"I wish we'd never bought this old house," said Colleen, 37, who lives near Philadelphia with John, her husband of 14 years, and their three children, 10, 9, and 6. "It met our requirements — a four-bedroom Colonial that was affordable and in a great neighborhood. But it needed extensive repairs and an upgraded kitchen, as well as an addition so we could create a family room and master bedroom.
"It was a huge amount of work, so I had misgivings, but John loved the house for its charm and potential. He promised to do the remodeling himself — everything from knocking down drywall and removing lead paint to refinishing the hardwood floors, installing recessed lighting, and retiling the bathrooms. He'd done a similar renovation on our previous house, so I knew he was capable.
"Well, in retrospect, it was a huge mistake. The renovation turned out to be far more time-consuming, expensive, and stressful than either of us had imagined, in part because John is a perfectionist and takes forever to finish things. He's always been like this, but we didn't have children when he renovated the first house so there were fewer time pressures and the mess didn't interfere with our lives as much. With his job as a software developer and his family responsibilities, John no longer has time to swing hammers and pound nails.
"Here's what I see when I walk in the door: a big white blob of plaster covering a hole on the foyer wall, a living room with furniture pushed into the center of the room and gaping holes where there used to be shelving, and a dining room with peeling wallpaper and stained carpeting. Then there's the clutter of toys, books, and unpaid bills in the dining room because it's the only place on the first floor where we can congregate as a family. The kitchen is too small for a dining table, let alone five people and their stuff. The other day, our 9-year-old, Amanda, said, 'I'm embarrassed to have friends over.' I know the feeling. I'd love to have a dinner party, but I won't entertain here. John thinks I'm overreacting; the mess doesn't bother him.
"For the past year, our family life has suffered because John is so anxious and preoccupied. If he attends a soccer game, he'll focus for only so long and then fret about what he should be doing at home. On weekends he's too busy working on the house to take the kids to the park, and he'll snap at them if they interrupt. They ask me, 'Why is Daddy so mean?' It just breaks my heart. I so want Samantha, Amanda, and William to have the traditional family life that I never had, with two happy parents involved in their upbringing. My own dad walked out when I was 2, leaving Mom to raise my two brothers and me. She was a 27-year-old college student who had hoped to become a lawyer but switched to being a legal assistant because it was less demanding. When I was 7, Mom married a mechanical engineer; he was cold and controlling, so I was glad when they got divorced six years later. But two failed marriages made Mom bitter. She's critical and self-righteous, the type of person who's quick with negative comments and always has a better idea. She comes over a few times a year, but my children dread her visits because she's so unpleasant. I don't have a relationship with my dad, but he resurfaced just before Samantha was born and sends us Christmas presents every year."
"I was only 16 when I met John at the grocery store where we both had part-time jobs. He was 20, a college sophomore, and I developed a huge crush on him. Not only was he adorably cute — with sandy blond hair, intense blue eyes, and dimples — but I also liked his friendliness, sense of humor, and strong work ethic. I kept waiting for him to make a move; finally, I invited him to my homecoming dance and he accepted. John was the perfect boyfriend for a teenage girl: He made me feel special, didn't push me sexually, and was polite, dependable, and honest. We dated for five years and got married after I graduated from college.
"As newlyweds we were busy and happy. I loved being a nurse; John enjoyed his job as a software developer, but we both hoped to move into management. So we enrolled in graduate school part-time. I eventually earned a master's in nursing administration, and John got a higher degree, too. We spent our free time remodeling our house — a 1,200-square-foot fixer-upper that we restored to mint condition. John did most of the work, though I helped. He thrived on the challenge, and in fact even built the garage.
"I got pregnant after the renovations were done. Although I planned to return to nursing after my maternity leave, I unexpectedly conceived Amanda when Samantha was just 6 months old. Crunching the numbers, we realized it made more sense for me to stay home for a while rather than work and pay for childcare. William came along three years later. That's when we began looking for a bigger house. Unfortunately our plans were postponed when John got laid off that fall. I wasn't able to find a staff nursing job quickly, so I started working part-time. Ten months later, after we'd depleted most of our savings, he landed a new job and we resumed house hunting.
"John worked on the kids' bedrooms for two months before we moved in. We'd barely unpacked when he started tearing up the foyer and living room. John puts in 65-hour workweeks and travels for business, so it's preposterous for him to think he can be Mr. Fix-It. Plus, the cost of materials is so high that we can't get things done as quickly as we'd like. In the meantime, we still need a new kitchen, family room, master suite, and powder room — an 800-square-foot addition that will cost about $160,000, according to one contractor we consulted. We're both nervous about taking out such a large home-equity loan and we can't agree on how to proceed: John is willing to bring in a contractor to pour the foundation and install the addition's basic frame, but he wants to handle the interior stuff himself, including the plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work, to save money. I'd rather let contractors do the entire job — even if it means being saddled with a loan. But at this point the best solution is probably to sell the house and buy a newer one, after paying someone to finish what John started on the first floor, since it can't go on the market in its current condition. But John told me, 'If we leave now, I'll consider it a personal defeat and regret it forever.'
"I love my husband, but this renovation is destroying our marriage. Because we both avoid conflict, we can't resolve our differences. The longer this impasse drags on, the more our family life suffers. 'I appreciate how much you want to make this our dream house,' I told him, 'but I don't want a dream house if the cost is living for years in chaos. Our children need a more attentive father, I need a more involved husband, and we need counseling to get our marriage back on track.'"
"I hate to admit it, but there are days when I, too, regret buying an 80-year-old house," said John, 41. "I overlooked its lousy condition because I was so thrilled with the neighborhood. Colleen is probably right that we should sell before the real-estate market in this area cools. But I've grown emotionally attached to our house, and I'd feel a tremendous sense of loss if we left it as a work in progress instead of as the beautiful home it could be. And I'm not sure we could find another affordable place in this community.
"Still, I understand why Colleen and the kids are frustrated. We live in a construction zone, full of dust and disorganization. But I don't think it's anything to be so embarrassed about that they won't invite friends over. I'm working as fast as I can to finish the renovations, but that's not fast enough for Colleen. If I devote nights and weekends to the house, she gets mad that I'm not an attentive father. If I spend more time with her and the kids, she makes snide comments about the mess. I'm caught in a no-win situation where I'm disappointing everybody, including myself. The pressure is getting to me, and, yes, I've become preoccupied with the house, and yes, I'm distracted when I'm with our children. I feel guilty about yelling when they're underfoot, but I need quiet to work. I'm not sleeping well, either, because my mind races with a to-do list that grows longer by the day.
"I inherited both my handiness and strong work ethic from my father, a retired auto mechanic who juggled two jobs to support his wife and three kids. My favorite childhood memories are of the home repair projects we did together. Dad was quick to praise my mechanical skills and attention to detail because he valued those qualities in himself. He and Mom didn't know how to parent a high achiever, though — they teased me for being a 'math nerd' instead of supporting me. Even so, I won a scholarship to a private high school, became an Eagle Scout, and earned a varsity letter in bowling. That led to a college scholarship, which I augmented with part-time jobs — one of them at the grocery store where I met Colleen."
"She was a beautiful brunette who caught my eye on her first day. I was too shy to ask her out, so I was thrilled that she invited me to a dance. Within a few months I was in love. Colleen is outgoing, spontaneous, and always up for new experiences, whereas I'm a quiet homebody who sticks to what I know — ordering the same entrees at my favorite restaurant and listening to the same music again and again. Our personalities complemented each other's, and I liked the way she helped me expand my horizons.
"As she said, we loved renovating our first house 15 years ago. I'm proud of the work we did together — she helped tear down plaster and paint — and the projects I did myself. I mean, how many people can say they built their own garage? It's an ego thing. I feel confident and successful when I take on a difficult mechanical project and then complete it to perfection. If I don't have a project going, I feel lazy.
"I was excited about remodeling this house, but so much still needs to be done. If I'd had more time and money, the first floor would've been finished by now, and the addition would be a work in progress — not just a design. Colleen seems to think the answer is outside help, but that will only create more problems. I hired a few contractors with our first house and then redid their work because it didn't meet my standards. Plus, as a one-income family, we can't afford to pay other people. Not only are we trying to replenish the nest egg we drained during my unemployment, but we're also way behind on retirement and college savings. If Colleen earned a full-time salary, I'd be less nervous about paying contractors, but I'd still have concerns about the workmanship.
"Although Colleen and I have fundamentally different personalities, we both have trouble expressing our feelings. I love Colleen, but she's become cold and distant. I can't remember the last time I heard her laugh. Hopefully, counseling can help us learn to communicate better and make some smart decisions about the house."
The Counselor's Turn
"A home-remodeling project can strain even the most stable relationship," said the counselor. "Colleen and John had a solid marriage, but the renovations left their house and their lives in a state of perpetual disorder and anxiety, which they used against each other.
"There's so much decision making involved in a renovation — from how the work will get done to how much money is spent — that the process itself is inherently stressful. Couples rarely agree on everything, but the way they handle their opposing viewpoints is a metaphor for how they feel about other issues they may not even be aware of, such as power struggles over money or basic control in the relationship. In this case, the remodeling project underscored key issues the couple recognized individually but never discussed: the feelings of inadequacy that fueled John's compulsion to work on the house and their different attitudes about their financial crunch. Both needed to be addressed before they could decide what to do about their house. I was confident that if they stopped avoiding conflict and learned to express their feelings, their closeness could be restored.
"John's self-esteem in childhood was overly tied to his father's approval. 'Because you received praise from your father only when you helped him around the house, you derive your sense of self and feelings of accomplishment from your mechanical ability,' I explained. 'You can be proud of that, but you shouldn't let it define you, and you need to realize that hiring an outside expert is not a sign of weakness. Not all contractors are incompetent. Your family needs you involved in their lives, and you need another hobby to help you feel good about yourself.' To that end, John took up bowling again, with the goal of joining a league next season. He's also teaching his kids how to bowl, and the family bowls together at least once a month.
"Next, we talked about the couple's money styles. Both came from families of limited means and paid their own way through college, but the money styles that resulted were very different. John became extremely frugal, forcing himself to justify discretionary spending and worrying incessantly about household expenses and long-term savings. Colleen had a more impulsive 'spend now, worry later' mind-set, figuring they'd eventually achieve their goals somehow. In a breakthrough session, John admitted that he felt a tremendous burden as the sole breadwinner and that he wanted his wife to work full-time. 'On my salary and your part-time income, we can't maintain our lifestyle, fix the house, save for retirement, and pay for three college educations,' John told her. 'Something's got to give.' Conceding that she'd been insensitive to financial concerns, Colleen began looking for a full-time nursing job.
"From there we addressed the couple's poor communication. They were able to stake out their positions on a topic — the hiring of contractors, for instance — but Colleen feared conflict so much that she would drop the disagreed-upon subject instead of negotiating toward compromise. Her reluctance to discuss important matters with John stemmed from her fear of abandonment, a result of her father's absence in her life. For his part, John responded to the perceived criticism in Colleen's complaints about the mess or the slow progress of the renovation by becoming defensive and angry, a reaction that Colleen in turn experienced as a rejection, arousing the fear that she'd lose him if conflict ensued.
"The couple's lack of effective communication had fed their festering resentment, rising tension, and emotional withdrawal. I had them practice using 'I' statements to calmly state their needs, make direct requests, and accommodate each other's wishes. Colleen might say, 'I want to take the kids to the movies on Saturday, either a matinee or early-evening show, depending on when you plan to plaster the foyer. Which time is better?' John might say, 'I need three hours on Saturday morning to install crown molding. Afterward, I'll take the family bowling.' Over time, both learned to speak their minds. 'That has really helped,' John said, 'because now we solve problems together and move on.'"
"As for the house, I agreed that selling probably was the best option. Short of that, I suggested they delay building the addition until they were more financially secure. To make an informed decision, Colleen and John used their new communications skills to discuss their feelings about the house, and to review their finances to determine whether they could buy another place or get a loan for the addition. Once they were able to open up, they concluded that they didn't want to sell, as they liked the house and loved the community. Nor could they afford to move or take out an additional loan.
"Despite their relief at coming to an agreement on the big picture, Colleen and John remained anxious about their cramped, chaotic quarters. 'John must change his approach,' I told them, 'and Colleen must overlook the mess and space limitations.' I advised John to divide the work on the first floor into small tasks that he could complete relatively soon, create a timetable to do the work and set aside an uninterrupted block of three hours every weekend to do it — after first conferring with Colleen about their children's activities. He agreed to be more engaged in family life, while she agreed to stop complaining about his progress and the disarray.
"This arrangement has reduced their anxiety because everyone's emotional needs are being better met: Colleen gets downtime while John spends time with the children; John does projects without feeling guilty; the children enjoy quality time with both parents. 'I feel much more relaxed,' John admitted, noting that he's sleeping through the night for the first time in two years.
"The house is far from finished, but John has fixed the biggest eyesores, repairing the holes in the foyer and living room and painting the dining room. No longer ashamed to have company, Colleen has begun hosting casual dinners for family and close friends, and the children are now comfortable inviting friends over.
"Because the couple's marriage had centered for so long on the house and kids, they decided they needed to reenergize their relationship with more couple time. They now hire a babysitter twice a month to have dinner out, either alone or with friends. Recently they enjoyed a three-day getaway to the Jersey Shore to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary. 'We slept late, walked on the beach, and dined by candlelight at fancy restaurants — it was great!' Colleen said. 'Spending time alone has helped us rediscover each other's good qualities.'
"The couple's financial picture has improved, too. John used his newfound assertiveness to negotiate a promotion and a raise, while Colleen works at a local hospital. Still, they wisely put the house addition on hold until they're ready to take out a home-equity loan and John has had a chance to get other bids (he believes the first estimate was too high). I also urged them to consult a financial planner to make sure they're investing properly to achieve their goals.
"This couple worked hard to let go of the long-held beliefs and behaviors that had compromised their happiness. 'Our marriage is stronger than ever, because John is more fun to be around,' Colleen said. 'And our family life has improved exponentially.'
"John agreed, adding, 'I won't give up on making our house great, but I realize now that family comes first. Besides, what's the point of having a perfect house if you're too miserable to enjoy it?'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2007.