On Partnership

What is a partner?

We use the word "partner" in a variety of contexts. We have business partners, life partners, sexual partners, creative partners, etc. We often refer to our spouses as our partners, which is where we get the term "life partner." I suspect that the healthiest marriages are those in which the couple consider each other to be partners. Sometimes these different kinds of partners overlap. Obviously one's life partner is going to be one's sexual partner, but it is not uncommon for one's life partner or spouse to be one's business partner as well.

Since this is a consulting blog, let's concentrate on business and creative partners.

The word "partner" comes from the Middle English parcener, meaning "joint heir." That is, the partners inherit things together. That may be a literal inheritance of property or money, the inheritance of offspring, or the inheritance of a co-created work or business. ME parcener is in turn derived from from Old French parçonier, which means "partner, associate; joint owner; joint heir." When you own things in common, you are partners. The word "own" is derived from the Old English āgen ‘owned, possessed,’ past participle of āgan ‘owe’; Old English āgnian ‘possess,’ also ‘make one's own’. So the concept of ownership needs to be understood as being related to what one owes. Ownership implies debt. Co-owners are, thus, co-debtors. They are indebted to each other because they each possess what the other possesses. Coincidentally, the word "ought" comes from the Old English āhte, which is the past tense of āgan ‘owe'. Thus, debt, morals, and possession are intimately related to each other.

A partner, then, is someone so completely involved in each others' lives that they are in debt to each other; they are joint possessors. In relationships, that means, among other things, that they possess each other. In business or create endeavors, that means the partners share possession of what they created. And they behave morally toward each other. Without this equal debt to each other, without equal ownership, there is no partnership. Those partnerships that fall apart reflect inequalities within that partnership -- they reflect the unequal ownership of what was created. In other words, if you want to create and maintain a healthy partnership, you have to make sure that you are equally invested.