When marriage is the business

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Jimmy Wray MP and Anthea Turner have both found out the hard way that couples who work and live together face a difficult challenge.

Kathy Marks reports.

Jimmy Wray, the Glasgow MP, was remarkably candid when he explained to an industrial tribunal why he had dismissed his estranged wife, Catherine, as his constituency secretary.

"I want to be rid of her once and for all," he said. "I will be glad to get her out of my life."

The panel, not surprisingly, was unimpressed, and last week it ordered Mr Wray to pay his wife pounds 6,000 in compensation. In a neat irony, it also emerged that the MP's new partner, Laura Walker, a lawyer, had been taken to a tribunal by her own spouse, a loss adjuster, when she sacked him after they separated.

So far, so symmetrical. But if there is one lesson to be learnt from all this airing of dirty linen, it is that turning a marriage into a business partnership can be a perilous venture. In the first flush of romance, it may seem a brilliant idea. But if a relationship disintegrates, one partner can end up losing everything.

Anthea Turner, the television personality, who recently left Peter Powell, her husband and manager, for another man, may well be the latest casualty. It is no secret that Powell planned every step of Turner's rise to stardom, and it remains to be seen whether her career will now suffer as a result of their separation.

There are couples who do meet the difficult challenge of working together after their relationships have collapsed. John Cleese and Connie Booth made six episodes of Fawlty Towers together after their marriage broke up. John Lloyd, the tennis player, continued to coach his ex-wife, Chris Evert. Sarah Brightman still sings in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals.

Some husband-and-wife teams are fortunate enough never to reach that stage, finding a recipe for success in combining the personal and the professional. Cilla Black, whose husband, Bobby Willis, has been her manager for decades, is one example. Anita and Gordon Roddick work well together at the helm of the Body Shop. Other MPs than Wray, such as Tony Benn, employ their wives without apparent disharmony.

But for many couples, intertwined home and work lives prove too claustrophobic. David and Elizabeth Emanuel, for instance, the fashion team who designed the wedding dress of Diana, Princess of Wales, separated in 1990 and dissolved their business association. Abba, the pop group, bit the dust after its two singing duos separated.

Cary Cooper, professor of psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says: "There is a danger that your working life will spill into your private life, and vice versa. It's very hard to switch off at the end of the day.

"An additional problem can be that you are not leading individual lives, and each giving the relationship something different that helps it to grow. You can end up feeling smothered by the other person if you see them day in, day out, night and day, at home and at work."

Judy Cunnington, director of operations at the London Marriage Guidance organisation, says that the set-up can be particularly complicated if one spouse employs the other, rather than working in partnership. "If one is superior at work and the other is subordinate, that balance of power is likely to be repeated at home, where the relationship is supposed to be on equal terms," she says.

When a marriage is falling apart, no refuge from the rows and recriminations can be sought in the office. This was the experience of Jonathan Elliott, senior partner in a small legal firm, who met his wife Susie, a solicitor, after he interviewed her for a job. She joined the company; they got married. But three years later she announced that she had decided to leave him.

"By coincidence, the business took a sharp downturn the day that we got back from our honeymoon," says Mr Elliott. "It certainly added an extra layer of tension to the relationship, the fact that we both had to struggle professionally to keep things going.

"Day to day, there was a sort of over-involvement. We spent too much time together and become too involved in each other's lives. It took the freshness out of the relationship.

"We also found it difficult to draw the line between home and work. If you have an argument in the morning and then go in to work together, it can fester throughout the day and beyond. In separate jobs, after eight hours apart it is easier to see things from a different perspective."

Paul Jacobs, director of customer services at the recruitment consultancy Office Angels, believes that for a marriage to survive in such circumstances, ground rules must be laid down.

"In the office, you have to conduct yourselves like any other work partners," he says. "If you are having a problem in your relationship, you have to leave that behind at home, otherwise it will affect other people around you. At home, you have to avoid discussing work, or the relationship will become dull and one-dimensional."

There are, of course, advantages to working together. Mr Elliott says: "You don't have to bore each other with long explanations of what's going on at work; there is an instant rapport and understanding. You can get a second opinion from someone whom you trust and whose opinion you value."

Such spouses, too, are not obliged to affect interest in nightly anecdotes about each other's colleagues. And, of course, there is little probability of a partner conducting a clandestine affair at work - although, as Prof Cooper points out, the stress of working with your husband or wife may be enough to drive you into the arms of someone outside the office.

In the final analysis, it may be more healthy to lead separate professional lives that permit your relationship to retain an element of mystery. But not so separate that the two halves of the couple grow apart. Our own Foreign Secretary is an object lesson in that.