It was their dream home: a three-bedroom row house in downtown Philadelphia, close to work and all the conveniences of city living. It needed a lot of work, but Jessica and Rob Frye were still in their 20s, engaged to be married and believed they had the time, initiative and patience to rip up some carpet and tear down some wallpaper.
But as anyone who has ever remodeled a 100-year-old home could have predicted, the job involved a lot more than fresh paint and some crown molding. “You move a wall and there’s a pipe there you weren’t planning on or you pull up a floor and there’s a hole you weren’t planning on,” Jessica recalls. “We pulled ceilings down and found newspaper insulation. Our beams have bark on them. I mean it’s just a disaster. But it’s funny.”
Funny? Yes, Jessica still regards this project, now almost three years in the process, as something amusing. Her attitude is what has helped keep her and Rob’s relationship strong even through the incredible stress of a renovation project.
“Patience is key,” Jessica says. “It’s so easy to get frustrated over the mess and the money, but going through it with your partner and best friend makes it worth doing-and fun. We just take it day-by-day, nail-by-nail, and at the end of project, we sit back and reflect on what we do have. It may not be walls or a new bathroom or a living room couch just yet, but we have each other.”
Relationship experts say the Fryes have learned one of the most essential ways to keep their relationship strong while their home is in demolition mode: Keep a good attitude and keep communicating. Here are some other tips.
Just the Two of You
If this is a do-it-yourself project, be realistic about what exactly must be done, how much time it will take and how much skill and patience you actually have to complete it. “It’s easy to tear it apart,” Jessica says. “A monkey can do that. It’s trying to figure out how to put it back together that’s the challenge.”
Break down your project, from the first throw of the sledgehammer to the last bit of touch-up painting. Then decide what each of you is good at-such as one paints, the other cuts molding–and what projects will need two sets of hands, such as hanging drywall. “A division of labor is very, very important,” says Petalyn Swart Albert, a San Mateo, Calif., life coach who counsels couples going through renovations and new home construction. “Giving complete sovereignty to each other in those particular areas will really negate a lot of questioning and undermining and finger pointing and latent resentment.”
Working side by side, as during any do-it-yourself project, will teach you a lot about each other as a couple, says Albert, who with her husband has built four homes and remodeled four others. When a pipe bursts, you’ll learn which of you is better in a crisis situation. When you’re bleary-eyed from combing through seemingly thousands of wallpaper patterns, you’ll learn the beauty of compromise. Albert started her counseling business because of the stress her own remodel put on her marriage. In the end, the experience strengthened her relationship, but there were some contentious moments. “It really is a voluntary crisis that you’re about to enter into,” she says. “It can be fun and it can actually deepen your intimacy. You’re making it work for one another as well as yourself. It’s really a beautiful process if it’s done in the right way.”
Another way to help the process move smoothly is accepting your limitations. Some projects you can complete entirely on your own; others, such as moving load-bearing walls, require some professional assistance. Don’t hesitate to call in the experts when necessary; this can help save you from extra cost–and extra fighting–down the road.
Call in Help If Needed
If you decide to hire a contractor, or any professional assistance, credentials and references are important but so is personality. For example, if a contractor comes highly recommended but treats women as if they don’t know a hammer from a screwdriver, keep looking. Animosity in the contractor relationship will spill over into the marriage. “Hire people with integrity and hire people you like because you’re going to be with them for a long time,” says Albert.
In many ways, hiring a contractor is like bringing a third person into your marriage. Treat this relationship with care. Figure out who will be in charge of day-to-day communication. Also, talk about what decisions can be made unilaterally, and which ones should be made together. “When making changes to the initial budget or to the initial plans, it’s a really good idea to have both members of the marriage sitting down with the contractor and discussing why this is the case,” says Laura Meyer, author of Remodel This: A Woman’s Guide to Planning and Surviving the Madness of a Home Renovation. “That minimizes the risk that blame will be thrown around when the bills come rolling in.”
“Remodeling from a monetary standpoint is almost like a snapshot of the entire marriage,” says Meyer. “If tempers flared before over the woman’s shopping habits or how much he tends to spend on cars, the couple will likely have differences on how much to spend on the remodel as well.” Consider discussing this issue with the assistance of a third party, such as your accountant, who can give you an honest assessment of how much you can afford to spend.
Beyond tapestries and paint colors, couples should talk about how they want their homes to feel—serene, sophisticated, warm, romantic—and then base their design choices off these values, says Albert. Talk also not just about how these rooms will look, but how they’ll be used. Albert had a client whose house was always filled with her children’s raucous activity. She wanted a room that would be off-limits to the kids, and so suggested a serene and calm décor for the living room. Her spouse, however, saw the living room as entertainment central—despite the cozy feel of the room. This caused friction. But Albert eventually got them both to realize that they both craved a quiet place in the house, and they found a way to incorporate that space into the final design.
Disagreements over paint colors and wall art are inevitable. In some cases, divvying up design decisions is the best way to go. Maybe you have fallen in love with an idea for the bedroom, and your partner is dreaming about a home theater in the family room. Give each other the autonomy to create individualized spaces.
Compromise can be a solution, Meyer says, but don’t overdo it. “I have seen couples that ended up not liking anything because everything was a compromise,” she says.
Expect the Unexpected
A contractor’s initial estimate—and the one you and your partner came up before the project stated—is based on everything going completely according to plan. The thing is, everything rarely goes according to plan. So prepare for the “oh no’s,” Meyer says, financially, mentally and time-wise. “The budget starts spiraling out of control, and that puts a lot of stress on each party in the marriage,” Meyer says.
Try to stay optimistic and upbeat. But when frustration hits, it’s better to head for the ice cream in the freezer than give in to your urge to point fingers at your spouse. And just remember that eventually, it will all be finished and you’ll have the space you’ve always dreamed of.
Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac