Til Death…or Remodel…Do Us Part

I went to three wonderful weddings this year. All were joyous occasions filled with expressions of love and vows to be as one. Newly married couples look forward to the excitement that lies ahead and pledge to support one another when the rainy days of life come along. But there are few times in a couples’ life when the bonds of matrimony are challenged more than during a home renovation.

I’ve been doing residential interior design for many years and have ridden with couples as they’ve gone to places in a marriage that the minister or rabbi never mentioned. It might not be out of the question to add “through kitchen renovation and second story addition” to the traditional matrimonial vows of “in sickness and in health”. Unlike my single clients, who make decisions with total autonomy, the “couple” is a totally different decision making dynamic duo.

The decision to renovate is like getting engaged. A commitment has been made to take those daydreams and wish lists and make them a reality and everyone is abuzz with excitement. The busy work of assembling the team begins in earnest. Plans are drawn and there is a vision in sight. Then comes the “big day”, when bulldozers and sledgehammers show up and getting “cold feet” is not an option. This is where the honeymoon can end rather abruptly.

Throughout the course of most marriages there are divisions of chores, household matters and social commitments that are handled without involving the other spouse. When large, joint decisions are made it’s usually after much thought and reflection. But anyone that has ever done a home remodel or renovation knows that decisions have to be made quickly and decisively to keep things rolling along. These are big, expensive decisions that can easily turn into big, expensive mistakes. With thousands of options to choose from, it’s an enormous task to edit down to something that will make both parties happy. Ironically, having to make these joint decisions together usually highlights the places where a couple has their biggest differences. Issues with money, stress, frustration and differing personal tastes seem to float to the surface when your home is ripped apart and covered in drywall dust.

I marvel that anyone would undertake a renovation without professional assistance, as I have yet to find a couple that agrees on everything 100% of the time.
Some days my role as an interior designer takes a back seat to being a marriage counselor or referee. I find that I become a much needed sounding board when frustrations or differences of opinion reach their peak. I’m also used to put forth ideas and deliver news that might be met with resistance coming from one spouse to the other.
Typically, the spouse that handles the day to day interactions tends to be the one that feels the weight a little more. This spouse is usually the one that approves design selections, knows the work crew’s schedule and figures out ways of problem solving – usually without having to involve their mate. More times than not it’s the wife at the helm, but occasionally it’s the husband. By nature, most women are great multi-taskers, able to be coordinate many spinning plates at once. They are also better at visualizing how all the pieces will come together. Men seem to think in a more liner fashion. This makes them great at keeping scheduling and budgets on track, but they do seem to become vapor when fabric samples and paint swatches need decisions. I’ve seen both husbands and wives get overwhelmed by the process and take it out on the other.

Years ago, I had newlywed clients that called me to help them renovate a 10,000 square foot historic home they had just purchased. Their first home was small and manageable and they may have been a tad bit naïve about what was involved in this new undertaking. The husband traveled frequently and was out of the loop on many of our design meetings. He would kiss his wife as he left for a business trip saying, “Do whatever you like. I’m sure I’ll like it”. As we were knee deep in the project I got a tearful call from the wife. She was overwhelmed with frustration that her husband, who had seemingly abdicated his input, now had an opinion on everything. He was second-guessing the decisions she had been making and the couple went into full communication breakdown.

Another couple, who had been married for many years, agreed it was finally time to build their dream house. They found a beautiful horse farm that they immediately agreed was the right spot. They had agreed on what types of spaces they wanted in the home, including an art studio for her and a library for him. But when it came to the overall style of the house there could not have been two more polar visions of a dream home. He had grown up in an old country farmhouse and wanted to recreate the memory of his childhood home. She loved to travel and was enamored with the architecture of Italy and France. Since there was only one house, someone was going to have to draw the short straw, and unfortunately, it was the wife. I’ll never forget the day the builder deemed the project “finished”. So too, it seemed, was the marriage. The house was truly beautiful, but all the wife could see was resentment. I remember standing in the driveway as she told me she didn’t even want to move in to the house with him!

Even though I do this for a living, my husband and I were not immune from the maladies of home renovation. We undertook a whole house overhaul that included adding an addition that doubled the size of the house. From roof shingles to door hinges, the old house was left unrecognizable. We made the biggest mistake (which I now tell clients to avoid) and decided to live in the house during the renovation. The stress of living on a construction site is sheer misery. Picking up carelessly tossed cigarette butts and lunch wrappers left strewn on the lawn, made me crazy after putting in a long day at work. If I had a dollar for every time the builder promised he’d be there, but never posted, I could have paid for two additions. And that dust! I can honestly say that I was a total witch while my house was turned inside out. My poor husband bore the brunt of my rants when the builder failed to show up, which was frequently. I endured his endless second-guessing of my decisions and had to constantly remind him that people actually pay for my expertise. And the cost overruns – forget about it. Thank goodness my husband still doesn’t know how much anything costs. We know a master bedroom and bathroom addition would make things complete, but every time we start to entertain the notion we remind ourselves that we’re not quite ready yet.

Fortunately, all of these stories had happy endings. While a home renovation might seem like a deal breaker, it may just be an opportunity to renovate what isn’t working in a marriage. It can force couples to look at their differences and design a plan for change. They can decide what needs to go into the relationship dumpster and what is precious enough to bring back inside.

Time and time again, I am amazed at how the physical home is the arena where life’s lessons are presented to us and problems can be solved.
We can learn so much about ourselves by reflecting on the space that houses the life we build there. Whether it’s an update or total gut job of the physical or metaphorical “home”, it is always up to us whether or not we will live happily ever after.

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