“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” Notorious wit Oscar Wilde said that on his (poorly decorated) deathbed, but the quote applies to many home renovation projects.
A June 2023 survey by Angi.com indicated that nearly 84 percent of couples considered home improvement projects a good test of their relationship, made them appreciate and love their partner more, or helped them decide on the relationship’s trajectory. More than three-fourths said home projects sparked contention within their relationships, with major renovations being the top conflict-causer.
I’ve lived it: In 2014, my husband and I found a house that was sturdy and (relatively) affordable. Sure, the family room was lavender, and the teensy front yard didn’t lend itself to lawn games, but it was in good condition, with ample room for our family of three.
But two years later, I was heavily pregnant, so logically we decided to turn our 1920s-era cellar into a 700-square-foot playroom. Here’s a tip: Hormones and home renovations don’t mix. The expansion went off without a hitch, thanks to our contractor, Reading’s South Street Custom Builders. The devil (in this case, me — and maybe a little bit my husband) was in the details: paint colors, carpeting, furniture. I envisioned a playroom staged by Pottery Barn. My husband drew his inspiration from “Animal House.” We compromised: He got a more affordable drop ceiling; I picked out rugs from Pottery Barn Kids.
Want to keep the peace while upgrading your abode? Here are three relationship-saving tips from three interior designers:
Have a budget. Seems like a no-brainer, but couples often get carried away with creativity, with one poor sport becoming the finance police. ”Decide on your priorities,” said Isabel Stover, an interior designer in Newton. This is the framework from which all other decisions flow.
Meet with your renovation team together. Couples often elect one spokesperson, but it’s essential that both people feel like valued parts of the process.
“What I see often is that it’s just easier for one person to take over and do it. But people don’t realize that [being together] really helps when making decisions, even if one person is talking the majority of the time,” said Belmont-based interior designer Erin Whelan Pennock, who conveniently worked as a divorce attorney and mediator before launching her design business.
“One thing I [hear] a lot is: ‘[He or she] doesn’t need to be here. I’ll let them know.’ Most of the time, that person is coming back to say: ‘Wait a second! I didn’t want that,’” Pennock said. Even if your spouse’s fantasies of a billiard room don’t come true, it’s psychologically important to be heard.
Treat your project like a business. As a mediator and an interior designer, Pennock creates a Google document for clients outlining every pivotal decision. Each person can fill in opinions as needed, and the visual is centering — it helps everyone feel like a contributor. After creating the initial document, check in each time a new decision needs discussing.
“Within a renovation project, treat it like a small business: You’re trying to get a project accomplished. Checking in is going to prevent [misunderstandings]. That’s where I find the majority of conflict comes up in marriage: They just haven’t talked about it, and they assume,” she said.
Keep fixtures neutral. You might not feel neutral, but your fixtures should be: These are the sizable investments, such as faucets and window treatments, which are harder to replace if tastes change. Showcase your personality through décor, which is easier to swap and compromise on. ”People often think that, if you’re doing a room, you have to stick with only one aesthetic. But it’s OK to use décor to mix styles,” Pennock said.
Carve out compromise spaces. Walpole-based interior designer Courtney Ellen Kelleher encourages couples to pick a room for one person’s creativity to shine.
“One couple I worked with was very safe; another loved color. We did his office with charcoal-gray built-ins, but he had Boston Garden-orange seats. The office was really him. You can tailor certain rooms to certain people as long as it all flows,” Kelleher said.
Express yourself with a statement piece. This is how someone can flex a quirky muscle without commandeering an entire room: Kelleher is a fan of artwork, bar carts, or chairs.
“Pick and choose your battles,” she said.
Find a meaningful touchstone. Maybe it’s a painting of Italy, where you honeymooned, or wallpaper that recalls a favorite bistro. Ideally, a home renovation can bring couples closer.
“It’s a new space, new life, a new breath of fresh air. Your home holds memories. It’s important that both people are able to recognize themselves in their environment and to be validated in that way,” Stover said.
Even if your tastes are wildly divergent, pick at least one item that holds sentimental meaning, and find a prominent way to display it.
Just like in love, follow your heart. Pennock has seen couples tumble down social media rabbit holes when it comes to trends, against their better judgment.
“Do not try to go outside of your aesthetic just because it’s trendy. Sometimes people say: ‘I saw this Instagram picture … I want to be someone who loves bright-colored walls!’ But they’re just not. You paint it, and then they hate it. Being true to yourself is really important,” she said. (For what it’s worth: Pennock thinks farmhouse gray-washed wood could look dated very soon.)
Keep perspective. Even if your beloved won’t budge on a plaid sofa or a “man cave?”
“Remember: This is your favorite person in the world, no matter what anyone else thinks,” Stover said.
With a little compromise, your relationship will last longer than your wallpaper.