Brad Feld, legendary entrepreneur and author of Startup Life, discusses a key component of making love last: establishing trust by defining unforgivables.
“It’s inevitable that as a couple you will breach one another’s trust, especially since trust is subjective. For example, you can say you’ve been on time for 99 percent of your appointments, but if your partner doesn’t feel like you’re trustworthy, the 1 percent you are late for is all she sees. Rather than arguing about who is right or wrong, it’s much more powerful to understand what is actually going on. For example, does your being late conjure images of car crashes and catastrophe, not that you only had four more emails to get to Inbox zero? Concentrate on rebuilding trust when it’s breached and learning what is at the root cause of the feelings around trust and the breach, rather than reaching simply to the specific situation.” pg. 68, Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur
MeetMindful: Trust ranks as one of the most important components of a long-lasting, healthy relationship. In Startup Life, you note having failed in your first marital relationship because you hadn’t defined “the unforgivables.” Using what you’ve learned through that marriage and the toolset you’ve built alongside Amy, how have you re-calibrated the role of trust in relationships? How have you and Amy decided on what your unforgivables were? How can couples begin to rebuild trust once there has been a breach?
Brad: My first marriage failed for a variety of reasons. In retrospect, my job as a founder / CEO of a startup was a much higher priority to me than my marriage. This generated a huge amount of conflict and hurt feelings between me and my first wife. During this time, partly as a reaction to my priorities, she had an affair. This was devastating to me emotionally and something our relationship couldn’t recover from.
When Amy and I started our relationship, we agreed that infidelity was an unforgivable. We committed to each other that in no circumstance would we have a sexual relationship with another partner. By defining this as an unforgivable, we took this issue completely off the table.
Another unforgivable was any sort of physical abuse or violence toward the other. We were both aware of this in plenty of relationships and thought it was abhorrent. I have no doubt that if we actually got in a fight of any sort Amy would kick my ass, so this was an easy one to define as an unforgivable. But it set a clear tone that abuse of any sort was intolerable in our relationship.
A friend of Amy jokes that an unforgivable in her relationship would be any sort of religious conversion by her husband. They are both atheists and this would result in her being married to someone whose belief system radically changed from the person she thought she was married to. While said in a lighthearted way, it’s another example of establishing clear boundaries at the beginning of the relationship.
Ultimately, the unforgivable in our relationship that almost resulted in Amy deciding to end things was my inability to have my words and my actions match. I continuously told Amy she was my highest priority and the most important person in the world to me. But then I’d be late to dinner because “I had just one more thing to do.” Or I’d end up on the phone all weekend dealing with a work-related thing rather than spending time with her. Or she’d go to bed and I’d stay up doing “just a few more emails.”
For us, this reached a breaking point in 2000. At the time, we hadn’t defined the root cause of the problem as “my words not matching my actions,” but after I talked Amy off the ledge and we dug into what was fundamentally wrong, this concept surfaced.
So—we went to work on it. We talk extensively about what we did, and the tactics we’ve deployed, in Startup Life. As part of it, we committed to having our words match our actions in everything we did. Fifteen years later we’ve modified many aspects of our life to make sure that this happens every day.