Many an aesthetic power struggle among young marrieds masks a fear of having hard-won independence swallowed by the couple monster. They worry that if their surroundings don't reflect their individual styles, an element of selfhood will be obliterated. But what if the problem isn't her taste versus his, but a desire for private territory?
The idea of couples agreeing to disagree, of giving up from the get-go when it comes to designing environments where they can happily cohabit, is hardly new. Seventy years ago, separate apartments worked for Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Although the philosophers were lifelong companions and were buried side by side, they never shared domestic space or owned property together. They each wrote about the importance of freedom for the individual, from an existential perspective, of course, and neither pledged nor practiced fidelity. So it's unlikely their solution offers much to couples trying to figure out how to live and decorate harmoniously.
If every aesthetic decision is a fight to the death, chances are a couple have more to worry about than their home's look, experts say. If they can't agree on wallpaper, how can they decide when, where or what to eat for dinner, where to go on vacation or how to invest money? To survive, domestic partners must have a language for settling disputes and some familiarity with compromise.
"The important thing is how differences are negotiated, discussed and worked out," says Thomas Bradbury, a psychology professor at UCLA. "What matters isn't how the house gets furnished, but avoiding conflict over how the house gets furnished."
Designating separate areas for each person may eliminate some conflicts, but it can create others. "Decisions have ramifications," Bradbury says. "A couple might think, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a place where we each have our own floor?' Well, who cleans what? If your space is bigger than the other person's, who pays for the cleaning lady? One decision can create other difficulties that you haven't anticipated, and those have to be negotiated. Is having your own space really a show of strength or a retreat? Not wanting to talk about things in the short term can keep them under control. But the long-term cost is one person might stew because they haven't raised an issue that's important to them. Short-term benefits can have long-term consequences."
Committed people who would never consider separate dwellings or even separate floors still yearn for rooms of their own. "Among the people I work with, both men and women want a haven that's private, and that's more about territory than style," says Mindy Caplow, a Los Angeles interior designer.
"Men want home offices, a quiet space for their computer and flat-screen televisions. Even women who don't work outside the home want command posts, a center other than the kitchen or bedroom that's theirs. The bedroom has become everyone's territory. There's nothing that delineates it as a private and sacred space in many homes. It's the free-for-all room. And most people are afraid to live in their living rooms. They save them for their invisible company."
Designers become as adept as therapists at spotting the people who never learned to play well in the sandbox. "You can tell if one member of the couple is more dominant," says Tina Gale of Mira Vista Design in Pacific Palisades. "They'll interrupt the other person. They don't listen. Very often, it's all about power. It's 'I want my way and my way is the only way.' "
However, Gale has found that sometimes, there's no hidden agenda beneath a desire for private space. "I don't think I've met anyone who doesn't want a little piece of the world that's just theirs, even kids," she says. "In big houses, even the staff wants their own space. So I work with people to try to figure it out. One woman's office became the nursery when she had a baby. She had a big walk-in closet, so we found a way to put a desk and chair in it, and that became her personal place. She was willing to give up some clothes space because she was lost without a place to go where her boundaries were respected."
Wanting privacy isn't necessarily a quest for isolation. "If a home doesn't have intimate spaces, it's like living in a hotel that has no place to define as your own," Caplow says. "And if you're proud of your intimate space, you'll share it. My three daughters would rather watch TV in my small home office than in the big family room. My little carved-out office is very cozy and comfortable. But there are certain times when they know they can't come in."