House renovations are often cited as being one of the most stressful activities couples voluntarily jump into. There are hundreds of decisions, big and small, general and specific, that need to be made jointly, all before you run into decision fatigue. By applying the tactics we developed during the biggest strains on our marriage, buying a car and house, our mid-COVID kitchen remodel was a much better experience than it could have been. Here are my tips for saving your relationship during a remodel, and making decisions together swiftly and painlessly.
1. Rid yourself of romantic notions
The other person does NOT know what you’re thinking. No, they should not have just known or anticipated something. Communicate. Put time aside to work together, side by side and establish what you want, what your opinion of something is, and use tools to help you communicate what you’re thinking. Write these things down, so there’s a reference, should you forget and want to check, and a record, to avoid sentences that start with “no, you said…”, or “no, we agreed…”.
(Further watching: Alain de Botton rightfully and hilariously debunks the ridiculousness of romanticism in several of his videos and talks. Here’s a 5, 20 and 60 minute version.)
2. Use tools to communicate, visualise and get data
- Floor plans: I found floorplanner.com to be the simplest digital floor planning and 3D rendering software. But first, you’ll need measurements.
- Measuring instruments
- Tape measure. As an Aussie in America, my metric and imperial tape measure came in handy
- Digital laser measure, for quick and accurate measurements (with no arguments). According to reviews, Bosh and a few other brands make the best, but TackLife brand’s one is much cheaper and is good enough for home use. Note that if yours comes with cheap batteries, swap them out for good quality ones, as poor battery output will reduce accuracy.
- Yard stick, or meter ruler. Often much easier to use than the above two. Many times we sat this on the floor to measure one length, then used a tape measure to measure to it. The usefulness of this surprised us.
- Combination square. Tighten the screw to set the slider. This made measuring drawer and shelf heights and clearance requirements extremely easy. A must in any woodworker’s tool shelf anyway, and also useful as a dependable metal ruler. Again, you can find these in metric, imperial, or both.
- Pencils, coloured pens, eraser, ruler, paper, and maybe some oversized paper if you have it, all laid out on your desk. Make it easy to try different layouts, hear out your partner, and be heard yourself.
- Record storage – store all digital records in easily accessible shared folders and files. E.g. Google Drive, Drop Box, One Drive. And don’t forget to use an intuitive folder structure and naming system so anyone can easily find the right file.
3. Structure your compromises
Not just with your partner, but when choosing yourself what’s available in the market, or buying at your budget. This was something we learned with the car and house purchases. We mentally noted, or wrote down all the features we did and didn’t want. Categorise each variable as “essential”, “nice to have”, “do not need/irrelevant”, “do not want” and “dealbreaker” to streamline the research and choosing process. This allowed us to expand (and voice to the other person) our list of ‘nice-to-have’ variables while accepting we probably won’t get them all.
4. Document and spreadsheet data
- List all the decisions you have made, and all the decisions you need to make.
- Use comparison tables for features when comparing models. (See above)
- Spreadsheet your anticipated costs, including those that are estimates, and those that are solid quotes.
- Remember to make everything easily navigable and intelligible to someone else reading this. This includes your future, forgetful self.
5. Delegate responsibilities
I’m in charge of choosing the power outlets and designing the under-cabinet lighting. I, however, can trust my other half to choose good-looking, durable flooring, at our price point, which as an aesthetically-challenged person, I don’t really care about the look of. In the case of flooring, the designer also got involved, so it wasn’t my partner working alone. Of course I get some updates so I can voice objections if I have them, and get a final say, but I don’t waste anyone’s time during the process. We haven’t divided up many things, but the few that we did have been wonderfully, consciously stress-reducing.
6. Get an expert to help with the hard decisions
Similar to the above, being able to save time on research and get an expert opinion on 101 big and little things was a life-saver. Our designer was particularly good at visualising WHY we should make certain decisions, using both digital drawings and pen and paper. Her visualisation tools have resulted in me realising how wrong I was and admitting so on multiple occasions. I’m sure she also occasionally plays the part of a marriage counsellor.
In a conversation with our builder (general contractor) about the precise spacing of our new downlights down to the inch, he explained that drawings for these things are subject to the locations of our ceiling beams anyway. With that reality in mind, I let go of the notion of precisely even spacing, I was able to justify this by the fact that I don’t think anyone will notice if the spacing is off by an inch or two anyway.
I was initially against getting a designer, yet ours paid for herself with both what she knew and how she reduced both our stress levels. This extended to the installation phase, when there were issues, and she could apply pressure to suppliers on our behalf. One compromise that helped was instead of going for one of her package deals, we said that we could choose some items alone (e.g. faucets) and did not need, nor want to pay for her services for those. We ended up halving her usual package.
7. Help out your partner
Surprise them by doing the audit of everything you need to fit in the new kitchen, or drafting a new layout. Or do your own research on something, lay out a comparison table for them which they can use to make a decision or use as a tool to add to. Consider it a gift in their love language, akin to doing the dishes when it was their turn.
8. If all else fails
Conversation getting heated? Walk away for a day, or a week, and come back to the decision you’ve been unable to come to a consensus on.
Under no circumstances should you ever utter the phrase “but honey, I can’t agree with you, because we’re both be wrong!”
If you learn nothing else from this article, I’ll leave you with this one factoid, in the form of a story. Recently, I tasked my loving spouse with going down to the electric switch board while I was doing electrical work. We stayed on the phone so we didn’t have to yell “IS IT OFF NOW?!”, at which point I was asked “hey honey, what’s the word for when you accidentally kill your spouse. It’s not patricide, because that’s killing one’s father…”. A quick Wikipedia search later and now we have the pleasure of knowing it is called “Mariticide“, after the Latin word “maritus”, meaning “husband”. The term is gender-neutral in Common Law, but officially the female version is “uxoricide“.
So here’s essential advice if all else has failed and things are getting heated – take a break.
- Accept the unromantic reality that your partner cannot read your mind, just as you cannot read theirs.
- Use tools to ease acquisition and visualisation of information.
- Use structured spreadsheets, structured variable lists from “essential” through “nice” to “deal breaker”.
- Document information effectively, and intuitively, for them, other contractors, your current self and forgetful future self.
- Delegate. Divide and conquer.
- Get expert help. You may have to pay for this.
- Help your partner. Go above and beyond expectations.
- Take a break if needed.
This was very specific to our personalities and neurotypes. If you have your own advice or questions, please let me know.
David Frank is an Australian marketer, writer and public speaker based in Seattle, USA. He has been married for 7 years, and happy for 6 of them. (The most recent 6.) David co-founded and is a frequent contributor to goodbadmarketing.com, grows a lot of his own food (Instagram: SeattleFoodGardener), and gives talks on all things marketing (thedavidfrank.com/talks).