Renovating Your Way to a Better Marriage

How a fixer-upper first home became one couple's labor of love.For Kirsten Wright and her husband, who bought a 1909 row house on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., some of the lowest points have also provided some of the biggest laughs. Like the day they pulled up all of the old flooring to find a three-foot hole in the middle of their living room that went all the way down to the foundation. Or when they installed a new front door, went out to dinner, and came back during a thunderstorm to find they had locked themselves out because they'd installed the dead bolt incorrectly. Thanks to a friendly neighbor with a tall ladder, they were able to get inside via the (unfinished) roof.

More from YourTango:
Decorating Your Home For Romance

Wright says that although she's not sure she'd take on another big renovation project, she has no regrets. "I actually look forward to going home every Friday night, putting on my painting clothes, and ordering pizza."

There is a certain romance in getting dirty together, living outside of your comfort zone, and laboring to reach the shared goal of creating a place that feels like home. And there's a certain contentment and simplicity, too. Ryan and I have narrowed our focus. Instead of planning vacations or upgrading our old cars and our tired wardrobes, we spend our money at the hardware store. And we spend the hours we're not working on the house walking the dog to our favorite coffee shop or catching an occasional movie. Compared with sanding drywall, a trip to our neighborhood bookstore becomes a mini-vacation (even though we typically find ourselves in the home-design section).

Despite moments when I tearfully wonder whether I'll ever truly feel settled here (like the two separate occasions since I started this article when the basement flooded), I fall in love with the house a bit more after every weekend of progress. And I fall in love with Ryan a bit more too-for his commitment to our home, his fastidiousness and dedication to exceptional work, and his utter fearlessness in the face of obstacles I never could have tackled on my own.

So while it may never be my dream home, the house is our labor of love, and that counts for a lot.

"But how could you not spend your first married Christmas together?!?"

More from YourTango
: 5 Reasons You Should Live Together Before Getting Married

My coworker wouldn't let it go; she must have asked me ten times. Despite feeling annoyed at her judgmental tone, I started to think maybe she had a point. Aren't newlyweds supposed to sip from each other's eggnog mugs, sneak kisses under the mistletoe, and surprise each other with thoughtful gifts?

Not Ryan and I. While I was in San Francisco eating cracked crab with my family, Ryan spent Christmas Eve with our plumber.

Six months after getting married, and four months after moving from the Bay Area to Portland, Oregon, in search of a less stressful and more affordable lifestyle, we bought our first home.

A 1908 four-square with three bedrooms, hardwood floors, a full basement, and a garage, the house met most of our criteria. For reasons I have never been quite able to articulate, I didn't fall in love with the house when we found it. But Ryan had a vision for it-landscape the backyard, maybe convert the attic to a master suite, and upgrade the kitchen and bath-and its location, across the street from a park and within walking distance of coffee shops, restaurants, and a great bookstore, ultimately won me over.

For me, buying our first house dredged up a lot of intense emotion. I'd lie in bed at the apartment we were renting before the move and visualize all the things we might go through in the many years we planned to live in the new house. Would one of us nurse the other through a major illness? Would we have children who would attend the elementary school across the street? What would it feel like to host holiday dinners and start new traditions there?

Such weighty thoughts about what the home represented for us made me ripe for disappointment when, room by room, we discovered that the house needed a lot more work than we had originally expected. For some reason, the damp wooden cabinet under the bathroom sink, the powder-blue faux-brick wall, and the seacreature tile in the shower hadn't seemed quite so bad when we first toured the house with the realtor. Or at least they'd seemed like things we could live with while saving for a bathroom remodel. But when we walked through on Halloween night after picking up our keys, that bathroom was scarier than any trick-or-treater.

Apparently the dampness was due to decades of leaky plumbing. At first, eager to take possession, we weren't fazed by that revelation. I'm not sure where we thought we'd bathe while our one bathroom was out of commission, but I'm glad we never had to find out. Eventually, we decided to overhaul the bathroom before we moved in, and that turned out to be one of the smartest decisions we've made.

Unfortunately, however, it also marked the beginning of many grueling months.

More from YourTango:
10 Signs Your Guy Is Definitely In Love With You

Ryan was working full time and would commute 45 minutes in traffic to the apartment where we were staying in northwest Portland, pack his tools in his truck, and take off to start work in the new bathroom by around 7 p.m. I'd feel him crawl into bed sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., after hours of tearing out nearly century-old lath and plaster and corroding pipes.

I managed to drag him away from the bathroom long enough over the holidays for our real-estate agent to snap a quick photo of us in front of the house, wearing Santa hats, for the complimentary "We've Moved" postcards that she sends out for her clients. The look on Ryan's face was more "Ho, ho, what the hell am I doing in this hat?" than holiday cheer. I sent them out anyway. Except for about two hours for Thanksgiving dinner at his cousin's house, it was all I saw of Ryan that holiday season.

In contrast to Ryan's tireless efforts, I was absolutely paralyzed by all the work the house needed. And it wasn't just the bathroom. Or the lack of closet space. Or the tacky light fixtures.

Or the weird smell that was emanating from one of the kitchen cabinets. It was the asbestos we found after tearing down some walls, the lead-based paint that needed to be safely stripped, and the aluminum windows, which were so poorly insulated that some mornings there would be sheets of ice on the inside. Though I felt guilty letting Ryan handle all the work, I had to agree with him that, with the exception of some painting and scrubbing here and there, it would be best for both of us if I avoided the house altogether while he completed the bathroom.

But wanting to feel part of the process, and knowing that he wouldn't eat otherwise, I'd psych myself up around dinnertime and bravely venture in, bearing takeout. My carefully constructed cheerfulness would crumble under my panic the second I walked in the door. Instead of "Hi, honey, how's it going? I brought you a burrito and beer," I'd ask, "Will the sink be in by the time we move? Do you think my mom will help us pay for asbestos abatement? Why aren't you wearing a respirator?" And then I'd look around at the mess that was our house, and I'd start crying.

Needless to say, my takeout bags were much better received than I was. Likewise, my suggestions that we off-load some of the work to professionals didn't go over very well. Ryan comes from hardy stock, a long line of thrifty do-it-yourselfers. Costly contractors-whose attention to detail is notoriously lacking- just weren't part of his plans.

Those months right before and after the move were the start of a dangerous dynamic: Ryan felt like nothing he did would ever be enough; I felt like our house might never be a comfortable home.

More from YourTango:
It's Me Or The Ice Maker [VIDEO]

Apparently, our experience is not uncommon. Dr. Michael Klein, PhD, a San Francisco-based couples therapist and adjunct faculty member at the California Institute of Integral Studies, says remodeling is a huge stress trigger among couples. Klein puts it in a larger category of home stressors that also includes where to live (for example, "Should we stay in the city, or move to the suburbs?") and home purchasing.

After sex and money (in that order), Klein ranks the home front the third most common cause of tension among couples. In addition to the potential for differing opinions about design choices, home-improvement projects can be huge financial drains, which can bump remodeling back up to the number-two trigger, money.

Klein says one of the biggest issues between couples renovating their homes is when one person (about 75 percent of the time, he notes, it's the woman) wants to spend more money than the other. "Often, you'll have a woman saying, "I want to live in a beautiful home, I'm looking at all these design magazines, and I've got all these ideas,'" Klein says. "On the other side of the dynamic, the man can fall into the psychological issue of feeling like the victim, thinking, 'I'm working so hard, you don't appreciate me, if we continue spending like this, how will we ever save for retirement?'"

Klein has a point about the magazines-they're dangerous.

In the midst of our renovation, I began a new job doing public relations for Rejuvenation, a Portland-based manufacturer and retailer of reproduction lighting and hardware. All of a sudden my inbox was crammed with the latest issues of Martha Stewart Living, Elle Decor, and Cottage Living. I'd bring them home and read in bed about how to choose upholstery and create the perfect master-bedroom hideaway, while Ryan lay next to me reading a how-to book about electrical wiring.

More from YourTango:
7 Ways To Give Your Home A Facelift For Pennies

Also, as part of my job, I spend a lot of time in Rejuvenation's Portland store, a 38,000-square-foot showroom in a historic building with beautiful stained-glass windows. It's filled with classic light fixtures (antique originals and reproductions), hardware, Stickley furniture and rugs, and an entire department of architectural salvage.

For better or worse, my coworkers enabled my growing obsession with home renovation. They don't think it's weird to spend an entire lunch break talking about the best light fixture to hang in a Colonial Revival entryway with ten-foot ceilings, and nearly all of them have their own renovation war stories to tell.

When one commented to me that the financial burdens were taking a toll on her marriage and that all the hard work was superseding a sex life, I felt like hugging her. I wasn't proud of my schadenfreude, but I was so relieved to know it wasn't just us.

Another coworker and old-house owner, Monica Burke, Rejuvenation's retail-marketing manager, recalls that when she first started at the company as a salesperson, she frequently found herself in uncomfortable situations with couples. "Often, I'd be explaining an option, and one person would say, 'Oh, that sounds great, let's do that!,'" she says, "while the other person would be standing there rolling their eyes and saying, 'How exactly do you plan to pay for that? We have no money left.'"

Stephanie Badillo, interior designer at The Home Depot in New York, also finds herself playing mediator. "Often couples have different ideas and expectations that they may not have worked out or discussed prior to visiting the store," she says.

Couples frequently exaggerate the differences, Klein explains, and end up moving further apart. "For example, one person says, 'What's wrong with you that you don't want a nice bathroom?', while the other says, 'What's the matter with you that you don't care about our finances and you want me to work until I die?'" By taking a step back, asking questions, and truly listening to each other, couples often can draw out the underlying meaning of whatever has caused the conflict. A question like "What does it really mean to you if we spend that $500 on improving the bathroom?" helps the other person get to the bottom of his own feelings.

Perhaps he spent years paying off credit-card debt and is committed to staying debt-free. Or perhaps he'll realize that $500 for a nicer bathroom really isn't a big deal and they should go ahead with it. Once the communication opens up, the couple will be in a better position to negotiate-and maybe they'll decide together that they'd rather put the $500 toward a vacation.

More from YourTango:
The Pros And Cons Of Relocating For Love

Zack Schulte and Julia Sullivan say the restoration of their home in a historic Los Angeles neighborhood has taught them a lot about each other. "It has all the combinations of things that drive you crazy-you don't have a secure home life, and you're spending way more money than you're comfortable with," says Schulte. "You find that you're not living for the moment, but for something that's not quite there. Never underestimate the power of an unlivable space," he cautions.

Sullivan says she knew things had gotten bad when she started looking forward to going to work so she could relax.

"It's easy to get caught in the classic, 'I'll be happy when …' We remind ourselves to make the best of the current state of things and try to enjoy it despite the difficulty."

"Even our pets feel displaced," laments Schulte.

That said, the two agree that they've gotten to know each other on a deeper level, and they work hard to make sure they stay on the same team. "I have to be careful of playing the blame game," he says. "During the darker days, I often find myself turning to her and saying, 'This was your idea, you wanted to take this on,' but I'm working on it."

Written by Emily Bolls for YourTango.com.


More From YourTango.com:

7 Sex Positions Men Love
The Number One Thing Men Find Attractive [VIDEO]
What Is 'Honey Sex,' And Why Is It Bad For You?
What His Romantic Past Says About Him
The Girl's Guide To Anal Sex