Many Canadians have turned to home renovations to find space — both literally and metaphorically — after a year of working, learning, exercising and doing just about everything else from home. As we head into spring and summer, the most popular seasons for home improvement, it’s important for couples to set ground rules before breaking ground.
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While more living space, a dedicated home office or upgraded kitchen might ease the strain the pandemic has put on homes and families, the renovation process, which tests relationships at the best of times, could put more stress on partnerships already cracking under the weight of the past year.
Contractors and architects say the recent surge in renovation work has them fielding up to five times as many calls per day than they were pre-pandemic. And according to a recent Abacus Data survey, 44 per cent of Canadian households have done or are planning to do renovations this year. Most say they are doing the work so they can feel more relaxed in their homes.
At the same time, phones are also ringing at couples counselling and family law offices as more seek professional help to either preserve or dissolve their relationships.
“Couples are experiencing a whole variety of stresses — childcare, household management, personal challenges, strains in the relationship — and the temperature has gone up during the pandemic,” says New York City therapist Matt Lundquist. He believes that while the stresses of the pandemic may not be the cause of marriage problems, they are revealing cracks that were already there.
Relationship cracks on full display
Renovations can widen relationship cracks as couples find themselves navigating financial stresses, extended disruptions and making thousands of decisions — from how much they can afford to spend to lower a basement to selecting drawer pulls for new kitchen cabinets.
The process can amplify conflicting approaches to decision-making, unhealthy communication habits and latent tensions in relationships.
These strains are on display on Reddit’s r/relationship_advice where desperate users seek advice for resolving renovation conflicts with their partners.
From “I’m an INTP, he’s an ENTJ, we’re renovating and fighting so badly I fear our relationship will never recover” to “renovation taking way longer than expected, BF taking it personally when I try to speed the process along. We’re at a breaking point” and “renovation frustration with me (29f) and him (31m) — is this understandable or abuse?”
Gloria Apostolu, principal architect at Post Architecture in Toronto, pauses for a moment when asked how couples handle the demands of making so many decisions during a renovation. “Every client has their Achilles heel,” she says. “And it’s never where or what I expected.”
Different breaking points
Some of Apostolu’s clients can’t make sense of tiles. Others balk at the price of a front door or are overwhelmed by having to settle on a faucet type for the main-floor powder room all before the contractor even arrives to tear the place apart.
Making high-stakes decisions as a couple, Lundquist explains, requires advanced skills, such as weighing pros and cons, gauging the level of acceptable risk and being decisive under pressure, or “pulling the trigger” in contractor parlance. It also requires what he calls relationality — listening and curiosity, taking turns, empathy and working to understand your partner’s point of view, even if you don’t see its logic or agree with it.
“It tremendously taxes our skills not to react when our partner says something we disagree with, or isn’t what we expected,” says Lundquist. What really feeds a relationship, he adds, is trying to be curious about where your partner is coming from and resisting the temptation to shut them down or make a counter-argument before fully understanding their point of view.
On the other hand, he often encounters partners who, in trying to keep the peace, are not assertive enough about what they want, which can lead to lingering dissatisfaction and resentment.
The last thing a relationship needs, Lundquist jokes, is a big, expensive, fixed piece of resentment that a couple is forced to stare at as they sit next to each other on the couch every evening.
Honesty and a smooth renovation
Apostolou echoes the need for openness as a foundation for a smooth renovation.
She suggests devising a system at the start for resolving the inevitable conflicts that will arise. This could mean taking turns, or giving veto rights to the person who is most dedicated to that part of the home. For example, the person who does most of the cooking gets the final say on kitchen details.
She advises it is most important to work it all out in drawings before you get started. “Don’t rush the design process. You don’t want to be making decisions that are more costly than they would have been if they were planned out in advance.”
Apostolu’s no-surprises approach has garnered effusive five-star reviews from clients on home design and improvement website Houzz.
One is from Stephanie Nickson, a financial services consultant, and her partner David Raniga, who now runs his massage therapy practice in the light-filled basement of their recently renovated home in Toronto’s Wychwood neighbourhood.
Raniga jokes that the hardest part of the process was dealing with his wife’s inability to make decisions. But because they remained open to each other’s needs throughout the process and stuck with the vision and budget they set at the beginning, they say they actually miss the process now that it is over. And they are almost giddy with the result.
“I literally say I love this house every day. We were so lucky,” Nickson says.