You and your wife decide to take the big leap, hire an architect, and build a new house. You’re already envisioning your first meal there and all the great family occasions and parties you’ll have. You’re most certainly not thinking about all the decisions large and small, from floorplan to door knobs and roof shingles, that you will have to make before the first shovel goes into the ground.
Indeed, the decision-making aspect of building a new home comes as a shock to most people. With every other purchase they have ever made, the product was already manufactured. The only decision to be made was which one they liked best. With a custom-built house, the opposite is true. You start with a clean slate and you decide everything.
In fact, for the first six months of a custom home-building project, that’s all you’ll be doing, but Washington, D.C., couples therapist Tybe Diamond says that many couples do not do this well.
The problem is not indecision; it’s how the couple makes decisions, Diamond said. With a project as big as a new house, each person will have strong feelings about the choices. There will be many disagreements, but many couples do not feel safe arguing with their partners. As Diamond put it, “They are afraid to be authentic and risk hurting their partner’s feelings or incurring their partner’s potentially negative judgments. But to resolve conflicts and work together for a solution, each partner needs to feel safe in airing their position, no matter what it is.”
Consider this scenario, Diamond said. Your wife’s favorite color is magenta, and that’s the color she wants for the living room walls. Every time she wears something with this color, you tell her she looks great. If you nix her paint choice you look like a hypocrite and she will be hurt.
But, if you feel safe, you can tell her straight off that your knee-jerk reaction is “no,” and know that together you can figure out why this might be so. If there’s a strong comfort zone, you can tease out an explanation that might be something like this: “I love magenta on you. When you wear it, I feel like there’s a lovely bright spot of color in my life. But when an entire room is lit up that way I know I will be overwhelmed.” With this degree of candor, most spouses could reach a compromise, Diamond said.
An “established safety zone” for disagreement is especially important when the house the couple wants to build is their first house. It will bring differing life experiences and core values to the surface in ways both partners may not expect. You’re not just building a new house, you’re creating your first “home,” and this will resonate very differently for each partner, Diamond said. Your knee-jerk negative to “elegant in-town living” is not necessarily intransigence. Your resistance might be “in your bones” because you grew up in a very informal household with a “comfortable” lifestyle. Its lived-in look included non-matching living room sets, a hand-me-down dining room table, and a liberal sprinkling of toys, books, baseball mitts and the morning paper. To reach an agreement on what kind of house will work for you two, you need to be able to say, “I’m not sure why I don’t want this,” without your wife characterizing your position as “stupid, silly and wrong for these 50 reasons.”
An “established safety zone” also allows each partner to feel comfortable in saying that certain items are not negotiable. There’s no place to meet in the middle, “just like there’s no one-and-a-half children,” Diamond said. You may want a skylight in the kitchen because you think the soft, indirect light that it casts is the perfect way to start your day. You feel so strongly about this that no skylight means you’ll resent the kitchen every day that you live in the house. An honest discussion allows you to admit you’re not being rational here. It also allows your wife the same privilege and your acquiescence on the big, fancy bathtub with the whirlpool jets that you know she’ll only use three times.
Sometimes the difficulty in making decisions for a new house stems from a difference in perception, Diamond said. You might be focused on the price tag while your spouse is fixated on the look. She insists on paying hundreds of extra dollars just to get a refrigerator that lines up with the counters. A less expensive model cools just as well and holds just as much food, but it projects 6 inches into the kitchen space. You think this distinction is ridiculous — it feels like spending more to get less food in a swanky restaurant. A frank discussion could explain her thinking. For example, it might be that with her frantic and demanding professional life, she wants a sense of order at home, and the crisp, clean look of a kitchen with the higher-priced refrigerator helps to produce it.
New-home decision making can be skewed when one of the spouses is an artist or an architect. The professional expects deference. “She can give 100 reasons for why you should want a particular tile, and what’s more, she has expertise!” Diamond said. But you may have some artistic training and opinions and want to have some say in the choices to be made. With a safe zone, not only can you tell her that, you can also remind her that you are building a home together, not a competition entry.
Diamond said that couples can also get into trouble when they make decisions by “looking at the label and not the contents.” With a new house project, this can play out in how a couple picks an architect.
With the frantic pace of modern life, everyone is in a time crunch, and it’s easy to be swayed by credentials and not use common sense. A couple can decide that an architect looks good simply because he’s a graduate of the best architecture school in the United States and he did so and so’s house. But Diamond said the couple would be doing themselves a great favor if they canned these assumptions and asked so and so what he/she thought about the star architect after the job was finished. The couple might discover that so and so found his personality grating. This is an important consideration in residential work because you will be working very closely with the architect for 18 months or longer, discussing your personal values and making decisions about how you will live. So and so might complain that the star architect’s original design went over the budget by 30 percent. You also have to remember, Diamond said, that what worked really well for so and so might not work for you. You should rely on your own judgment, meet the architect, look at several finished projects, talk to other owners who have worked with this person and then make your own informed decision.
An aspect of decision making that is specific to building a new house can derail some couples, Diamond said. The enormity of the unknowns can be overwhelming — you are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars before you’ll see the end result. If this is causing high anxiety and sleepless nights, her advice is to recognize your limitations, buy a house that is already built, and channel your home-building inclinations into a kitchen remodel.
Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.