Marriage Tips for Renovators

For whatever reason -- perhaps something happening on another blog -- we've had a lot of people remark to us lately that renovation is hard on relationships. I don't find this to be the case. Renovation is hard, yes, but so are many other things in life. Renovation has not been particularly hard on us. So how do we make all this look so easy? Here's our formula:

Be a team

If you're going to work on a renovation project together, you need to work together. I know it sounds hokey, but you need to present a united face to contractors: sit down and work out your conflicts separately. Discussing is OK, as long as it stays amicable and cooperative. But keep it short and keep it helpful. Nobody is served by you arguing things out on somebody else's time, and you weaken your position with contractors when you aren't in agreement.

The other important aspect of being a team is dividing the job up into areas of responsibility. Ideally, you'd be able to give each person only what they're really interested in, and somehow all the work would end up done and everybody would have a great time. In the real world, you each end up with tasks you love and tasks you are not so fond of. In our house, Noel does all the electrical work, while I do plaster work. We help each other out, like fishing cables or helping with sanding, but there's one person who is in charge, while the other person is an assistant.

Not only does this teamwork help us do the research we need for the project, it keeps us from bickering over the right way to do things: when we're talking about electrical work, Noel is always in charge; when we're doing plaster work, I'm the boss. We didn't come up with this method of handling responsibility immediately; it evolved organically from the way we worked together at the beginning, and then when we realized what we were doing, we just formalized it.

I generally don't recommend that couples have one person be the only authority and the main worker. Not only does it lead to a lot of resentment on both sides ("You're always bossing me around!" and "You don't help with any of this work!"), but it's exhausting. Share the load.

Know where you're going

A lot of bickering during renovations is about having differing ideas of the goals for the project. If you want a quick-and-dirty rewired outlet in the home office to keep the computer from burning the house down (cough), both of you should know and agree to that, so that when the job is sloppy it doesn't turn into a bone of contention.

Teams have a hard time staying in synch and working together if they're not headed in the same direction, so take the time to make sure you both understand and agree on what you want, where you are going, and why you are doing it. When something is a temporary solution, know whether you have a more permanent solution in the works or whether that's still in planning.

99 percent of working together well is having a good plan. If you're having trouble getting along in the middle of a project, it's time to go back and make sure the planning is really as done as you thought it was. Stop working, cool off, and then sit down and talk it out before you go anywhere near that sledgehammer again.

Thank each other for a hard day's work

At the end of a day of work, nothing feels better than being told by your partner that they appreciate your work. Even if the other person has barely done any work at all, when you finish a work session, thank each other, clean up together, make sure you've both had aspirin and water, and appreciate how much harder things would have been without each other. Sometimes what seems like a minimal amount of help is really the critical part of keeping a project moving forward.

And while we're at it: look out for each other. When you take a bathroom break and get a drink of water, bring back a cup of water for the one who keeps on working. When you're ready for a break, call a time-out and both take a rest. Sometimes it's tempting to play the martyr and keep working, or to let the other person fend for themselves, but you aren't going to get more work done when one of you is injured.

Order take-out when you're exhausted

After a long day of back-breaking labour, the last thing anybody wants to do is have to get dinner together. When you've worked hard and are tired, cut yourself some slack, cut your partner some slack, and just order out. Sometimes we're so tired after a day of work that the most we can manage is to open a bottle of wine and wait for the pizza guy to arrive. If housekeeping falls by the wayside during a really complicated project, just chill out. Martha Stewart has a staff. You can't do everything, and focusing on tiny details of unimportant things is counterproductive.

Similarly, if you're working on a project and it's just all bickering and anger, STOP WORKING. Clear up your work, clean yourself up, and take a rest. You're not going to do good or careful work when you're angry, and you might hurt yourself or each other. There's plenty of time in the world.

Don't blame each other for mistakes

Things go wrong. All the time. One of you is moving a ladder and breaks a lamp into a trillion pieces. Another one is installing an outlet and cuts the holes in the drywall too large for the outlet cover. Those are ordinary human mistakes, and yelling at each other about them, or even blaming each other for them, just builds up resentment. When something goes wrong, just figure out how to fix it or otherwise make it right. In construction, almost everything can be repaired, and when it can't it's just stuff.

In the middle of the foundation fiasco, I left Noel a note in his underpants drawer (where I leave all my romantic notes) telling him that even if we lost the house and everything we owned, we still had each other. Everything else is really just stuff. Now, I didn't want to lose the house, and in fact I was pretty angry about how we got in the position where that was a distinct possibility, but writing it out made a big difference to me. When things go wrong, the first thing to take care of is not the house, but your relationship.

Pick your battles

There's a great old axiom in the writing world: There are three kinds of editorial changes to a story: the kind that maker it better, the kind that don't matter, and the kind that make it worse. If you spend your time arguing about the first two, you might not win the battle over the last one. So choose what to argue about: if you're going to fight about something, it has to be something that really matters. Don't fight over paint colours or window box plantings.

That, in a nutshell, is how we have managed to work on this house for four years without killing each other, and with only the occasional argument about stupid things. It's why sometimes projects take a lot longer than it seems like they ought to take. But it's also why we have a great time when we work on this stuff.

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posted by ayse on 11/29/06


Short-time reader, first time poster. :)

I was shown your blog by a mutual friend, David Mostardi. First, I want to say that this is an excellent blog. Good detail, great writing, etc. Reading the saga involving the foundation contractor was, it just boggles. I caught myself with my mouth agape on more than one occasion.

My real comment is this: I couldn't agree more with everything you just said. There are lots of external things that can adversely affect a relationship, things out of our control; a project that the two of you have planned shouldn't be one of those things. A couple of thoughts that sprang to mind while reading this: 1) Apologize, even if you don't think it's your fault. 2) Forgive without being asked to do so.

Oh. And I have NEVER finished a project within the time frame I allotted myself. I suspect its a law of nature, some universal maxim that, if broken, will cause untold collateral damage and the warping of our world as we know it.

I know what you mean about finishing a project on time. I just about fell over when I finished painting the stairs on schedule this summer.

Apologizing and forgiving are important, too. Thanks for bringing that up. It's funny how writing this post made me analyze our marriage in terms of project team building and how to make a functioning working group. Some of this stuff works best when you don't have to do it consciously, and I think apologizing and forgiving are that way; if you hold grudges you will eventually drop them.

Great post! So much of it is dead-on. Like you said, in the end IT'S JUST A HOUSE. Tempers flare when you're living in a dust pile, working 10 hours straight on some backbreaking project and feeling overwhelmed by the task ahead. I've found that every few months we have to stop and shift our priorities back to where they should be. Healthy relationships & personal happiness should always come before a finished project!

My tips...
- When you have had a great DIY day and you have accomplished more than you thought you would...resist the temptation to do one more thing, you are only asking for a mistake to happen :-)

- When your having a bad DIY day and nothing is going right, pack everything up and come back to it some other's not worth the frustration.

Great tips - right on the money! We fight a lot about our renovation and during projects, so I will keep these tips in mind!

I wish you well, Kristin. This work is hard enough without adding conflict to the mix.

I agree, but I'd also add:

Have a sense of humor! There's a LOT of stresses involved with renovating. If you can laugh at some of the bumps along the way I think it will really help.

Take Breaks!Particulary with a big project, you can work ALL the time. Take breaks, have dates, do things together besides work on the house.

Communicate- basic marriage requirement, but step back and talk about where you are headed and what the other thinks the goals are. When there's a big project, it's easy for each person to think of different "priorities" (ie. I want molding up, and my partner wants to clean his shop). It could be very frustrating if you just assume the other is going to do something, and also "dictating" tasks are not fun for either party. Stepping back on Friday night and discussing what you think is important to accomplish over the weekend, and other things that might be on the agenda is good.

We started working on the house together before getting engaged, planned a wedding, and have been married for a little over a year--so far, so good!

Have been reading your blog for a while. Came across it when we started doing stuff to our house. Fellow Alamedan here :) I often wonder if my boyfriend and I will make it through doing the house. We have our spats, often, but you give me hope! Oh, and we defintely have the take out thing down, we favor Juanita's and Acapulco.

Hi, Tish! We Alamedan renovators stick together! The official pizza delivery place for our block is Alameda Pizza.

We've slowly devolved into just ordering things that can be delivered. By now the pizza guys are used to us answering the door in our bathrobes. I just wish the taquerias in town would deliver. (Have you tried Otaez, on Webster? The size of their burritos is unreal.)

Note: We're getting pummeled with spam comments, so I've turned off the ability to use any HTML or include any links for the time being. Email with any issues.

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