The clean, stylish, spacious idealized home in the showroom “literally becomes a map of a relationship nightmare,” clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula told The Wall Street Journal.
Couples in her therapy sessions mentioned Ikea-related arguments so frequently that Durvasula began making research trips to the store. She found that themed areas triggered related arguments: bedding (sex), kitchen goods (chores), children’s gear (don’t even start).
The showroom is also where troubling questions of taste arise. In an environment where choosing a coffee table is marketed as an expression of identity, it’s easy to project deeper meaning onto a partner’s opinion. If I like the Lack and you like the Klingsbo, do we want the same kind of home? Do we want the same kind of life? Who are you, really?
“Couples tend to extrapolate from the small conflicts that arise while shopping for and building furniture that perhaps they aren’t so made for one another after all,” Maisie Chou Chaffin, a London-based clinical psychologist who works with couples, told me.
One of the most pivotal moments in the assembly process happens before anyone picks up a screwdriver.
Even couples who aim for egalitarian division of labor across the whole of their relationship find that when it comes to individual tasks, one person usually steps forward as the lead: She oversees paying the bills, for example, while he’s head chef in the kitchen.
Presented with a new task—like, say, assembling a Hemnes dresser—couples may have competing ideas of who’s best suited to take the lead.
A power struggle ensues, and power struggles are breeding grounds for conflict. (This is also why driving directions are such potent argument-starters.)
“Unless one of you is the accepted leader for building something, you’re thrown into this dynamic of ‘who is in charge?’” said Scott Stanley, a psychology professor at the University of Denver and author of the book, Fighting for Your Marriage.
“Even when you’ve sort of figured out that one’s more taking the lead, then you’ve got the moments when the assistant sees what the leader is doing wrong,” Stanley said. “Despite the fact that we all often function better with constructive feedback, nobody likes it.”
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Designed for use in any culture or language, Ikea’s deceptively simple assembly manuals give users the (often incorrect) impression that the project can be accomplished without much time or effort.
If that mute, genderless cartoon figure can build a rolling kitchen island, it stands to reason, surely we can too. When those expectations are dashed, egos take a hit.
“As with any anxiety, a degree of self abuse kicks in,” said Ferguson, the author of Reptiles in Love who is now a Veterans Administration psychologist in Auburn, California. “And very quickly, if you can’t take a pause, you’re going to turn on your spouse or your partner.”