how to build a house and stay marriedThe landscape might be littered with the bodies of marriages blown apart by building, but most healthy couples survive (and even enjoy) the process.

If ever, midway through a bottle of good wine, you’re brave enough to bring up the topic of marriage and home building, it’s a sure bet the conversation will be dominated by tales of failed projects. As any architect or builder can attest, the field of home building is littered with the bodies of marriages that simply blew apart during the building process.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. Home building can equally well be an experience of relationship building, and the simple truth is that most couples do survive their house projects, often coming through much stronger than they began. In the very best cases, they succeed in creating an abode that will nurture the relationship for years to come.

What is it that determines which couples survive building and which don’t? I am convinced that the single biggest factor has nothing to do with the house. Rather, there’s an underlying flaw or missing piece in the marriage, and building the dream house is somehow supposed to make up for everything that’s wrong in the relationship. It’s a lot like teen mothers who get pregnant in order to feel important. Problem is, the strategy just won’t work—the enthusiasm of the big undertaking will override the problems for a while, but sooner or later reality is going to come crashing in. In fact, the rigors of decision making, money, and timeline will actually tend to magnify a couple’s issues.

If a couple has paired up out of neediness, insecurity, loneliness, or a weak sense of self, they’ll be building a house on shaky ground. Such emotional deficits will tend to translate into indecisiveness, a debilitating fear of not getting what each person wants, ill-conceived compromises, and a scratch-each-other’s-back attitude that will rob the project of energy—in particular, that creative, forward-thinking energy that makes for great houses.

By contrast, a couple who has done their relationship homework will be well positioned to envision and realize a project that truly expresses who they are and where they want to go with their lives. Naturally these tend to be relatively mature people with a lot of experience and a sense of humor about themselves. I’m remembering a pair of clients who had an amazing ability to perform due diligence in researching their options, be decisive when the deadline was in sight but not yet urgent, and, best of all, never look back or second-guess their decisions. They never failed to breeze through a design session right on schedule and return to the golf course with a clear and unruffled mind.

But for the rest of us for whom designing and building is not quite that easy, a few guidelines can be absolutely relationship-saving. First, have realistic expectations of what building and home owning will be like. Learn everything you need to know about appraisals, construction loans, mortgages, construction contracts and timelines, insurance, and taxes. Develop a watertight business plan for the project, and stash a decent contingency fund for those special features you discover you just can’t do without.

Second, assemble a trustworthy and supportive team that might include a realtor, designer/architect, contractor, and loan officer. Don’t sign a construction contract that’s anything less than crystal clear as to what the builder is to provide and at what cost, and be sure that detailed blueprints and specifications are part of the deal. All change orders must be in writing with specific charges pre-approved by you.

Third, have your builder and/or designer create a line-item schedule of all the decisions you will have to make throughout the project.

Fourth, commit to an effective stress management program for the duration, including exercise, rest, healthy diet, and fun, both together and apart. Set aside regular times to discuss house business, and agree not to let building intrude on those moments that are most important for intimacy, such as dinnertime, bedtime, or evenings out.

Of course, these steps are generally as useful for singles as for couples—and the list could go on to include skillful division of labor, utilization of individual skills, and a frank acceptance of which person is just plain better at a given aspect of design, building, or decorating.

Projects really come alive when couples view building as an opportunity to explore what their goals and values really are. What relationship do we hope to create with the earth, or with community? What features do we really need, and what can we just as well do without? How can our home be designed to enhance our love affair, nurture a family, or provide maximum hospitality to our guests?

Viewed this way, it’s not hard to imagine how a home can mirror and ultimately shape the character of a relationship. That the house must support togetherness is clear: with bedrooms that are deeply comfortable and sensual, kitchens with workspace for two or seating for the non-cooking partner, cushy sofas for watching TV or videos together, an intimate breakfast nook, and bathrooms where two can luxuriate.

What is less obvious is how houses can accommodate a couple’s differences, whether in good times or bad. We all have habits and preferences that may clash at times. So if one tends to be a night owl and the other is an early bird, it will be a godsend to set the bedroom back from the master bath and closet and quite far from the kitchen, TV, or sound system. For some couples, his-and-her lavatories or even entire bathrooms are a must. For others, separate closets are a plain necessity. And if you love opera and she’s crazy about country, one of you is definitely going to have to hole up far from the speakers from time to time!

It’s a sign of a mature relationship to acknowledge that we all need alone time just as much as we need intimacy; it’s no admission of defeat to give yourself or your mate the study, home office, meditation room, or hobby space you need, as well as the permission to use those spaces for personal recharge.

Paradoxically, successful projects are often less about kicking butt and more about letting go. Differing tastes in style, texture, and color can be impossible to integrate in any single space, so sometimes the best solution is for each partner to have the greater say in agreed-upon small rooms, while teaming up for the more important shared spaces. There’s usually something appropriate about her presiding over the bedroom and bathroom, while the den and home office might be more his area of interest. Who’s to say? Ultimately there are no rules. But if you know yourselves, keep your eyes open, and learn to let go, it should add up to home, sweet home.

Vishu Magee designs homes around Santa Fe and Taos. He is the author of Archetype Design: House as a Vehicle for Spirit. Contact him at archetype-design.com.