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Relationship Meltdown in Ikea

“Why do couples fight in Ikea?” friends asked us. They had made a long-planned store visit on the weekend and almost every couple they encountered, including themselves, were stressed, tense and exchanging angry words. What starts out as a highly anticipated, romantic outing too often degenerates into a ‘I should have stayed in bed’ day.

We can relate all too well. There have been many soured Ikea outings in our history too. So much so, we now think really carefully about whether we should both go or just one of us!

Ikea’s value proposition is a quick, affordable, self-service solution: choose your item, pay for it, and take it home. Presto! New look home in one afternoon. Sounds like a great relationship building activity for couples, right?

If only that were so! The problem begins with the first step of the process – choosing what you want is a lot easier if there’s only one opinion to accommodate. And though it’s not overly expensive furniture, it’s not usually a trivial purchase either, especially if you’re on a tight budget as are most young couples. Warring couples tend to hold on to their point of view a little more enthusiastically when significant sums are at stake.

Add to that the pressure of a noisy, overcrowded store and the frustration of an understaffed service desk and it’s a recipe for relationship meltdown.

But it’s more than just the Ikea environment that makes couples so argument-prone… after all, couples can be found in stubborn standoffs in any furniture store. It took us almost ten years to agree on a dining room table. We kid you not – ten years! By the time we finally made the purchase, we had moved house and birthed three more babies. There’s just something about furniture shopping that brings out the inner psycho in us. Here’s our take on what’s going on.

Furniture choice and home decorating have high symbolic status – a simple bookcase to one person might mean longed for order and tidiness, while for another it’s an opportunity to show off treasured possessions. One may seek to establish a quiet retreat with books neatly stowed, while the other is thinking about how the bookcase will transform the room into a lively entertainment space. It’s still just a bookcase but the solutions that it offers are many.

Couples are almost never aware of their own underlying agendas when they set out to buy a bookcase. Their communication thus tends to be fuzzy and can quickly become defensive as they try to argue their muddied view about what they should buy.

Unless they are able to articulate the values beneath their choice – eg. order and peace for one, and social connection through entertainment for the other – they will likely get stuck arguing about which bookcase to purchase. Once installed, that bookcase will be a visual reminder of how the argument played out; a symbol of victory or a source of irritation.

The key for couples is to connect on their values. It’s a lot easier to find the right solution when you know what you are each solving for. By articulating your values, you clarify for your spouse what is really important. Maybe it doesn’t matter after all what the colour or style is as long as it functions to create order and peace. Or maybe, there’s a better room to use for the purposes of a retreat and the living room gets optimised for entertainment. You get the idea: when you think about the values rather than the specific details or features of a choice, you can almost always find a solution that meets both of your needs.

It’s a triple win: you win, your spouse wins, and your relationship wins.

Our home is our shared space as a couple. Setting up home and growing a family are joint projects that have the potential to bond us and build powerfully enriching memories. Buying a piece of furniture is therefore not a trivial decision. The choices we make express our coupleness – when made well, they’ll nurture our inner life as individuals and as a couple. When made poorly, they can have long lasting negative impact.

Of course, if the couple survives the Ikea store experience with their relationship still intact, they have yet to face the real challenge: how to get all the stuff they bought into the car AND assembled without triggering a nuclear meltdown!

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