While hanging out with some friends a few weeks ago, my friend Richard shared some marriage advice. He has been happily married for the past couple of years and has since distilled some very valuable lessons (six, to be exact). As soon as I heard them, I realized how true they were for all relationships.

A healthy co-founder relationship isn’t conflict-free. It’s about how conflicts are communicated and resolved. Unhealthy human relationships are often directly reflected in the products these humans create.

I’ve been working on Core15 with a partner who is also a good friend. Over the past few months, we have experienced things together beyond just normal friendship–things like disagreements, triumphs, doubts. As I listened to Richard’s marriage advice, I realized how beneficial it would be if we took them to heart for our co-founder relationship.

Here they are:

  1. Always give 60%
  2. Never go to sleep angry
  3. Never go below the belt
  4. Never joke about divorce
  5. When it’s over, it’s over
  6. Never keep score

Note that these “rules” are predicated on the fact that you’ve carefully vetted your co-founder, built a trusting relationship with her/him, and committed to creating something for the long-term together. Let me briefly explain them one by one.

Always give 60%

When working together on a project you are both passionate about, you may occasionally take notice on how much each person is contributing. One person may still have a fulltime job while the other is full steam ahead. One person may be battling personal issues while the other is completely devoted to the business. No relationships can truly be a 50/50 split; what matters is that you are committed to succeeding together.

No matter how things are, always commit to giving an average of 60%. Such a mentality puts you in a mode where you are always giving a little more than your share, but not too much that you are doing all the work. It’s a delicate balance because it’s easy for the other person to take you for granted. But, you leave your partner enough room to express his/her work and contribute to the business. It also builds trust between both parties since the other person is always trying to give more.

Never go to sleep angry

Conflicts happen, arguments happen, disagreements happen. The difficult thing is to resolve them promptly and sensibly. After an argument, it’s hard to look at each other straight, let alone talk to each other with respect. You then go to sleep angry, only to wake up angrier.

Don’t. No matter how much you disagree, make a commitment to work things out before the night ends. Give each other some space if necessary, but always come back and resolve your differences.

Never go below the belt

Co-founders spend an enormous amount of time with each other. You’ll see the other person when they are happy, sad, tired, or mad. You’ll know exactly which buttons to push to drive her/him crazy. It’s the price we pay when we let other people into our lives on such a deep and personal level. At times, you’ll get into arguments where all you want to do is push his/her buttons just to get a rise out of him/her.

Don’t. If you commit to never going below the belt, you are reserving a certain amount of respect for each other no matter what happens. It’s the respect that’s necessary for building a lasting and nurturing relationship. The lack of such respect will be obvious to the outside world, from investors to future employees.

Never joke about divorce

Creating a product or business is difficult. There will be countless reasons to part ways every step of the process. The teams that are successful commit to sticking together through thick and thin. Joking about splitting up makes it OK to imagine splitting up during tough times. Co-founders who can’t stick together during tough times won’t create something great together.

When it’s over, it’s over

Again, conflicts happen. No matter how severe the conflict is, once it’s resolved, let it go. Letting it go means not mentioning it again, especially during future conflicts. Not letting go means brooding, seeding your mind with passive aggression that will inevitably emerge in other ways.

Never keep score

This one is tricky for me because I do it sometimes without noticing it.

“I worked on our project for 40 hours this week while he only worked 20”

“I took on all the customer interviews this week while she was having a vacation”

“He didn’t show up to our meeting because he was hung over”

Do any of these sound familiar? If so, do you use it as ammunition during arguments? The key to not keeping score is to bring it up the moment it makes you feel bad. Make it clear to your partner on how his/her actions make you feel and how you would like them to improve. Come from a place of reason, and try not to let your emotions hijack your behavior. Doing so helps you squash any difficult feelings immediately and gives the other person an opportunity to respond and improve.

It’s always easier to give advice than to act on it. Keeping a relationship healthy is hard work; don’t be surprised if it takes time to get there.

If you’re interested in seeing how co-founder relationships can make or break a company, check out season two of the Startup Podcast. The episode below is especially interesting as the two co-founders of Dating Ring talk candidly about their conflicts and how they went about resolving it with a “co-founder therapist.”

Share your story

One thing I find therapeutic is to share my struggles and learnings with the community (such as this post). It forces me to be open about my shortcomings and keep myself accountable on things I’d like to improve on. My co-founder and I also started a podcast where we share our journey working on Core15. Check it out at Buildcast.fm.

I’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment here or tweet me at @feifanw.

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