Four years ago, when my partner and I bought our first condo, we decided not to spoil our new space with the old, worn-out Ikea futon we had in our rental apartment. We were both happy to leave the couch on the curbside when we moved, but it was a full four years before we agreed on the style and budget for the replacement. He likes Danish-made, authentic mid-century-modern furniture, whereas I like affordable.
We didn’t actively search the whole time; no relationship needs that kind of aggravation. In fact, in most of our sofa-free days (during which we still had chairs – in case it looks like we spent years lolling haplessly on the floor), we were similar to the 15 per cent of Americans who avoid visiting furniture stores with their other half because they know that they’re more likely to come home frustrated with each other than toting new decor.
If the above finding – which is from a recent survey conducted by Vancouver-based online furniture retailer Article, done in partnership with market-research company OnePoll – suggests a certain weak-kneed evasiveness, consider the alternative. According to the same study, differences in aesthetic tastes, furniture choices and the furniture-buying process at large cause, on average, 72 fights a year within couples. That’s more than one breakdown a week, and doesn’t even include the inevitable spats if Allen-key assembly is required.
The explanation for the unease might be simple. “I’m by no means Dr. Phil,” says Aamir Baig, Article’s chief executive. “But in a world where we are all pressed for time, there is inevitably going to be a lot of stress when it comes to the time-consuming process of driving to, then wandering around, a massive furniture store. Then there are the parallel stresses of not knowing if a piece will work when you get it home, not to mention any differences of opinion in the look or how much to spend.”
But is there a better way to navigate the nesting process? Canadian actor Yannick Bisson, star of CBC-TV’s Murdoch Mysteries, and writer and novelist Shantelle Bisson think so. They’ve been a couple since they were both 18, and in the ensuing three decades have moved approximately 30 times (Yannick used to do contracting work between acting jobs). As such, they have outfitted every kind of accommodation, from “basement apartments with waterbeds and futon couches,” Yannick says, to elegant custom homes in Toronto, Los Angeles and the Kawarthas.
In certain ways, the two have completely opposite approaches. “Shantelle likes to get it over and done with,” Yannick says. “Whereas I don’t like to rush into things. I like to do things to plan, and buy one piece at a time. I’m happy to wait until we find the perfect item. Being in entertainment has not been easy. So the thought of putting five bucks in the wrong direction drives me nuts. There’s some push and pull there.”
“Yannick can live comfortably with his space not complete,” Shantelle says. “Whereas I can’t. I don’t know why. It just makes me uneasy. Plus, I have a lot going on. I’m managing four properties right now. We have three daughters. We have two dogs that both need medication twice a day. And I’m a writer. I can’t think about going to look for that chair for the 95th time.”
Their trick to withstanding the rigours of refurbishing spaces over and over, according to Yannick, is collaboration. “I know her strengths. She knows mine. She’s great at sourcing things. I’m really good at planning a whole space – knowing what fits, how everything will come together.”
To them, compromise is common. “I like really minimalistic couches,” Yannick says. “Things that bruise your sit bones,” Shantelle adds. Their concession for their Toronto house was a more overstuffed, but still clean-lined, option.
Open communication is also essential. Each is quick to say if they’ve made a mistake (as with some ill-fitting light fixtures for their place in L.A. that Shantelle bought while Yannick was busy on set), or if the other person has an idea worth pursuing. “And we’re always talking to each other about design,” Shantelle says. “One thing we do around shopping is that we always have mood boards going. He and I are constantly sending each other, in our DMs, space photos, home photos, layouts, textures – anything that jumps out at us.”
That level of comfort has required work beyond settling on aesthetic preferences. “It goes deeper than furniture,” Shantelle says. “We’ve spent a lot of years in therapy. And when you put that time and energy into a relationship, it rolls into everything else. Because you learn the art of communicating. I’m not saying we’re perfect. We’ve gotten into swearing matches. And the person who puts their feet in the ground the longest often wins. But ultimately we trust each other.”
According to Sue Johnson, a psychologist and bestselling author of Hold Me Tight, a guide for better communication between couples, the Bissons might have exactly the right approach by turning their spats over sofas into a chance to collaborate. “What a disagreement about anything, whether it’s furniture or not, does in a good relationship is that it creates an opportunity for sharing, listening and coming together. If fact, in can be fun – because you’ll learn something about each other and have a chance to problem-solve.”
When a fight about fixtures really gets out of hand, though, it might have nothing to do with taste or budget. Instead, Johnson suggests there is likely a deeper issue. “It’s not the furniture,” she says. “It’s that the person might not feel safe or connected or that they matter. It’s hard to do anything together, including looking for sofas, if you feel that the other person is simply going to wound you. It’s the same kind of threat as standing on a nail.” In that case, it might be better to exit the IKEA and sign up for some couple’s counselling.
For my partner and me, the issue of the sofa became more pressing last summer. We bought a second property, so suddenly had more space than our collection of chairs could fill. My partner still wanted something mid-century modern, and I still wanted something affordable. But we found a compromise: We shopped outside of overpriced Toronto, where we live, and bought a 1960 teak original for much less money – even after transporting it from Montreal. I’ll admit to bickering about whether or not it was worth the six-hour drive; but the argument is small compared to how nice it is to finally sit side-by-side after all these years.