Relationship with cofounder failing? Ways to improve it from your side (with 8 practical approaches)
Updated: Jun 9
How can I focus on my duties if my co-founder is constantly annoying me?
Productivity, synergy, creativity? Forget it! How can I do it when he kills my motivation with his way of being?
Founders are trying to ignore the feelings and push themselves to work despite the mood. But that is like postponing an escalating problem. A broken relationship will scare away potential investors and demotivate the team.
There is a better way.
You can improve the relationship. In this essay, I will show you how to do it from the personal side. In the next, I will focus on inter-personal aspects.
What are the signs the relationship is in danger?
Some of the symptoms that the relationship between the co-founders is not going well:
You get irritated because of how the other acts, talks, sometimes even about how the other IS or breathes;
You misunderstand each other often;
You feel more like bickering than collaborating;
You find it hard to confront the other; instead, you are passively aggressive or lashing out.
Who is responsible for the relationship problems?
When you look at who's responsible for what's happening with your life, there can be 3 options - others, you, both. Next question - who's responsible for taking care of your life - others, you, both.
Let's adopt the stance that you are responsible for what's happening in your life. And only you are responsible for taking care of your life because
Changing yourself is in your control while changing others is not;
Most things that you don't like about your life are the symptoms of your personal challenges. To resolve those, you need to change yourself. (It is one of the core tenets at .Cocoon).
How your psyche is causing relationships problems?
Inner causes of relationship problems come from splits in the Self. In the past, you have split off, disowned and repressed certain parts of your Self.
These repressed parts are often called the shadow. There can be other inner reasons, but I will look at the shadow formation and impact in this essay.
Internalisation and shame form the shadow (Gershen Kaufman, PhD "Shame, the power of caring").
How internalisation makes you misunderstand other people
You identify with other humans and then take in as a part of yourself how the other person behaves. That is internalisation. The primary role models for identification are parents and other early childhood caretakers. Identification can also happen at later periods of life.
The way of being of the other person starts to live inside you. You begin to act, speak and even think like the identification model. First, you are aware of the internalised image. With time it sinks deep in the subconscious, and you are not anymore mindful of it.
All good if the model person was benevolent towards you. Yet if it was hostile, blaming, shaming, perfectionist - then this is what you have internalised. This has become part of our Self. Then you get an internal voice that is hostile, shaming, blaming. It is at war with other parts of your Self.
At times of intense distress, this voice becomes unbearable. Then you apply an unconscious solution - to project this voice onto other people. You (unconsciously) persuade yourself that the other person is malicious. While in fact, it's your own internalised hostility mirrored back. The other says, "maybe grey", you hear him yelling, "definitely black".
How shame alters your perception
A small boy gets hurt and starts to cry, to which his father reacts by yelling, "stop acting like a needy girl, boys don't cry".
When you encounter shame with a specific experience, it becomes linked with shame. For the boy, this creates a link between sadness and shame - to be sad is to be ashamed of. So, in future, situations that involve sadness will trigger shame. Which, in turn, will trigger defences to guard against the shame.
The human experiences that can become clotted with shame are emotions, drives and needs.
Emotions and shame
The example about the boy shows how emotion can become clotted with shame. If you are not comfortable showing certain emotions, this could be your case. How free do you feel to express to other people your emotions?
Positive: Excitement, Joy;
Negative: Distress (sadness), Fear, Anger, Dissmell, Disgust.
Drives and shame
The sexual drive can be a source of shame due to upbringing and past experiences. How is it related to founders' relationships? Your expectations towards handling sexual impulses can impact the relationship. Even more in the case of underdeveloped gender identity. How is your sexual life? Are you free and confident?
Needs and shame
Some of the human needs that can be bound with shame, according to Kaufman, are
The need for a real relationship. If a parent ignored or treated you like a thing in childhood, the need for a relationship can become a source of shame for you. When a relationship is becoming closer, that will trigger shame and defences.
The need to identify with close role models. Example. Your mother despised your father. It affected your ability to identify with the father. And linked the need to identify with shame.
The need to differentiate, to grow into an independent, life-smart and unique individual. Suppose your parents blamed you for not following their dreams. Or for wanting to have an independent life. This inhibits your individuation. And people with strong, unique identities can trigger your shame and defences.
The need to nurture others. In the movie "Alice through the looking glass", Hatter makes and gives a present to his father. The father looks at it with ridicule and throws it in the bin. Such events bind the need to nurture with shame.
The need to be valued as you are. Example - parents punish an extrovert girl for being too loud and expressive. This makes such a girl shy and ashamed of being outgoing. In her adult years, she gets triggered when others are expressive around her.
How inner voice and shame impact your relationships with others
The situations mentioned above involve painful neglect. Also, violation of boundaries or unmet needs. The earlier in the childhood those happen, the more they remain unprocessed. Then they become enveloped in a layer of shame and repressed.
The emotion of shame protects from feeling the pain of the actual event. But the shame also is unbearable for most people. You repress those expressions also not to feel the shame attached to them.
When something triggers you to feel or express those repressed parts, you start to feel shame. Then you immediately use defence to avoid feeling the pain.
All you had hidden and repressed is still present, yet not acknowledged and accepted by the Self. Those parts seek their way out through projections and mirrors.
The parts of the Self that are hostile to you, you project onto others. E.g., you can project a shaming mother or an aggressive father's image on your co-founder. Then an innocent phrase by the other can trigger defences of immense intensity in you.
The aspects of the Self which you have linked with shame are hidden from your conscious. But they do not disappear. You notice them reflected in others, and that triggers your defences. If you perceive something in your co-founder and get defensive, you face a mirror of your shadow.
How defences give clues that it's about us
Defences are the evidence that it's not about the other but ourselves. You learn your defences from your primary caregivers. So study your parents and other early role models to get to know your defences.
Those could be
irritation or even rage (attack to defend),
domination and control (create a setup where others can't attack),
perfectionism (hoping to erase all potential reasons for getting shamed),
blaming and shaming the other (transfer of inherent shame),
weakling or martyr stance mentally and/or physically (look how miserable I am, don't make my life even worse),
and the list goes on.
Timewise, the transfer of blame is used as a reaction after a shaming event. The other defences are used to prevent potential future events. This small detail can be helpful when reflecting on your defences used.
Could your cofounder be a mirror for you?
Your co-founder is serving you as a messenger about parts of your Self that you have neglected for a long time. You can start to feel grateful for him/her mirroring you some truths about yourself.
The main takeaway - if your relationship does not feel good now, it is not a doomed mission. There is a hope of reconciliation and improvement if you can see how deeper personal forces are at play.
When you know this about yourself, you can also accept that the other could be struggling with similar challenges. And that you are a mirror for the other's painful and shameful parts of the Self.
8 approaches to working on yourself
Now it should be clear why I started with proposing a full responsibility stance. Only you can work for the change to accept yourself. No one else can do it for you.
Step out of the victim mindset into taking full responsibility for your life. Start by reading this article about the victim triangle concept.
With total honesty and courage, work on regular Mirror exercise. We are organising workshops to explain the Mirror exercise. (I plan to write a separate essay about it, which I will link then here, once published).
Seek a close relationship with one or a few people who can support you by being a benevolent role model. This will help you to internalise a new, positive way of being. And provide a healthy perspective on your life challenges. Seek someone who has recapitulated his own life and done shadow work to some extent. One can guide you as far as he has gone himself. A business advisor can guide you in business matters. A self-discovery mentor who walks the talk - in discovering more truth about yourself.
Become more aware of your defences and when they get triggered. Ask others to point out to you when you become defensive. Reflect and journal when you observe defences, ask - what triggered them, what pain is behind them.
Get to know and communicate with the parts of your Self which you are not yet familiar with. Three suitable methods are active imagination, dream analysis and journaling. Read the book Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth" by Dr Robert Johnson.
Practice in building a stronger affirming inner voice. The tone and content of self-talk are essential. To say "I'm good and happy" when you don't feel so might not be the solution. But to consciously acknowledge and appreciate your effort is a good practice. Practical: every day, write 3 things that you are grateful to yourself and give yourself praise regarding your previous day's effort.
Unite opposites to integrate the shadow. It is the journey from "this OR that" to "this AND that". For that, draw and colour mandorlas. Mandorla is not a mistype, it is different from mandala, as this illustration shows.
8. Face pain. Behind the shame, once you can access it without defences, lies pain. Be ready to face it. In childhood, it was unbearable. Now you can let it out and live through it. Feel whatever comes and cry. Scream. Cry. To do it is good - it is the very healing you seek. To do it in the presence of someone you trust is even better.
"Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy". Some misinterpret this verse from Psalm 126 as advocating suffering. But it is about healing through facing what's been hidden for long.
Pain can be inevitable, but suffering is a choice. Choose wholeness, you are capable of that!
P.S. Impact on finding your purpose as an entrepreneur
If you have repressed a great deal of yourself, you will find it harder to feel what your heart desires. Including what is your purpose as a human and an entrepreneur. Thus shadow work also frees you to connect with your heart and with your purpose.
Read more on purpose for entrepreneurs in this essay.
Author: Farhad Niyoz
Farhad is the CEO of .Cocoon that supports founders' self-discovery for personal and business growth through mentoring and investing.
When there is a challenge at the business level – we support our clients
1. To find the link between the business challenge and their personalities and personal challenges;
2. And to bring forth personal changes that, as a result, create changes in the business.
If you are a founder or a business leader with a challenge - let's talk! Within the 30 minute call, we can help you see the bigger picture of your challenge and tell you more about .Cocoon Program.
Join the insiders!
Get notified about new advice and opportunities for founders. Join our newsletter: