HomeWhen two styles clash: how to survive co-decorating a home

Jamie QuadrosOctober 17, 201915 min

There are few things that test the bond between people the way co-decorating a space will. You might imagine it to be a wonderful, collaborative exercise in expressing personal taste through home decor, but that’s a rookie mistake. Decorating with a partner is less aesthetic endeavour and more Art of War. Before you create the perfect-looking home, you’ll have to navigate incessant volleys of paint swatches, succulents, and decorative cushions hurled at you figuratively and literally (if tempers flare!).

Depending on where you are in your life, there are three co-decorator archetypes you’ll have to contend with: the Roommate, the Partner, and the Spouse. Of these three, the Roommate is the easiest to work with. At best, your tastes will align enough that you’ll both be happy, and at worst you can let your personality shine in your own room. The Partner, on the other hand, introduces the politics of relationships to the mix. Anxiety about finding furniture becomes anxiety about finding furniture and demonstrating good taste to your special someone. Really though, neither of those compare to the challenges of the Spouse. Once you’ve entered the domain of spousal co-decoration, buckle up: the business has officially gotten serious.

You’re kidding, right?

Okay, I may have laid it on a little thick. Not everyone is doomed to decorating devastation. I’ve heard legends about couples who’ve used—communication and compromise, I believe it’s called?—to turn decorating into a positive experience.

What’s their secret? Mutual respect, clear objectives and managed expectations. Apparently, being honest with what you both want out of your shared space and aligning priorities can work wonders. I’m told it’s imperative to be kind, compromise where possible, and to remember that you’re doing this with someone you like. Do it right, and you’ll both grow closer and have a stronger relationship at the end of it.

But what happens if the other person isn’t interested in compromise? After all, it takes two to tango, and no one wants to be left dancing by themselves in IKEA. That’s where this guide comes in! Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of dealing with each co-decorator archetype, and some recommendations on how to make the best of each scenario.

Decorating with the Roommate

Pros:

  • You both chose to live together, so you probably already have an idea of whether the other person’s tastes are compatible with yours.
  • Unless you plan on being single-and-killing-it for the rest of your life, you both won’t always be roommates. Who cares what the place looks like as long as there are enough plates?
  • Even in the worst-case scenario where everything looks dreadful, you still get to decorate your room the way you want. That way, when your friends are over you can roll your eyes and judge the rest of the place along with them.

Cons:

  • Decorations and furniture will inevitably have to be split once you part ways, which can be heart wrenching (“I loved that ottoman, Karen!”) or petty (“You owe me $13 and 49 cents if you want to buy out my stake in the ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ wall hanging”).
  • Alternatively, you might find yourself gifted the decoration you-hate-but-pretended-to-love because you didn’t want to hurt your roommate’s feelings, and now you’re stuck with it.

Advice:

Prioritize “functional” over “flashy”. You know what’s worse than a horrendously decorated living room? A horrendously decorated living room with insufficient seating. Minimalism is key for success—after all, the less stuff there is, the less you have to argue about cleaning. Look: if you have a roommate, it’s either by choice or by necessity. If it’s by choice, hopefully you’ve picked someone whose tastes don’t clash with yours, or who doesn’t care how things are decorated. If it’s by necessity, getting your way with living room artwork is not worth losing a roommate over. Besides, the roommate thing is generally a temporary state of affairs. Don’t overthink this scenario, as it likely isn’t going to be your forever home.

Decorating with the Partner

Pros:

  • They already like you, so you have that going for you!
  • Since you both already like each other, make liberal use of the compromise concept. If you both settle for something you like, but don’t love—hey, that’s still progress.
  • You can accrue (or assign) brownie points for cooperation and/or deferral in decorating decisions. Assuming you’re both in this for the long-haul, a deposit at the bank of goodwill is a powerful motivator.
  • Even if you wind up on the losing end of decorating dominance, you now have valuable experience and insight you can draw upon the next time you both move. After all, revenge is a dish best served cold.

Cons:

  • There is a risk of the relationship ending if you find each other’s tastes too incompatible, and then you have to explain to your friends how West Elm and Crate and Barrel broke you two up. Not a good look, people.
  • You can’t use excuses like “I’m allergic to teak” or “Edison bulbs give me hives” because your partner will see right through that.
  • You have to respect their individuality and quirkiness and all that jazz because even though you like it, you have not yet put a ring on it.

Advice:

The old “pick your battles” adage neatly sums up your best strategy here: if you’ve played your cards right, your significant other will have a better eye for design than you so just coast on their hard work. Remember, your relationship is more important than redecorating. I mean, if the whole process is so traumatizing that you re-evaluate your relationship, that’s a different thing. Otherwise, as long as you’re mostly happy (or only slightly unhappy) with the things that aren’t top priority to you, just go with the flow. Figure out what your deal-breakers are and focus your energy on those things. 

Decorating with the Spouse

Pros:

  • They’re already stuck with you, so go nuts!
  • You can leverage other aspects of your relationship to facilitate favourable conditions for the decorating process. And by that, I mean you can agree to do/see/buy/endure the thing you hate doing/seeing/buying/enduring in exchange for realizing your vision for the home. Is that unscrupulous? Sure. Effective? Without a doubt.
  • You don’t have to be as guarded about your tastes and preferences. By this point, your spouse already knows everything about you and likes you anyway. What do you have to lose?

Cons:

  • You’re already stuck with them, so they can go nuts.
  • This is the big leagues, and the stakes are extremely high. Be prepared to fight tooth and nail for the right to display your weird knickknacks or ugly armchairs. Once they’re relegated to the basement (i.e. the consolation prize), they’ll never see the light of day again.
  • Every unwanted or ghastly housewarming gift from your respective families has the potential to be included in your decor forevermore.

Advice:

“Till death do us part” should actually read “Till decorating do us part”, especially if you’re one of those crazy kids who jumped straight into marriage without living with your partner beforehand. I hope that your relationship is built on a solid foundation of trust, love, and communication, because you’ll need to lean on all of that the first time you disagree about artisan live-edge salvaged wood tables.

If you’re not careful, things can get vicious pretty easily. Don’t let it get to that—remember, be kind! While going rogue might seem tempting, that’s a race to the bottom neither of you want. If compromise fails, the real key to success is negotiation. Either offer (or insist on) something of equal value in exchange for sole creative control. Negotiate in good faith, and you’ll see the silver lining around all those paint swatches you’re buried under.

Jamie Quadros

Freelance writer and communications professional at the University of Toronto. He’s an avid cinephile, voracious reader, and a terror at karaoke bars.

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