The biggest fight I ever saw my parents have was when my mom threw out my dad’s beloved brown leather recliner. It was torn and worn and, well, brown, and she was an interior designer who just couldn’t take it anymore. My dad was livid, but my mom knew he would never agree to part with the chair unless she torched it or clandestinely paid someone to haul it away, so she did what she had to do.
For better or worse, her shady tactics have rubbed off on me. Like many couples, I struggle to compromise when it comes to design, mainly because my husband’s style can best be described as brown, wood, and leather (with a dash of hoarder), which clashes with my need for light, bright, and uncluttered. When I heard Love It Or List It designer Hilary Farr question why a guy on the show loved the dark brown wood aesthetic so much, I felt her exasperation deep in my core. I immediately turned to my husband and told him that if we buy a house, we are hiring a designer to save our marriage. He complains about the price of $14 cocktails and $1.50 avocados, but he didn’t protest this potential splurge.
“I often see territorial battles,” says Manhattan-based therapist Jean Fitzpatrick, who has counseled couples not just about their deep-seated marriage issues, but also about their design clashes. “People refuse to accept that they and their partner are different.”
When those differences manifest in the shape of a microsuede recliner imprinted with a giant Dallas Cowboys star, a fuchsia loveseat, or a metal owl “sculpture” that would scare small children and discerning adults, it’s tough to look the other way.
New York–based luxury interior designer Charlie Ferrer says he often feels like a mediator and psychologist when he’s working with clients. A typical example was when a wife was “drinking the Kool-Aid” and agreeing with Ferrer’s sophisticated choices, but the husband, who had been hands-off, suddenly stepped in with strong opinions about seating. “He got obsessive and obstructionist,” Ferrer says.
Instead of battling the husband, Ferrer helped the couple come together by agreeing to work with a chair that was “between appalling and OK,” and then re-covering the back in leather and alpaca until it looked like a $10K chair. “It was a triumph,” Ferrer says.
Texas-based interior designer Veronica Solomon says she’s also part designer, part therapist, and she knows better than to let one partner steer the ship. “I pull them both in from the beginning,” she says.
Talking to other couples about their design clashes made me feel a little better about my own battles with my husband’s taste (although I did make him ditch that scary metal owl). Whether you struggle with your partner’s collection of 43 potted plants or their predilection for macramé, even the most harmonious couples can come to psychological blows when it comes to design.
Natalie Gutierrez, a Northern California–based chef and mom of three, calls her husband’s style “Game of Thrones-esque,” complete with brooding art and Día de los Muertos skulls from the Yucatan. “It’s not like I’m a design snob,” she says. “I’m not looking for someone with Axel Einar Hjorth chairs or Basquiat paintings, but it’s an uphill battle.”
Sean Podvent, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, says that his fiancé’s Himalayan salt lamp has caused some rifts in their otherwise smooth relationship. “It’s pink and hideous and it gets salt everywhere,” Podvent says. “The only redeeming quality is that it’s my backup if we run out of salt.” His form of “compromise” was to hide the lamp in the corner of their downtown loft. “I’m hoping she’ll forget about it,” he says.
There are obviously healthier ways to handle these clashes than hiding, trashing, or flat-out vetoing things one partner despises, tempting as those options may be.
Angie Wilson, an Indianapolis-based interior designer whose company is actually called Interior Design Therapy, says, “Interior design is very psychological. My job is to get to the root of things and play therapist.” She sits couples down “like a therapy session,” complete with a questionnaire that helps her discover their similarities, instead of focusing on their differences.
Agreeing on a budget and a time frame is key, but so is sitting down and looking through magazines or Pinterest to find out what you have in common, so you don’t wind up murdering each other over some throw pillows or a lamp choice.
“Like anything in relationships, compromise is possible,” Ferrer says. “But the designer always knows best.”
Avoid put-downs: Don’t call your partner’s style “hoarder-esque” or “slobby.” It won’t lead to a productive discussion.
Don’t expect miracles: Your partner might not transform dramatically. Accept baby steps.
Share the experience: Tempting as it is to just take over, sit down, and find images that you both like, create a Pinterest board of shared looks, and allow both sides to have a say (also not easy).
Rotate: If there’s a painting or object that one person adores and the other hates, try rotating it seasonally, or putting it out (or away) on a trial basis. Who knows, maybe they’ll forget about it.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest