Putting Your Relationship to the Test: Shopping at Ikea, Until the Sofa Do Us Part

It’s amazing the shades of toxic pettiness we reached in our fights about furniture – quarrels that couched the real issue

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It’s not that IKEA has exclusivity on arguments over furniture, it just furnishes the most accessible hell for such feuds.
Credit: Illustration by Aron Ehrlich
Vita Kairys
Vita Kairys

If it were possible to do a search for the most popular words I uttered this month, then first place would go to “sofa” and second to “go to hell.” I helped my partner choose the couches 13 years ago before we had even moved in together. Our relationship was in a completely different place and so was my bottom. The sofas have survived two house moves, two kids, lockdowns, diaper weaning, and dozens of play dates inspired by Ninja Warrior, yet they still manage to hold on for dear life.

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Ten cubits of stupidity descended on our arguments; nine were taken up by arguments concerning interior design. It’s incredible what shades of toxic pettiness we reached when we finally decided to replace our old sofas with a new one. The quarrel was about functionality versus aesthetics. We argued about the shape, the color, the price and the timing. We argued about the upholstery, we argued about the fact that we were arguing, and about who started it and what childhood archetype drove them there. We got stuck on the small details, because that’s the easy thing to do. In the meantime, the real essence of our feud became clear: It was not an argument about a sofa, but a battle for control.

Shopping at Ikea.Credit: Jack Dempsey / AP for IKEA

I woke up in a big pool of blood, tears, and a color Pantone. The argument became crazier and more vocal than any previous dispute.

It wasn’t long until the small stones rolling downhill turned into a landslide that brought everything tumbling down with it. One evening, for example, when we were moving our existing furniture to see how to rearrange the living room my partner took apart the dining table and asked me to hold it for a second. “Hurry up,” I said. “It’s heavy.” “It’s not heavy,” he replied. That’s it, doctor: From here on everything is blurry. I woke up in a big pool of blood, tears, and a color Pantone. The argument became crazier and more vocal than any previous dispute. More shrill than arguments like “are you listening to me or are you on the phone?!” or quarrels about how to raise the children. That makes sense. After all, we spend about a total of about a week educating the kids (what is education anyway?), but a sofa — now that is a serious matter. It’s going to be stuck here for at least another 10 years, heavy and silent.

“In fact,” I said to him, “We don’t know how to do anything together.” The household chores are divided more or less along gender lines and done in parallel. Each of us has our own areas of responsibility and interest, and everything in the middle is shoved into the judicial territory of the other, with statements formulated around “need.” As in: We need to fix a screw on the drawer, we need to take the kid to the optician. The problem is that every time that we have to decide on something together because we both care about it, each of us is certain that they should be the one to decide.

When it comes to relationship dramas and furniture, one name comes to mind. Comedians have written jokes about it and journalists write articles entitled “Why Ikea Causes So Much Relationship Stress” in which researchers and psychologists offer explanations for the rage that accompanies home refurbishments. Domestic tasks, these articles claim, lead couples to extrapolate from items such as beds or shelves all the shortcomings that we secretly attribute to our partners. He can’t make up his mind which model to choose: He is probably very bad at making decisions and is a serial procrastinator. She insists on a corner sofa? She wants to turn me into a member of the bourgeoisie. He doesn’t like the coffee table? He doesn’t appreciate my taste or me. From here the route is short to more basic questions: Do we want the same things, do we want the same life, and the sofa makes me happy, so why does he prefer the other one – doesn’t he care about me?

“The store literally becomes a map of a relationship nightmare,” says a psychology professor in another article. And just like in prison, here as well everyone is innocent. Disagreement puts people in a negative mood state, and when you’re in a negative mood state, you actually remember more negative things,” says Ozlem Ayduk, a psychologist from the University of California, Berkeley in yet another article on Ikea and relationships. He describes it as a process called “mood congruent memory recall” and explains that when we are happy we are more inclined to recall other happy memories. If on the other hand, we are mad because our partner insists on a sofa with a retractable recliner, then it’s more likely that we will recall other times they made us miserable with their capricious behavior. But it’s not that Ikea has exclusivity on arguments over furniture, it just furnishes the most accessible hell for such feuds.

It’s not that IKEA has exclusivity on arguments over furniture, it just furnishes the most accessible hell for such feuds.

“A sofa is a special issue,” says Tal Meidan, the owner of an interior design studio. “We all have our memories of a luxurious sofa or a terrible sofa that wasn’t replaced for years because of budgetary or time considerations. You spend at least two or three hours a day on the sofa and if it isn’t comfortable that’s a lot of hours of discomfort to be added to the list of mutual recriminations. In the end, couples don’t split up because of sofas; they split up because of bitterness and negative sentiments that have accumulated because of the sofa.”

The bottom line is that arguments over sofas have created an opening for emotional conversations about breakdowns in our relationship dynamic, primordial relationship sins that a professional couples therapist would no doubt have dived into deeply. The salesman at the store had no difficulty identifying the situation either. In retrospect, I’m glad that things worked out as they did. Anger is a toxic emotion if it stays locked in the body, but if it is allowed to emerge, it is an engine for change. The sofa gave me the courage to talk about things that until now had only appeared in my repeated dreams at night. Arguments forced us to look anew at our relationship contract and re-examine relevant clauses, and more than anything the sofa made us work together.

Ikea sofas.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

So what can I say? If you really want to bring your relationship to the edge, buy a sofa, choose some wallpaper, and refurbish the house. It will cause you to bicker a lot but if you survive the arguments, you’ll find you’re finally really talking to each other.

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