56. Boundaries and Working With Your Spouse: Sarah’s Journey of Marriage, Millions, Business, and Fulfillment
Mary: Let’s talk boundaries. I’m here with Sarah and we are discussing boundaries in business, especially when you work together with your spouse. Hey, Sarah, thanks so much for being here.
Sarah: Thank you so much for the invitation and your work in the world. It’s super important.
Mary: Thank you. Well tell us a little about you and how you got to this podcast today.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, I am Sarah Stokes. I live in Wisconsin and I have a beautiful business coaching practice where I get to help what I call the open hearted over giver because it takes one to know one. And I’ve had the pleasure of building three companies over my decade in entrepreneurship. Checked all the boxes, right? All the success boxes, the awards, the big team, the million dollar years. And along the way I found myself and I found what wouldn’t work and what does work better. And at the same time, I’m still growing and evolving. And so one of my biggest things in life is to really grow myself and that’s how I found you and I was drawn to your work because I’m recently discovered codependent, enmeshed, people pleasing, like woman who grew up with a lot of coping mechanisms and they served me well until they didn’t. And so I am really discovering what the heck that means and how I want to show up in my life. And I have two kids, they’re 11 and 12, and I want to be the cycle breaker. And I want to be the best mom I can be, the most joyful human I can be. So here I am on this podcast, learning about boundaries and learning just what’s next and how I can truly have more joy in my life. And sometimes that comes with hard things. So here I am.
Mary: I love it. Thank you so much for being here and for showing up wholeheartedly and sharing your story and your wisdom with us. So tell us a little bit about working with your spouse. What’s that been like for you?
Sarah: So I was working with my spouse before we were even dating, right? 2002, I walked into a newsroom in Springfield, Missouri, and there was my future co anchor. And I had been in a long term relationship, but he said he knew the minute he saw me, we were going to get married, which is a big leap because I could not stand the man, and he knows this, but boy, is he persistent and he, he showed me the side of him that is the teddy bear side versus the tough news guy. And to fast forward all the way through, we fell in love, got married, worked together in another couple of newsrooms across the U. S., had our two babies, and got into business life together. So we worked together in TV news as co anchors for a long time. And then we got into business cause why not? So in an effort to have more family time, more flexibility and freedom for our little ones cause we were at work till 11 at night and that didn’t really bode well for toddlers and babies trying to go to bed at daycare. So we both got into the business world together. And it went really, really well. And oftentimes it didn’t, but in the year 2022, after huge successes and lots of developments, I decided I wanted a change and that we would no longer be working together. We’re still married, married 18 years. But that’s kind of the story we can tell today is like, okay, how in the world do you Kind of untangle yourself from 20 years of working together and kind of what that does to our relationship and, and the future of the business and all of that. So that’s the story I’m here to share today.
Mary: Oh, I love it. Okay. So let’s start with when you were working together and things were going well, what were some indicators that this husband, wife working relationship was really serving you?
Sarah: Yeah. Well, you can probably put your psychologist goggles on and watch this in action because it’s so like apparent now, but Chris is my husband’s name. He and I are polar opposites, yin and yang, right? Which when in Balance ourselves really worked for us. So how that would show up in the TV news world, he’s the guy that’s like, can’t be done. And I’m the lady who’s like, watch me. So let’s just say there’s breaking news and it’s too far across town to make it in time for 10 PM newscast.
And he’s like, no way. And I’m like, yes way. Here’s how. So it worked really well because our stations really benefited from me trying to prove to him it could be done. Now I see it and I’m like, how exhausting, but it fueled me. I loved, I loved achieving that. And I think he loved his role in it. So we had these roles that we would play and it was always opposite, but man, did it give us fuel. On the anchor desk people thought it was such a hoot to watch us jab at each other with, you know, teasing and they felt like they were part of our family. And so it went really well that way when we were in TV news together, where people could feel our chemistry and the friendly jabs we would take at each other. And that’s kind of how we showed up.
In business, in entrepreneurship, I showed up the same way. And so did he. Can’t be done was his MO. And mine was, Oh yes, it can. So what happened in business? Same kind of fuel. Right? We got a lot done. I was pushing, he was pulling. And then there were times, and we say this with true gratitude, if entrepreneurship is a roller coaster. Thank goodness we aren’t riding the same roller coaster at the same time. So thankfully when I would be in a low, freaking out, he was climbing, he was feeling good, so we could balance each other out. So that served us really well. So I think that’s where that yin and yang actually was so supportive versus that prove it energy. It was he can console me when I don’t believe and when he doesn’t believe I could hold the vision. So I appreciated that part. Leadership wise, though, really fascinating. I am sure, if Brené Brown came and observed a meeting.
Mary: Brené, if you’re listening, what’s your opinion about this? Just kidding.
Sarah: I literally went on to study under her work because of the way my husband and I showed up in our staff meetings. He’s in full command and drill sergeant energy, and I’m in people pleasing everybody, feel good, warm, fuzzy energy. And the thing that made us like click over time, I think was probably just really confusing for our team. Who do we listen to? What do we do? What is the energy? Are we going to do this project? Are we not? So we learned how to put systems in place so that neither one of our leadership styles would conflict and we came together and set goals and that was magic so we could really create incredible things when we got on the same page. It was when somebody was out of whack and we didn’t have that compass of where are we actually you know, pointing this whole organization toward that it would be somebody would take a personal, I would be in tears, you know, after the meeting kind of stuff. So you saw it kind of evolve and change. And depending on how much inner work I was doing, how I would show up, if he was feeling secure or insecure, how he would show up and all the human stuff that comes along with it. But in the end, truly like our strengths did rise above more often than not. And just like anyone else in a relationship, there were times where it was really messy and I could hardly look at the man, right. And I’m sure he felt the same about me. Like, what are we even doing here? And then throw money in there and a couple of kids it gets, it gets interesting, but I would say that that yin and yang did serve us when we were balanced and doing, you know, our work.
Mary: And you mentioned some, some business success, you had some financial gains, you had some goals that you were able to reach. What were a couple of the things that kind of propelled you to that level of success?
Sarah: He and I bring out different things in each other that a client or a big company. So we would get hired by, we started with mom and pop, so we owned a marketing agency. We started with the mom and pop and they trusted Chris and Sarah, right? We were those trusted nightly news anchors from their town. Okay. They would love that Chris would bring more of a strong presence, take no prisoners kind of guy. He’s the guy you want in your court when stuff’s going sideways, right? The crisis communication, that kind of stuff. I was the woman who could really bring that caring edge to things like, Oh, I see that you really care about your customer with this way you show up, let’s bring that out in your marketing. So it worked really well for our clients to see both soft and strong at the same time. So that I think catapulted us to those levels of business where then we saw what worked and we’re like, Oh yeah, we will really put that front and center right? We not only care about your customers, we’re going to get it done. Right? We got that, that balance and pretty soon huge global corporations were wanting some of that too. And so I think that’s where that came in to propel us together because it’s not black or white. Sometimes it’s nice gray area and they needed both because you swing too far to the soft side. They don’t feel like they got stuff done. You swing too far to the cold side and pretty soon it’s not resonating. So they wanted both. And it worked really well.
Mary: Okay. Until it didn’t. So tell us a little bit about when things changed.
Sarah: Yeah. So there was a point where I had taken the reins leadership wise. Most of our team was female. Most of our team was really under my management anyway. And so Chris quietly kind of started taking a step back. And there were times where I’m like, you can’t even be in this meeting because there’s too many tears. And he knows that. And we’ve talked about it. But over time he started pulling back and he went and did commercial real estate. I had been running this company while running my coaching company at the same time. And the pull was getting strong. So I started feeling like I’m, I’m doing an either, or thing here. And I am mission driven to help women in business in this way through my coaching practice. And here’s this huge marketing agency, million dollar a year, like the creme de la creme. I should really love this. Right? And it was causing actually more and more problems in our marriage because we couldn’t agree. So he was pulling back while I was also pulling back, but nobody knew it. I didn’t even know it. I didn’t even see until I was like, I got to hire a CEO to run this thing. That was going to be my fix. That was gonna be my personal self care. I’m going to hire a CEO. However, the energy of that was here you take it, I don’t want it. So how can a CEO be successful with that? I was setting somebody up to fail. I just didn’t know it. Chris was like, here, you take this. So everybody’s doing here you take this, and nobody’s wanting to love and care for this huge company anymore. And I finally realized I’m like, okay, CEO didn’t solve it. I still don’t want to do this.
So I made that decision silently months before I said a word out loud to anyone that I wanted to retire from marketing and go full on in my coaching company. And I was nervous. I am new to boundaries, right? I’m going to set the biggest one of my life and I didn’t know what to do, but there came a crisis point where I’m like, okay, now I’m just resenting all of this. And that’s not fair to the clients or our team, right? Resentment is not how I want anyone to feel. No one wins. So I realized I had to say out loud my, my new decision to Chris. And I joke now because I’m out of it, but I did not think our marriage would survive that day. I really did not. I was on the phone in tears to several friends, like I’m going to have to get a divorce. He doesn’t get me at all. Right? That was my reaction to it. What happened was I said, I got to talk to you about something. And I said, I want to retire from our marketing company. As of June 13th or whatever it was. And I say this now as kindly as I can, but his nervous system was not ready to hear that information. He went to full activation fight mode because he tied his security to our company. His security was the only way we make money is that company, not looking around at what was actually happening. And so it was bad to hold that boundary, but I didn’t, I didn’t cave and, and people please. So I’m really proud of myself, but I really wasn’t sure if our marriage would survive that decision.
And over time, I would say over the span of a few days, which felt like 25 years at the time, he softened enough to say, okay, Well, what are we going to do then? And I said, well, do you want to run it? And he said, no. I said, well, do you want to sell it? And he said, no. And I secretly did not either because we had sold a business prior and it, it didn’t make it longer than a year. For whatever reason, I’m not judging. It was just hard to see it go away that business that we had grown before and sold. And so we both mutually decided that we would phase it out. And so I made a plan. I told our team, made a plan for them. So they would all be held, made a plan for the clients. And meanwhile, really making a plan with my marriage, because my husband was very attached to us as a team in business. And so it was a matter of helping him see and helping myself see how we were still a team as parents, right? As a couple, it just was going to look different. And so thankfully a year and some out, he’s happier than ever because he gets to do what he wants to do. And I’m happier than ever because I am doing what I want to do. And so in the end it was a win, but it was really hard to hold that boundary for myself. Cause I thought everything was going to fall apart. And it didn’t thankfully.
Mary: So tell me what was the hardest part for you?
Sarah: Saying the words to my husband, I am done, I want to retire. Because I knew that if I said them, I needed to hold to it and old me had tried to like set a boundary and not held to it before. So this was a knees knocking full panic in my brain while I’m saying the words out loud. And so that was the hardest part. It was not only somatic, it was psychological and, and changing my whole way of showing up with him. But I knew it had to be done or I was going to end up in the hospital probably. And I wasn’t going to do that.
Mary: And when he had that emotional disregulation kind of response to that boundary that was really difficult for you to communicate, how did you follow up with your own self care and upholding that boundary?
Sarah: I’d love to tell you I had a really clean and neat plan that I took really good care of myself. But in all honesty, I bawled. And I’m sure people who are listening have maybe, well, I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in the place where all you can do is like ugly cry and almost like rock. I was there. I was there. Because all I wanted in that moment that I couldn’t control was for him to understand, now I’m going to cry. All I wanted was for him to be like meeting me there, to soothe me, cause I just did a hard thing. Meanwhile, he’s in his own full activation. And so here we are two wounded humans, activated, dysregulated and trying to do life together. And so I see it now, but at the time, all I wanted was for my husband to say of course, honey, let me hold you, you did a great job. And he couldn’t because he was scared. And so I couldn’t see past that.
So I didn’t have a good self care plan. My self care plan, I guess, was getting on the phone to my Best friend and bawling about how bad of a job he did reacting to me. Let’s be honest. That’s what happened. I got on the phone and I cried my face off. And then I went to lunch with my friend and she was just holding space for me and she did show up and I feel bad that Chris and I didn’t have a better handle on how to do that. But at the same time, like we’re walking through life, just trying to evolve and it’s messy sometimes, and it was really messy. I mean, I had people like looking up divorce lawyers for me trying to help, you know, because I had decided that it was just unforgivable for him to not show up for me in that moment. And now understanding our nervous systems more, I’m like, wow, he couldn’t hear me, see straight, any of the above. So and neither could I, all I could do is cry, right. And want to be held. And it was just scary for both of us. We were taking another leap with no net. You know, I knew we had a net. He did not know we had a net. So therefore I felt like both of our nets were pulled out. But in hindsight, if I were to say anything, it was, I phoned a friend. As that old game show called it, I phoned a friend and I let it all out and she held space. And so that was my self care.
Mary: Well, so grateful for that friend. What a good friend.
Sarah: Yeah. Thankfully, she’s a retired therapist. She was so ready.
Mary: We all need a retired therapist.
Sarah: Don’t we? It’s true. I’m like, whoo,
Mary: hmm. Yeah. So when you get in that space, and I think there are listeners who can relate to this, you have to ask yourself this really hard question of like, what is our partnership if we don’t have this business together?
Mary: And what is this business if we don’t have this partnership? And those questions, I think, can bring some awareness to what’s the next decision for us.
Sarah: hmm. Mm hmm. Yeah. And even though we’re a year and some out, we’re still feeling our way through that. What does it look like? We just sold the office building that we owned for that business. So we’re slowly closing chapters and feeling our way through it. And just what I’m noticing now is that he and I are being just way more honest. It was like that day opened the honesty gates that have changed our whole relationship. Because now it’s like, we’ve done the hard thing. Really now it’s all about, okay, what are you feeling? And we’re able to communicate that. I now understand his reactions and my reactions, and we show up differently now, which I’m so grateful for.
But the question of you know, are we a team? Well, not like we used to be, not like our egos loved, that beautiful brochure, right? That just quintessential husband and wife power couple kind of thing. No, we don’t have that particular thing anymore, but man, are we good parents together? And so we’re feeling our way through it and it evolves all the time. It really does. So
Mary: having made that hard decision and being on the other side of it, what is now possible for you?
Sarah: I think I will forever be onto myself with “shoulds” in business. I should want this, I should keep this going that forever chain. Right? Right. But all of the like old school indicators of why you have a good business were there. So people were like, you’re crazy to shut down this incredible business. And I’m like, no, I’m not crazy. I’m living a should, and it served me until it didn’t. So what’s possible now is a life of full integrity, radical honesty. I didn’t have that before. I felt like I was always, well, proving it, right? That goes back to the early days of working together. And that’s my stuff, but I no longer have to prove it. I get to have a business that’s fully aligned with who I am and where I’m going. I don’t live for that checkbox of accomplishment. And I don’t know, if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I don’t know that I would have believed it, right? Like the millions didn’t quote unquote fix it. It’s just fascinating to watch how I had to almost see it for myself. To start fresh and create a business that is full joy, full mission, full heart. And that’s the life I want to live for the rest of it. Hmm. Yeah.
Mary: Oh, that’s so good. I love it. When you talk about the shoulds, I always say silly things like stop shoulding on yourself or, you know, but I really do think that there’s a lot of value around asking yourself, how could I replace should with could, and how can I replace have to with choose to? Because I want to live a life that I choose to live because I believe in the possibilities of what it could be.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s the whole thing. That is living a whole hearted life. That’s beautiful.
Mary: So if you could give advice to someone in your shoes back then, or even now, what would you say?
Sarah: One of the things that is mission critical with whether you’re working with a spouse or a family member or a friend, know their values. Know their top three values because that’s what drives them. And I want them to know yours. So when I learned and I asked, I had to ask Chris, what are your top three values, right? And they were so different than how I show up, but it opened my eyes. So his number one value is security. My number one value is love, right? So if you can know their top three values, you can understand why they’re maybe being activated. So I would speak that language. Then I would say, honey, I know that your top value security here. And I see that it may not make sense for you on paper why this is, you know, whatever. Or I know your top two values fun, and this doesn’t feel like fun. So I can see why you’re pulling out from this like project. That helps so much. So please, please, please just get curious about each other. And then in your mind, you don’t take it personally anymore because it’s just actually how they want to live. And so if you can speak the language of each other’s values, game changer. Game changer. And you can speak from your heart more shall we say objectively like, well, honey, one of my main values is gratitude. So when you say this about this project, I’m feeling like it’s really ungrateful of you for this client that’s come and chosen us. Right? Instead of like, how dare you, blah, blah, blah. Changed everything for me. I could say, Hey, it matters to me that we’re grateful for this project. So that would be number one.
And the other advice would be, okay, learn about the nervous system, learn about boundaries with you. Truly because it changes everything. Had I known really the full depth of what I was coming into. I was coming into that conversation with premeditated resentment, right? I was setting us both up. I didn’t know that logically, but now I’m like, Oh, look at me. I, I was going in there, like, please hold me, but I didn’t have those words. What would it have been like? And I’m not, you know, regretting that journey. What would it be like if you knew what you needed in that moment? You actually could verbalize, I need you to hear me without speaking right now and just hold me when I say this really hard thing, what could that do for you? Knowing our needs, knowing our values, and then actually being able to verbalize them could really change so many fights and so many painful moments and maybe not. They’re, they’re human too. But it sure might help because I know how many husband and wife teams or family members just suffer and they fight and they take it personally. And I’ve seen marriages not make it in business. I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of entrepreneurs over the years, and if you turn on each other because you don’t understand each other, it’s hard. Yeah. Right.
Mary: What kind of boundaries do you think would need to be in place for husband and wife teams who want to stay in business together?
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. And by all means do it. It’s great. If you want to make it work, I would say, and I’m, I’m again, fully evolving into my new boundary life. So help me out, Mary, if you hear things, Know right where you start and where they begin and not try to make them something they’re not. You don’t want to be something you’re not right. So you knowing what you want out of your life is a game changer. It’s number one, what do you want and how are you willing to show up? And as I’m learning from you, right, if then, if I find myself overworking, then I will, whatever. But a lot of times we end up in that Sarah mode where I was proving it. I was always proving it or we’re over caretaking them, or we are taking up their slack, right? So you knowing what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do in business with a family member or spouse is going to be huge and then give them the same grace. How do they want to show up? Because a lot of times we just blindly walk through this business, feeling our way through the dark and it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be more clear.
And then for sure, get yourself a system to have same page goals. Because if everybody’s rowing to a different Island in their boat, nobody’s getting anything done and your business will suffer. So we loved and I don’t, I don’t get paid to say this or anything, but we love traction. It was a book that talked about the entrepreneurial operating system. Use whatever you want, but have something, something that helps you speak the same language. Strengths finders was a great way to speak the same language. So however you can come together and find that same page, your whole company will benefit. Not only you less stress, your teammates will be clear, your clients will be clear, and you can go home sooner with less angst. Yeah.
Mary: Yeah. I love that. Yes. And I think when people ask me that question, what comes up for me is really encouraging each person of the partnership to take responsibility for what is theirs and to let go of responsibility for what is not theirs. And that’s the boundary that helps the relationship to thrive. And then in the business side, it’s getting really clear about what am I willing to do to contribute to this business? And what am I not willing to do to contribute to this business? And am I willing to work this amount of hours? Am I not willing to work this amount of hours? Am I willing to take on these tasks or responsibilities? Am I not willing to take on these tasks and responsibilities? And having clarity yourself so that you can come to the table with your partner, if it’s a business partner or a family member or a spouse that you are able to say, Hey, this is what I’m needing and this is what I’m willing to do and what I’m not able to do from a place of genuine authenticity. This is what I’m can do and feel good about it. Not what can I do and feel resentful, but what can I actually do and feel good about it? Right? And If we can have practice having that conversation, like make it a normal part of our relationships, make it a normal part of our partnerships and our businesses, I think that has the best chance for sustainable success.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. And knowing your lane. So when you know it, staying in your lane is also huge. So
Mary: cause it’s not like you’re driving your car and your spouse is your passenger. That’s not how it goes. It’s like, I’m in a car, you’re in a car, we’re in two separate lanes and we’re holding hands driving with one hand like
Sarah: bang, bang, crash, scrape. Yes. Right. Yeah, but we have to know what the heck those lanes are and so many of us are in building business survival mode that nobody takes the time to do it. So could you give your business that gift this year and have that, that meeting where you’re going to figure out your lanes and then make a plan to stay in them and highly recommend your work for helping people learn how to stay in their own lane. I love it.
Mary: Thank you. Awesome. Well, what’s your insight or takeaway from our conversation today, Sarah?
Sarah: I’m looking back and this is something that I don’t see a lot of, I’ll just say female entrepreneurs who I work with, I’m looking back with a lot of compassion for myself. I was white knuckling, right? Really avoiding that sweaty 10 minute conversation. I did not want to have. And I would say my biggest takeaway is even hearing myself speak this, more compassion is even needed today yet. So if you’re listening and you see yourself in my story at all extra compassion. You’re doing your best. You are walking through this life with all of your trauma responses and trying to do boundaries and business and navigating this relationship world. And you’re doing your best. So extra compassion, pretty please, because we’re so hard on ourselves. And it is like a walking nervous system activation all day long in business. So just bring extra compassion for yourself for showing up.
Mary: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for being here. Thank you for sharing your story. If people want to reach you, how could they reach out to you?
Sarah: I hang out on Facebook the most. It’s my front porch. So come on over to the juicy good life is where you can find me. The juicy good life. com I am on all the socials, but like I said, I am a Facebook girl and just come hang out with me. My whole mission is to help you suffer less and have more joy because life’s too short to suffer.
Mary: Thank you.
Sarah: Thank you, Mary.