I admit it. I singlehandedly took over the decorating of my family’s house. To most, this would seem natural because I work in the field and have always had a very strong aesthetic point of view. But what our friends and colleagues don’t realize is that my husband also has interior design opinions — ones that I bulldozed over.
Although I am proud of how our house turned out, I am not proud of the fact that I pretended to, but in reality did not, involve him. My husband equates the decorating process to the time we selected our wedding registry — I dragged him along under the guise that his opinion mattered when all I really wanted was for him to like what I liked.
For our house, we bickered about the placement of the dining table, the color of the sofa, whether to hang curtains and of course the price of everything. In almost all cases, I got my way, but not without consequences. Even today, years after the last room was finished, my decorating domination comes back to haunt me especially in the heat of an argument (it’s the prime example of how I take over everything).
Although I can’t undo my actions, I can impart some wisdom to my clients so that their process is more balanced than ours was. I encourage couples to focus on the most important elements of decorating, not just style but also what I call the four C’s: cost, comfort, color and compromise. I also asked for the advice of Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Saltz gives smart, no-nonsense tips — ones that I wish I had followed years ago.
The No. 1 thing couples fight about is money, so when it comes to decorating, the most important thing you can do is set a budget before you begin. Do your homework and make sure you factor in all extra costs such as moving and installation. I always suggest investing in the big pieces first for each room: sofa, dining table and bed. Saltz suggests going one step further: discuss early on how you will handle either one of you wanting to make a budget change along the way.
Comfort is one of the trickiest elements of decorating because what is comfortable for a 5-foot-2 woman might not be comfortable for a 6-foot-4 man. Go furniture shopping together. Also know the purpose of each room and furnish it accordingly. Saltz suggests that couples should decorate in 10-year increments for actual family living. In her experience, many fights occur when couples decorate for an ideal and not for kids, messiness and ease of care, which not only creates tension, but also decreases the opportunity for fun family experiences and memories that build intimacy.
From a decorating standpoint, comfort and fabric go hand in hand; you will never be fully relaxed if you are terrified of staining what you’re sitting on. To determine the right fabric choices, think about look, feel and, most important, durability (check out solution-dyed outdoor fabrics for all upholstery). And when it comes to sofas, consider extra-deep seats, down or down-covered foam cushions and ample pillows or throw cushions (these are so that short people like me will be comfortable in those extra-deep seats!).
Painting your walls is without a doubt the single most transformative tool in all of interior design and one of the most flexible. Its impact is immediate, changing the mood of a room and your perception of its size. Although painting a room is easy, choosing a color can be a challenge. Numerous times I have sat with couples as they labor over tiny paint chips. Clarity comes when I tell them that the simplest way to judge a color is to try it out, at which point they roll up their sleeves and get to work. Painting is fun, and working together will make you both feel good. Saltz says it is important to give each other credit. “Pride in your home, like pride in your family, is something that can increase your closeness because it reflects both your tastes.”
When it comes to decorating, I have worked with couples who have clearly delineated responsibilities: He deals with everything outside, she deals with everything inside. But for most it’s not that easy. One client of mine said, “all men want a La-Z-Boy recliner, and all women don’t.” Though the truth might not be so black and white, the challenge still is finding a way to balance style desires with comfort and financial desires so that, as Saltz says, “you avoid later resentments.” I wish I had had that advice. Saltz recommends that couples make communication a priority with weekly check-ins during which they take each other’s temperature on their decisions, budget and any changes that might have arisen.
Style is perhaps the trickiest for couples to navigate because it is so personal. You can’t argue with someone if he or she thinks a sofa isn’t comfortable, but you can argue if that person doesn’t like a sofa because of its chunky leg and modern silhouette. Presumably you and your partner have had some discussion of style before you embark on a decorating project, but, quite often, one’s taste changes and evolves during the process. Saltz warns that “if you disagree, remember it is stuff, not people, you’re talking about, so don’t personalize having different tastes.” The one place Saltz makes a definite style recommendation is in the bedroom. She says, “Think ‘romantic’ in your bedroom. This is your nest with your partner. Increase both of your feelings of being desired by planning a place to share your love for each other.”
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Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”