What a Fight Over Hanging a Picture Taught Me About True Harmony in Marriage

My husband and I aren’t like the couples on HGTV.
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My husband and I aren’t like the couples on HGTV.

The biggest fight in the early days of my marriage was memorable. It was months after we said “I do.” I felt that blinding, tongue-pushed-to-your-teeth rage that comes from the most extreme frustration. It was an anger I hadn’t felt in years.

But the feelings themselves weren’t what made that conflict stand out. It was that we were fighting over where to hang a picture. That’s right, home decorating caused our dissension.

It was the first time I had felt that way in more than fifteen years, and it was certainly the first time I had felt anger of this sort toward my husband. We simply couldn’t agree where to hammer the nail, and I felt as though he simply wasn’t listening to me.

Looking back, I think part of my frustration during that decorating dilemma was actually the result of me watching too much HGTV. I love to watch this channel. Seeing husband-and-wife power duos that fix up this and flip that has always entertained me. He lays wood floors and talks duct-work; she picks out the new sofa and coordinates paint colors. At the end of the episode, the husband pats his wife on the back and says to the camera, “My wife definitely made the right decision on that tile pattern.” All is good, and they look lovely.

The trouble is, all these dynamic duos make me feel like my husband and I are doing it all wrong. We don’t work like that. Unlike the HGTV personalities and the enviable decorating bloggers who seem to operate independently of their spouses when decorating their homes, my husband has an opinion about decorating.

I prefer the eclectic, collected, and creative house. If I can make it, I love it more; if it is unique and tells a story, I buy it; if it has served its purpose but is no longer useful or in good condition, I want it out. Pinterest? DIY magazines? I could look at them all day long.

He prefers to keep everything that comes through our door “just in case”; he wants everything symmetrical and balanced; and he would rather invest in a high-quality piece than waste time and money on an experiment gone wrong. He is not a hands-on guy, and watching my half-completed or poorly done attempts at, say, reupholstering a chair raises his stress level considerably.

I love that he has an opinion and cares about our living environment, but our dueling styles have made us far from camera-ready as we’ve created our shared space. I wonder: Where are the HGTV couples who function like my husband and me? The ones who take three months to pick a tile pattern because the wife wanted a classic throwback but the husband only wants slate, and they can’t move forward? The ones who have fights over where to hang a picture because the wife read about proper picture-hanging height on a blog, but her husband is 6 feet 4 inches and can’t stand things too low? Where are the real-life couples who each equally use hammers and jigsaws and each have a staging theory and color palette in mind? How do they decorate together?

What we’ve come to discover is that building a home together really comes down to conflict management and communication, and those are vital skills to have in a marriage, whether you’re talking about the mundane (such as new bedding) or pivotal decisions (such as parenting styles). Here’s how we make it work.

01. We’re in this together.

I am pleased to say that we don’t have rage-filled arguments over picture hooks anymore. Our mutual desire to be involved—each of us wanting a home that we love—has shown us that it takes a commitment to make our walls and artwork reflect the best of both of us. We have realized that sometimes we need to back down so that individual strengths can shine.

Our goal always comes back to the fact that it’s our home and our life. It’s easier to see the other person’s side when we think of home decorating, much like marriage, as a give-and-take throughout the years. We have found joy conceding on some matters because a small sacrifice can create tremendous harmony.

02. Get creative about compromise.

My husband and I now have a system we have honed over years of decorating together. Some might call it the “option close” technique, but I think of it as a dialogue. Using the Internet and other sources for pictures, I will choose up to six ideas that excite me. Then, we talk about them together. He rules some out immediately, others he loves instantaneously, and sometimes he just needs time to mull it over.

Certified Gottman therapist Zach Brittle explained in a Verily article that mastering this kind of compromise is an important foundation to a happy marriage:

“Compromise is a necessary element of any healthy relationship, and, unlike sacrifice, it assumes that both partners are willing to ‘yield to win.’ John and Julie Gottman have done a lot of work helping couples master the art of compromise, which begins with the basic premise that both partners accept that the relationship is more important than the conflict and that common ground is more important than individual sacrifice.”

Of course, compromise is easier said than done. Even discussions meant to reach an agreement don’t always do so. But poring over photos together increases the joy we find in the process, as well as the odds that we will find a resolution. Through this method, we have learned to have as much fun with the decision-making process as we have pride in the end result.

03. Always hear each other out.

Most importantly, from our three house moves over ten years (including a major renovation, an addition, and building a new home together), I have listened to him and taken time to learn his preferences. Brittle refers to this as “attunement.”

“Attunement begins with an awareness of emotions—positive and negative, your partner’s and your own,” Brittle explains in his article. “It requires curiosity: Ask open-ended questions. It deepens connection through empathy.” Brittle urges that this kind of understanding must take precedence if a solution is to be found. Understanding and respect not only help us prioritize and move through our never-ending home improvement list, but they have also created a strong foundation that we apply throughout our marriage.

I can’t just shut down my husband’s ideas because they aren’t my taste. And vice versa. By really listening to each other, we’ve learned to adapt to our varied styles and have actually gotten to know each other better. Now, when I collect my pictures for our discussions, I can already eliminate some ideas based on what I know about him.

Decorating our home, and our challenge in seeing eye-to-eye on interior design, has taught us so much about our marriage. Through trial and error, and some teeth-clenching moments, we have grown stronger.

We have learned that home is more than getting the furniture perfectly situated. Our home is where we have learned to fight fair and to listen better. Between these non-blog-worthy walls, we have learned to appreciate what we are together and what that looks like to the rest of the world. We have learned how to exist in a relationship where we can be true to ourselves yet also giving to the person we love.

In real life, when you aren’t an HGTV show, there’s no such thing as a “Perfect Home.” What makes a house a home is the love that lives inside of it. My husband and I have carefully crafted a home we love. Our home didn’t become my dreamy space from a Pottery Barn catalog. Nor is it his simple, rustic log cabin. But it has become a passionate place that radiates what we are together.

Photo Credit: Nima Salimi Photography