There’s nothing like a building project to conjure up a couple’s emotional issues, and no matter how stable your relationship may be, undertaking the unparalleled stress of a self build can throw everything into chaos. You need to have a solid foundation built on communication, and a bucket load of trust in one another, if you’re serious about tackling a renovation — let alone something as big as a self build.
According to a 2013 survey conducted by home design site Houzz, 46% of couples undertaking remodelling projects found the experience frustrating, and 12% of couples admitted that they considered separation or divorce during the project. Speaking to life coaches, designers and architects who have witnessed the arguments (and break-ups) of couples first-hand, we explain how to take on the challenge of a building project without it costing you your relationship.
Plan Ahead — Don’t Rush
One of the common reasons behind on-site arguments between couples is due to being overwhelmed with the level of work. Most often this will be down to poor planning. Part of the early planning process is knowing what you both want from the outset, and sticking to it. “You have to be creative and have fun with it — look on Pinterest, create moodboards and discuss these together, and eventually you should find common themes to build on,” says Laura Longville, therapist, life coach and co-author of Break Ground Without Breaking Up.
Understandably this is an exciting journey, but not one to be taken lightly, and rushing to start work without considering everything properly is likely to lead to problems down the line. “Prepare and learn ahead of time,” encourages Laura. “Equip your project with a strong team and acquire a skill set to think like a contractor. Learn their jargon and about their culture — it can provide you with a greater level of insight and will help you interact with tradespeople.”
Talking through your project in detail with your architect and analysing the design from the outset can help eliminate stress too, as award-winning architect Alastair MacIntryre of McInnes Gardner points out: “The advent of 3D modelling has taken quite a bit of the risk out of the process, as both partners have an equal understanding of the likely outcome. They have the chance to analyse and discuss potential changes before the project is underway and consequences of change become too great.”
Have a Financial Plan
Possibly the most sensitive subject surrounding a building project, you need to have a clear understanding of not only your joint income, but your own finances and what you are willing and able to contribute to the build. Finance is the biggest cause of arguments between couples and it is important to be honest with each other about what you have to spend on the build, as well as what you both deem acceptable to spend on finishing touches. Discuss from the outset and be willing to compromise.
“With money at the centre of all building projects, couples who don’t have a detailed budget prior to starting their project usually end up fighting about money. Many times this demolishes the foundation of the project and destroys the relationship,” explains Sandy Berendes, interior designer and co-author of Break Ground Without Breaking Up.
“If the topic of money causes strife in your marriage and you decide to add the stress of building or remodelling, you may be creating a blueprint for disaster. A good starting point however is by getting three bids for your building project. It is important to get as much detail on the costs as possible upfront. This will help reduce the amount of surprises or unexpected costs that come up.”
Once you have a definite budget in place, plan to have at least a 20% contingency fund to allow for extras, in the event of something unexpected going wrong. “By having a 20% cushion to be used in emergencies really can help make a difference,” says Laura Longville. “Put this contingency in a separate account if possible and don’t think about or plan to use it. It’s there for an emergency or unexpected costs. Most of the time the costs are more than what the couple is willing to spend, so then they have to pare down — you need to be sensible with your finances.”
Sandy Berendes takes up the story: “You need to be honest. There have been cases of what we call financial infidelity where the wife has asked the designer or contractor to do something and pays in cash, and then has them write a separate invoice to show the husband so he doesn’t know how much she spent.”
Test the Boundaries
Building a house is going to test your relationship to its limits and not knowing how you will both cope is a worry in itself. Therapists across the pond in the US have taken to using a trip to IKEA as a ‘communications test’ following several couples admitting to fighting in the global furniture store — the idea being that if a couple can’t even build a piece of flat-pack furniture together, then they shouldn’t build something as big as a house.
Testing out how you manage simple building tasks won’t be as effective on simple flat-pack pieces such as a coffee table, but taking on larger items can be a recipe for disaster. Dr. Durvasula, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, has even labelled IKEA’s enormous Liatorp media unit ‘The Divorcemaker’. The bigger the project, typically the greater the challenge for the relationship.
Before embarking on your self build, life coach Laura Longville also encourages couples to take a look at their attitudes towards the project. “There might be a case where you need to change your attitude. Do you have a ‘can-do’ attitude? If not, try to find one,” she says. “Challenges will always be out there and your attitude and thoughts are the key holders to the stress you experience.”
Appoint a Decision Maker
“The ideal situation is to have most of the decisions settled ahead of time,” says Laura Longville. “When it’s not possible to do this, each partner may have an area of expertise where they are more comfortable in making decisions.”
In the event of handling decisions that cannot be addressed prior to the build, or if there are any disagreements during the project, then from the outset there should be a mutual understanding that one of you will take on the role of lead decision maker. If one of you is less interested in the project and is happy to let the other take charge, or cannot commit wholly to the build due to work commitments, then the role of lead decision maker will naturally fall to the other. If one of you is a keen DIYer and has knowledge or experience of tackling building jobs, liaising with trades, etc., then it is clear this person is best placed to take charge.
A self build will carry with it all manner of tasks, from the early stages of hiring contractors and laying foundations to the construction, first and second fix, and the final stages of decorating — and you will both need to be clear who will be responsible for the different stages and the management of works. This is also important as the people you’re hiring will need to know who to answer to and liaise with.
Start by knowing what you are most comfortable dealing with and what you will be confident in managing — if you feel anxious about overseeing certain elements then this could result in stress and sleepless nights. For some couples it may make sense to divide the practical jobs from the creative. This is seen as the more traditional route.
“Clichéd as it may be, women take a more thorough interest in the practical functioning of the house and its internal appearance — few men take a stand on this,” says Alastair MacIntyre. “In balance, men, particularly with evermore sophisticated smart home systems, energy and servicing technology and material choices, take more of an interest in these aspects.”
Should you both be willing to play an equal part in the management of the build process however, without stepping on any toes, it can be sensible to review the tasks to be carried out at each stage and divide these equally, taking into account your other commitments such as work, family life, etc.
There’s a likelihood that you are not going to agree on everything. From the design to the construction and the finishing of the house, you will need to discuss your wishes, thoughts, ideas and opinions before breaking ground.
It’s often thought that the architect/designer takes on the role of marriage councillor during the early stages of a self build, when both parties have ideas of what they want, and which can both be very different. You also need to discuss how each of you will go about using spaces within the house and finding a happy medium. Something as trivial as the placement of a kitchen island could wind up in a battle of wits. “In my experience, one partner has a stronger ‘mind’s eye’ of the final building,” explains Alastair MacIntyre.
Discussing your attitudes towards money will also be a difficult but necessary discussion, particularly if one of you earns significantly more than the other. How do you remain equal partners when one of you cannot financially match the other? For the person investing more money, you don’t want to make your partner feel inferior, neither do you want to assume power as a result and leave your partner out of the decision-making process. This will only lead to resentment.
Finally, you both need an equal desire to do the project in the first place. Remember that it is a shared venture and if you’re both going to live there, then you both need to be on board from the outset.
Take a Breather From Your Self Build
It sounds obvious, but with all the stress of a building project, it is easy to forget to make time for your relationship. Life gets put on hold and without realising you could find yourself isolating your partner in a bid to get the walls skimmed, missing dinner dates due to a leaky pipe, or even worse forgetting an anniversary as you’re too busy being stuck in ‘house mode’.
“Conflicts often arise with couples because they are totally consumed with the project. They don’t have a life away from the tasks at hand. To prevent disagreements or overload it’s as simple as taking a break. Take a break away from the day-to-day stress of your build or remodel,” explains Laura Longville. “Regroup together as a couple. Spend time doing hobbies or activities together. Do nothing. If you’re like most couples doing a self build, your life is consumed with your project. Remember that it’s OK to take a breather.”
Find time in the week to dedicate your attention to your partner – either a couple of hours at the end of a day, or you may choose to take Sundays ‘off’ – where discussions about the house are off-limits and instead you focus on each other.
Ask for Help
Nobody ever said this would be easy. There will be times during the project when you will simply not be able to carry all of the weight and you are going to need to rely on others. This is particularly the case if you have children, and you might need to call on family members to help with babysitting and even assistance with daily chores such as the cleaning and ironing which have fallen by the wayside if you’re having to spend more time than you’d like on site.
“Asking for help from your friends and family can go a long way to reducing stress,” explains Laura Longville. “This could help you get the work done faster and enable you to have fun. Get professional help too. Hire someone to complete a part of the project you don’t want to do or don’t feel qualified to do.”
Keep your Focus
When the going gets tough remember why you wanted to build with your partner in the first place — you want to share this experience with them and end up with a house that is individual to you, that you both can share and make memories in. Make sure you also refer back to your original plans to check that in all the chaos of the construction process you are still going to end up with the house you originally both envisioned and haven’t gone off track. Good luck!