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Can Your Relationship Handle a Trip to IKEA?


In therapy, so many couples mention fighting while shopping at IKEA or while assembling their items that clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula has started embracing the retailer as a tool for a communications exercise. The Santa Monica, Calif., therapist often tasks couples with putting together a large piece of furniture at home and reporting back on how it went.

IKEA, the world’s largest furniture retailer with 367 stores in 47 countries, can look like a domestic wonderland. Its walkable showrooms offer a path through sleek model bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms and children’s rooms. Shoppers are encouraged to spend time sitting on a sofa and envisioning what their lives could be in these spaces.

And that’s where couples’ trouble often starts, says Dr. Durvasula, who is also a professor of psychology at California State University Los Angeles. “The store literally becomes a map of a relationship nightmare,” she says. Walking through the kitchens brings up touchy subjects, like who does most of the cooking. Then you get to the children’s section, which opens up another set of issues. And that’s before you’ve even tried assembling anything.

Dr. Durvasula says constructing the small Nornäs coffee table is fairly undemanding. But a massive wall unit like the Liatorp? She calls that the Divorcemaker.

IKEA, based in Almhult, Sweden, knows shopping for big items can be stressful and lead to arguments, says Janice Simonsen, design spokeswoman for IKEA U.S.

“While IKEA has no set philosophy on couples shopping together, we want everyone to have a good experience,” she says. As for the company’s furniture being used for therapy, she says, “We’re just happy to be part of the process.”

Though the company doesn't provide mediators or counselors, she points out that about 85% of its U.S. stores offer home-furnishings consultants, available by appointment, who can give design advice.

Ms. Simonsen spent five years as a furnishings consultant and compiled a list of guidelines for couples preparing for an IKEA visit, including agreeing on a style from the catalog before ever setting foot in the store.

“We’ve seen it all,” says Mary Ann Barroso, a local marketing specialist and former kitchen designer at IKEA’s Burbank, Calif., store. She points out that most of the time, couples come to IKEA because they’re renovating a home or moving, which are already stressful situations. According to a 2013 survey conducted by home design site Houzz, 46% of couples doing remodeling projects together found the experience frustrating, and 12% of couples surveyed admitted that they considered separation or divorce during the renovation.

“If I felt a conversation was going to turn into an argument, I wouldn’t take sides,” Ms. Barroso says. “I’d just say, ‘Here’s what you need to consider. I’m going to step away for five to 10 minutes. Discuss amongst yourselves.’ ”

“I’m convinced that IKEA is Swedish for pissed-off boyfriend,” says Courtney Frappier, a New York City publicist whose recent trip to IKEA with her boyfriend Alex Mele ended in tears.

The pair, both 26, was furnishing his new one-bedroom apartment with an eye to Ms. Frappier moving in later this year. But while they were walking through IKEA picking out items, Mr. Mele recalls thinking, “‘Oh man, she’s going to take over and I’m going to lose all control of my place.’ ”

Ms. Frappier says she saw the meltdown coming but couldn’t stop it. “Once we were in the store, the reality of combining two individual lives started to sink in,” she says.

That was three months ago. They are still together, and so is the furniture they bought. But instead of calling the pieces by their official names—the Bjursta sideboard and the Bekant desk—Mr. Mele just refers to them as Terrible and Misery. “I’m never going back there,” he says.

This kind of IKEA meltdown appears in YouTube parodies and an episode of the NBC comedy “30 Rock,” where Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon breaks up with her boyfriend at an IKEA.

While couples with existing communications issues are more vulnerable, no relationship is immune, says New York-based marriage counselor and radio host Dr. Jane Greer.

“I’ve had couples go to the mat over a couch that neither of them even liked,” she says. “Underneath, every discussion is really about how important am I to you? How important is my comfort and happiness to you? If I want this couch, and it’s important to me, then why isn’t it important enough to you?”

Once a couple makes it out of the store, they have to get everything home and put it together—another relationship minefield.

Furniture assembly often causes more friction than the shopping experience, according to March data from consumer research firm CivicScience. It surveyed nearly 7,000 adults and found that among those who assemble furniture together, 17% said they always get into arguments, compared with only 6% who said they often argue while shopping together.

Remya Thomas and Jacob Varghese, both 35, learned that lesson from an Oppdal queen-sized bed frame and headboard.

When the couple moved into a new apartment in Chicago’s South Loop two years ago, Ms. Thomas convinced her husband to use IKEA to furnish the new place.

“I knew it would be a hassle to put together, but I was thinking we are two people, we can do it,” she says. They breezed through the shopping part. But when they finally moved, she was pregnant and couldn’t lift anything.

All their furniture was in flat IKEA boxes and they had nowhere to sleep. The pressure fell on Mr. Varghese, who works in finance and says he’s not particularly handy. “I had never done any of this before, but I thought, how hard can it be?” he says.

He estimates that it took him, his father and a friend about 10 hours to put the bed together, including two hours of arguing with Ms. Thomas. “She would give directions and then leave the room!” he recalls.

“I thought he was going to kill me,” Ms. Thomas says. She concedes that the bed was probably too complicated for their first project. They’d also bought a Hemnes secretary, two Kullen chests, a Brusali wardrobe and a Borgsjö cabinet.

More than a year later, Mr. Varghese says, “It feels like a badge of honor.” But he vows he’ll never do it again.

Ms. Thomas, on the other hand, sees it as a bonding experience, and would happily take on another IKEA project.

"We created something together!” she says. “But then again, I may be taking more credit than I deserve.”

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