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The Renovation Divorce

Before we began our project, several friends who had done major renovations to their homes warned us that the process would be stressful. "Our reno took a bit of a toll on our relationship," one friend confided.

Before we began our project, several friends who had done major renovations to their homes warned us that the process would be stressful.

"Our reno took a bit of a toll on our relationship," one friend confided.

So far, that hasn't been the case for me and my husband, Brad. Friends often say, "You guys look remarkably calm and happy." Or they ask, "Are you two still speaking to each other?"

Sadly, renovations damage relationships often enough that it has become a phenomenon familiar to lawyers, contractors, realtors and friends of the victims. Manhattan matrimonial lawyer Harriet N. Cohen calls it "the renovation divorce." She was quote in a  2009 New York Times story that  turned its spotlight on one famous case: A wealthy married couple undertook a massive renovation of a loft in Lower Manhattan, but the reno turned out better than their marriage:

"For a time, it was [Leslie] Williams’s dream home. She and her husband, both of whom are in television production, moved in two days before Christmas in 2007 after a renovation, at the time not yet complete, that had already taken about a year," wrote Penelope Green in a story headlined A Dream Home Undone by Divorce.

"Two weeks later, Ms. Williams’s husband moved out. He was done, he told his wife, with the renovation, and the marriage."

Williams told Green that the renovation brought out important differences between her and her husband — "their ideas about money, their long-term goals, all the big stuff."

"I reget that we bought the apartment and tackled such a big project when clearly our relationship needed to be attended to."

It sounds like this couple could have used the help of Dr. Debi Warner, a New Hampshire-based clinical psychologist who specializes in maintaining domestic harmony while renovating. Dr. Debi, as she likes to be called, speaks from experience. She and her husband, Mike, renovated their own home, tripling it in size and doing most of the work themselves -- while they lived in the house with three kids. It's been almost 30 years since the first project. She said they're still working on the house and still happily married. She used her experience to create a blueprint for others in a book called Renovation Psychology: Putting the Home Team to Work. The book is illustrated with photos of Dr. Debi and her husband in wedding clothes and  includes  exercises and tips on handling conflict.

Starting to work on your relationship before you work on the house, she said, is important. You want your house to reflect your values. Your house can be beautiful, she said, but if you can't work in it together, it's not successful. "Build a house, lose a spouse -- it's a common saying among builders," she said.

Successful renovations are all about team work, Dr. Debi said. Make sure each player plays to his or her strengths and that each of you understands and accepts your and your partner's weaknesses.

And don't make the mistake of thinking that you and your spouse have a great relationship, so a renovation won't be a problem, Dr. Debi said. It's stressful to continually make choices and work together in a way you might not have done before. And once the decisions are made, it is time to let go. "People can get stuck on certain ideas and then bear a grudge, which is obviously not got for the relationship," Dr. Debi said.

It is easy to see what she means. Your contractor has a critical path to follow -- a timeline that influences not just when the work gets done, but how much that work is going to cost. The velocity at which the choices come at you can be somewhat overwhelming -- and your decision-making can get sloppy if a particular choice has little priority to you, but is of great importance to your contractor's critical path. Managing these many choices is made easier by good planning.

We spent a lot of time planning -- or, as Brad says, we allowed our thoughts about the renovation to ferment over a long period. From the moment we moved into the house in 2004, we started talking about what didn’t work and how we would change it. We had pretty clear ideas by the time we started discussing the renovation with professionals and drawing up plans more than a year before any work started. When we disagreed on a choice, we debated -- sometimes calmly, and others times, with considerable vigour -- the pros and cons. Eventually the decision became clear. Overall, our many choices led to a project that was realistic, affordable and effective in meeting our needs.

We think it helps a lot if you can move out of your house during a major reno. Moving out eliminates the conflict between your family trying to live your lives and construction crews trying to do their jobs. Moreover, living somewhere else means that you're not continuously confronted with "the project." As it turned out, we couldn’t have stayed in the house if we wanted to because there was no heat or water for weeks. Fifteen weeks into the project and there’s still no working toilet – just a port-o-potty in the driveway. And, luckily, we found a really great place to live for six months.

According to Dr. Debi, "a lot of relationships are humming along OK, then they do a reno and everything goes downhill. People discover things about their partners that horrify them -- that the other person is selfish or stupid or wishy-washy."

Safe to say that "wishy-washy" is one thing Brad and I would never be accused of. Fortunately for me, Brad's mantra throughout the renovation -- much to the amusement of our interior designer and contractor -- has been "happy wife, happy life." Brad says (sardonically) that he can show that level of flexibility because I have "demonstrated a degree of parsimony" that makes his Scottish ancestors proud (and yes, he actually phrases things that way). I think he likes that I tend to do a lot of research to make sure I'm getting good value on major purchases. But this doesn't mean I always get everything my way.

We each keep in mind that we are not renovating a house -- but that we are renovating OUR home. I would have loved to have hardwood in the family room with area carpets on top. But, with Brad's limited vision, carpet edges are not his best friend. He probably would have gotten used to them after a while, but didn't feel like stumbling over them repeatedly first. I understand.

As Dr. Debi said: "It comes down to: Can you play in the sandbox together? Can you take turns? Can you be kind?"

And we would add: Can you share a laugh when your front lawn has an unplanned 12-foot-high pile of dirt on it because your contractor has discovered your exterior drainage system needs to be replaced?