business and our household. I just don't think this endeavor is worth the amount of blood, sweat and tears that are being invested into it, and in my opinion it is ruining our marriage. I have set up meetings with our accountant in hopes that he will help us understand at what point the red flag should go up and we should consider the business as failing, but both my husband and the accountant seem reluctant to discuss an exit strategy. We just got recommendations to raise our prices. Which we have done -- twice. But you can only go so high before you price yourself out of the range your customers are willing to pay. I do not believe that I am simply being pessimistic about things -- the numbers do not lie and I am simply interpreting them as an accountant must.

I have a hard time saying that I will just pick up and leave, because my first marriage was to a musician. He was part of a locally successful band in a city with a major music scene. When I separated from him the band fell apart, and my ex-husband suffered with drug and alcohol problems for quite a while after that. I cannot shake the guilt that I contributed to the demise of the band and my ex-husband's addiction problems. In hindsight, I also realize that the reasons I left were very selfish and superficial and I guess I don't want a repeat.

1) Do men who love and respect their wives actually say "I could kill you" in the heat of an argument and not mean it? 2) Is this what "for better or for worse" means? 3) Should I remove my name from the business as partner in order to protect my reputation? 4) If I am unhappy, should I leave for reasons of self-preservation? Or is it selfish and unfair not to stick around until the last pitch has been thrown?

Unhappy Business Partner

Dear Unhappy Business Partner,

You face many dangers. There is the physical danger to your person. There is the danger of criminal prosecution or economic sanctions by government agencies. There is the danger of financial ruin. There is the danger of divorce. There is the danger of lasting emotional trauma to you and to your daughters.

You face so many dangers that your first task is to rank them, to assess their likelihood and severity. I can't do that for you. You will need expert help. I can't tell you how likely your husband is to harm you physically, for instance, or what your liability would be if your husband were to be accused of tax fraud. You need to consult experts in each area. In domestic violence, helpful experts would include women who have survived domestic violence, professional counselors, scholars and police. They all have useful perspectives. You need to consult with these people and listen to what they say and then decide on action. If you conclude that you are in danger from your husband, then your duty is clear: You have to take your daughters and go. You cannot in good conscience expose yourself to violence.

Likewise with the other dangers you face: You need to assess each one. Ask a lawyer about your liability for any illegal actions your husband may take running the restaurant. As to the safety and well-being of your daughters, again, talk with a marriage and family counselor about the long-term effects of all your current stresses versus the long-term effects of divorce and relocating.

You need to assess the risks and act accordingly.

Doing this should help you gain some perspective.

It is tempting to say more. It is tempting to speculate. But the stakes are too high. We all have opinions; I'm sure some people will think they know exactly what you should do from the little you have said about your husband. I cannot claim such omniscience.

I will only say this: If you decide that your husband is a threat to you, take your daughters and go. If you decide that your husband is not a threat to you and that you want to continue living with him and raising your daughters in their current schools, then make yourself a one-year program. This would include stress reduction and family time. It would include increasing your income by taking a full-time job, and decreasing your involvement in the restaurant by resigning as bookkeeper. It would involve improving your personal financial security and creating distance between you and the restaurant. It would involve working with legal and financial advisors who are clearly on your side, to accomplish your own objectives while severing your connection with what you believe is a failing enterprise.

I really cannot say more.

Like I said, it's tempting to speculate, but the stakes are too high.

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