Lisa Bahar, MA, LMFT, LPCC

Build Together, Stay Together: Advice for Couples in the Homebuilding Process

Building a new home is an exciting journey. But, with so many decisions to make and transitions to navigate, it’s possible for disagreements between you and your spouse or partner to occur.

Here’s how you can work together to build the home of your dreams — without the drama.

Clarify Your Plans

Marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar of Dana Point, Calif., encourages couples to start “with a ‘reality check’ conversation regarding the actual process of what is about to occur.”

Getting real about the challenges is part of the conversation — building the dream is another. Being honest about what each of you desires in your home is essential. “If you know you want eastern light shining through your kitchen window and the sun setting over your patio, speak up,” says relationship therapist Gemma Utting of Aukland, New Zealand.

“Talk to your partner up front about the things that matter most to you about this new home,” she says. “Be very clear about what must be there so that when you walk into that gorgeous new building for your first night, you see that the things you absolutely wanted are all there, just as you envisioned.”

Speaking your own wishes clearly must be matched by your curiosity about your partner’s hopes. “Some folks are less able to figure out what they want, but you can be sure they’ll be grumpy if they don’t get it, whatever it is,” says Utting.

In creating a shared vision, psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina (aka “Dr. Romance”), author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, advises couples to work as design partners.

“Share magazine or Internet pictures of ideas, color schemes, furniture and fixtures and discuss what you like before making big decisions,” says Tessina.

“For the things that will be difficult or very expensive to change later on, list your needs and wants about the finish, look, material, size, etc. Make one or two visits together to suppliers in advance just to look at the options and the prices, without the pressure of making a decision. Then take samples home to talk about them. Don’t hesitate to use experts in design or building to help you with your choices.”

Laugh A Little

John Wilder, a marriage and relationship coach as well as a former contractor and National Kitchen & Bath Association -trained kitchen designer in Jacksonville, Fla., suggests that during times of stress, homebuilding couples watch the 1986 comedy The Money Pit together. Even though remodeling and building new are different, what they have in common is the constant demand for joint decision-making with outcomes that hit closest to home, literally. The movie is also a potent reminder of how harmful unresolved conflict can be to a relationship.

Wilder encourages couples to take breaks from the process and have “home-free” dates, during which they consciously refrain from discussing construction. He also encourages couples to keep the project further in check by agreeing to discuss decisions and opinions related to the process at a couple of set times during the week. This prevents the project from occupying the entirety of the relationship.

Speaking your own wishes clearly must be matched by your curiosity about your partner’s hopes. Psychologist Suzanne Burger of Pound Ridge, N.Y., has worked with couples struggling with shared projects and notes that “keeping a sense of humor is key.” The author of Steering Your Marriage: A Guide to Navigating the Road Together, Burger suggests that humor is the best antidote for stress.

“Couples working on major ongoing collaboration often lose sight of what is most important to them,” Burger says. “They are so quick to defend their own position that they don’t maintain curiosity and interest in the partner’s point of view. They lock horns. If they are especially stressed, they may become resentful and shift to a blaming stance.”

Keep Communication Flowing

Sharon M. Rivkin, a therapist and conflict resolution expert, is the author of Breaking the Argument Cycle: How to Stop Fighting Without Therapy and focuses on the importance of compromise and communication. She acknowledges that home construction projects challenge the foundation of a marriage and says that “the more mature a person is, the more able they are to ‘get out of themselves’ and effectively communicate with their partner, which means really listening to and respecting their spouse’s view.

“Home construction projects require constant communication between you and your partner, your workers, your contractor and Realtor,” says Rivkin. “If you can’t communicate effectively, problems will occur. Good communication takes practice and includes speaking clearly and succinctly, listening, using ‘I’ statements, having patience, and, more important, the safety to state your opinion without blame or shame or the need to be right.”

Why is it so hard to compromise? It’s rare that we all feel exactly the same way about the same thing, so the art of compromise includes being aware of what’s truly important to you and your partner and honoring his or her ideas, beliefs and passions, as well as your own.

If Things Get Bad

Are the discussions increasingly ramping up? In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to think clearly. Casandra “Coach Cass” Roache tells her clients to agree on a code word in advance, so that if conflict is intense, either person can call a temporary truce, cool off and then come back to the conversation.

James Genovese, a counselor in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., likes to borrow a technique from the business world called a “SWOT analysis” to manage the unique stressors of building a new home.

SWOT stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.” By reviewing where they stand in each category, the couple gains perspective and can better handle their homebuilding conflicts. Once they’ve completed the SWOT, the couple can work on minimizing their weaknesses, maximizing their opportunities and avoiding threats, while relying on their strengths.

Not every couple has the time or energy to integrate new relational skills during the homebuilding process. For them, using a simple, single concept helps establish peace. By communicating effectively and establishing expectations beforehand, the homebuilding process can be the dream you’ve always imagined it to be.