Till Faucets Do Us Part

On television decorating shows, the featured couple is inevitably cheerful and agreeable: cooing as they examine tile samples, nudging each other with mutual delight as they shop for chandeliers. But as anyone who has been through a real-life home-renovation project knows, suppressing the urge to clobber your spouse with a piece of crown molding can also be part of the experience. "Going through a remodel can push a couple to the edge," says Rachel Cox, a marriage and family therapist in Palo Alto, Calif. "Every tension they have gets magnified a hundredfold."

Cox would know--she specializes in counseling couples facing the stress of home renovation. It's not just battles over cherrywood versus bamboo flooring. Remodeling projects, says Cox, ultimately boil down to "money, time, energy and power," the very things that can make--or break--a marriage. "These projects reveal deeper issues," agrees Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a psychology professor at Columbia University.

Although some couples do come into Cox's office with dueling paint samples, more often she deals with the underlying emotions. And anxiety over finances is the big one. Even in affluent Palo Alto, where the median home price is more than $1 million, her clients do not have unlimited resources. Soaring prices make it hard to move up, so families add on instead, usually funding their projects with home-equity loans, going deeper into debt. (U.S. homeowners spent $149.5 billion on remodeling in 2005.) "Let's face it," says Cox, "most people are not used to writing $10,000 and $20,000 checks. They often take out the anxiety on each other."

There is also the resentment felt by the partner who ends up dealing with the workers every day. And there are the battles over what's necessary. In one case, a wife was upset when her husband resisted her desire for a luxury bathtub. "It turned out she really wanted him to acknowledge her need for rest," says Cox. The woman got the bathtub, but agreed to economize on other finishes.

Cox, who got the idea for her practice while working for her husband's contracting company, says the average remodel requires 1,000 to 2,000 decisions. "It could strain even the most solid marriage," she says. In many cases, when the work is done, so is the marriage. Don, a San Francisco lawyer (who asked that his last name not be used), spent eight months in a cramped apartment with his now ex-wife while their home was renovated. "Neither one of us handled displacement well," he says. "The first thing to think about before remodeling is 'How's the relationship otherwise?' "Two months after the job ended, he and his wife split up. Don got the house he wanted, but at a price he never imagined.