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When Two People's Furnishings Are Joined


When Signe Gallagher got married two weeks ago, it didn't occur to her that by agreeing to take Peter Keller as her husband she was also taking his couch.

For better or worse, the couch now sits in the newlyweds' garage because Gallagher prefers her old comfortable couch--dog fur, unsightly upholstery and all.

For his part, Keller may not have fully appreciated the fact that when he exchanged vows with Gallagher he was also promising to love, honor and cherish her collection of contemporary art.

"I'm constantly asking her, 'Is this art or can I throw it in the trash?' " jokes Keller, who as president of the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana definitely knows the difference (his tastes run to ethnic works.)

Moving in together requires not only a union of souls but of sofas.

With more people staying single longer or starting out on second marriages, many partners have fully furnished households they must combine into one. Often they have two of everything and nowhere to put anything.

When Keller moved into Gallagher's Beacon Bay home, the couple created a merger that included four kids, a couple of dogs, his and her competing art collections, dual couches and other duplicate furnishings.

"There are things stacked all over," Gallagher says. "But we'll work it out."

For some newlyweds, the honeymoon is over as soon as questions of territory and space arise. Deciding what to toss, what to keep and where to put it all becomes a true test of love.

"Division of space issues will come up for any couple and will be played out by who puts what where," says Steven Hendlin, a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor in Irvine. "It's symbolic of one person's willingness to accommodate the other. You want to know, 'Is this other person really letting me into their heart?' "

If so, that person might have to let that '70s-issue recliner or velvet Elvis into the living room.

"A guy might have some strange-looking table that he doesn't want to give up. In terms of differences in taste, both parties will need to work it out by problem-solving," Hendlin says.

When one person finds a particular objet d'art offensive, it helps to understand that the reasons his or her partner clings to the piece usually go beyond matters of color and shape.

"It's an emotional attachment to something they've carried with them a long time," Hendlin says.

Decor disputes are more likely to surface if one person moves into the other's existing home instead of both parties finding a new place. The one who lived there before tends to be territorial, Hendlin says.

"If they've been single a long time and they're used to their own space, they're careful" about how that space is used, he says. "They might say, 'You can have this space in the closet but, don't mess with my books and don't touch my art.' "

They might protest the conversion of their spare guest bedroom into a home office, or they may be stingy with their closet space. Closets are often where issues of control and dominance typically play out because space is usually at a premium.

"If they haven't shared closets before, they have to learn," says Lynn Langit, manager of the Container Store in Costa Mesa. She regularly sees couples trying to figure out ways to cram all of their stuff into one closet.

"We do conflict resolution. The most common thing we hear is that 'We have too many shoes.' Or one person wants his sweaters folded, and another wants them on hangers."

Sometimes one person wants a dressing area inside of a walk-in closet, while the other sees it as a waste of real estate.

"There's a balance of power there," Langit says.

When space is tight, she recommends both parties get rid of clothes and accessories they no longer wear. Follow the one-year rule: If it hasn't been worn in a year, toss it.

Conduct an inventory of the leftovers and decide what should go in the closet, then find the right system of drawers, racks, rods to help make it all fit.

"I recently did my own walk-in closet for a new house, and even though I did a detailed plan, my husband wanted more space," Langit says. "And we've been together 14 years."

Some people insist on splitting the closet space 50-50, even if they don't need all of the space or the other person has more clothes.

"They're saying, 'Make room for me. I want my space,' in order to feel comfortable and included," Hendlin says. "If you see how closet space is divided, you have a good idea of who's in control. It's an indication of the whole relationship."

Typically, the one with the most closet space makes most of the couple's major decisions.

Squabbles over space and impasses over interior decorating make a strong argument for getting to know the other person well and seeing how they live before getting married, he says.

Over time, most couples living together usually undergo a "psychological softening" in which they learn to accommodate the other person.

"When they begin making space for the other person in their closet or their home, they're making room for them in their life."

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