How to Stay Married While Renovating

We joke it’s called “divorce dust” for a reason. (Okay, really I joke and Andy just rolls his eyes.)

But no two ways about it, renovations are stressful. Especially when you’re living in the house through them. Especially with kids and pets and sudden homeschooling. Especially when you do much of the work yourselves.

Especially when there’s a pandemic and it becomes likely that your house will look like this for an extended period of time:

It’s enough to test any marriage. But fortunately (?), we’ve been through this gong show before. And along the way we’ve managed not only to stave off divorce and not actually kill one another, but also to, possibly, emerge even stronger than before.

Is it always easy? Hell no. There are days … !! But we have found a few things that help, and I’m sharing them below in case they may be of assistance to you, too:

  • Be a team. If you’re doing this together, do it together. That means agreeing, at the outset, on your goals for the project. Develop the mindset that it’s the two of you against the house — so if the house decides to have old wiring or nasty plumbing or drafty windows, don’t blame each other. Instead, blame the house and figure out how you’re going to work together to solve the problem.
  • Divide and conquer. Once you’ve agreed on what you want to accomplish, you may decide up front that you’ll each tackle certain aspects of the project. In our house, Andy manages the majority of the “build” aspects of the reno, while the design decisions fall primarily to me. Of course there is overlap, but for the most part, the key is this:
  • Stay in your own lane. If you each have your own role, eventually you’ll have to bite your tongue and trust your partner to deliver on his/her job. Asking for a status update is totally okay. Second-guessing every little decision is not. Play to your strengths and trust your partner will play to theirs … because while no one likes to be micromanaged, somehow it feels even less awesome coming from your spouse.
  • Realize that sometimes your partner literally just doesn’t care. This one took me FOREVER to figure out. I’d have next-to-final kitchen, bathroom and millwork plans, lighting layouts, tile selections, paint chips, light fixtures, drapery, you name it, and be bugging Andy for his opinion. He kept saying he didn’t care, which it turns out was code for he literally didn’t care. I just couldn’t get my head around it, until he finally turned to me totally exasperated and asked if I cared where the I-beam went in the ceiling. Umm, no. Provided the beam wasn’t visible, didn’t cost more than expected, and didn’t fall on my head, I really, truly didn’t care. He then pointed out he was busy doing his part, and trusted me to do the rest. Even though I couldn’t understand it (hello! We were going to live with these finishes for a long time), he really didn’t care. Lightbulb moment.
  • However, know that sometimes you partner will care, just about things you didn’t expect. One exception to the above: it turned out my hubby really did care about our kitchen hardware. This was a detail I didn’t expect, and in one home we used makeshift handles made from painters tape for months until I found hardware he liked. It blew the budget, but it was gorgeous and I know it was a detail he appreciated every day. I’m not sure exactly what the lesson was here, other than this: expect that you will each occasionally do things that don’t make sense and/or make one another crazy. Attempt to accommodate each other anyway.
  • Communicate. If you’re balancing your reno, your day job, your family and your life, it can be hard to carve out time for a prolonged conversation about … anything, really. On the reno front, three things in particular absolutely merit a heads-up to your other half: 1) if your partner is making a decision (design or otherwise) you really can’t live with; 2) if you are making a major purchase, perhaps over an agreed-upon dollar amount; or 3) if the timelines, scope or budget of something you’re working on have significantly shifted. In all these cases, it’s better to tell your partner you hate the thing / bought the thing / have extended the reno timeline by six months now, rather than waiting for the perfect moment to breed that particular brand of resentment. And also …
  • Recognize when it’s the frustration talking. Sometimes the two of you will not be nice to each other. And unless your partner is genuinely not a nice person (in which case, maybe don’t reno with them), try not to take stress-induced frustration personally. This can be hard — but hopefully if you cut them some slack, they’ll do the same for you. Or at least repent with flowers and ice cream.
  • Start with a sanctuary. One of the best things we’ve done when renovating has been creating a sanctuary to escape to at the end of the day. Having a master bedroom that’s clean and tidy, with fresh sheets, lamplight and a bit of luxury (think flowers or a scented candle) makes a world of difference when the rest of the house is half demolished and covered in dust. The ability to close the door and just breathe in a fresh, clean space does wonders for your state of mind and cannot be overstated. Plus, it’s slightly more romantic to not have chunks of drywall dangling over your bed. Just sayin’.
  • Give each other a break. Yes, you are allowed to have a life outside of all this. Send your hubby off to hockey. Go for drinks with the girls. Plan a date night together and resolve to NOT talk about the house. Time together and apart is important, and you’ll both need it. Give and take what you need without resentment.

And there you have it … the completely unofficial guide to not getting divorced while renovating. A belated disclaimer: we are SO not perfect, nor do we have it all figured out. What we HAVE done is survived countless projects over 15 years of marriage, and we’re still married and still project-ing.

That’s good for something, right??!?!

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