The real reason Ikea is the ultimate relationship test

When Ikea arrived in the United States it changed everything we knew about furniture (and meatballs). Suddenly, those dorm room blow-up couches that never fully inflated were replaced by sleek futons, and everything from nightstands to forks came with umlauts and several pages of directions. The advent of affordable furniture sold in adventurous, winding forests of home displays was a revelation and, if you were shopping with a partner, a relationship trap.

Deciding on how to furnish your first pad together is stressful enough, without the endless options, the maundering crowds and did we mention those hard to follow directions? We did. But that’s just scratching the surface of why Ikea has become the ultimate relationship test for seemingly stable couples. In a new article, “Why Ikea Causes So Much Relationship Tension,” The Atlantic deep-dived into the psychology behind those Ikea-driven arguments and frustrations that arise with our partners, because, well, somebody had to.

A huge reason behind Ikea tiffs doesn’t have to do with the furniture itself — it’s a symbol for something more deeply ingrained, according to Don Ferguson, author of Reptiles in Love: Ending Destructive Fights and Evolving Toward More Loving Relationships.  “Little things like putting a set of shelves together will bring up some ancient history with the partners,” Ferguson told The Atlantic. “Do you trust me? Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I have no skills? Do you wish your old boyfriend was here doing this?”

In fact, the article goes on to cite the research of clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, who noticed so many couples bringing up Ikea in their therapy sessions that she started going to the store for her own studying purposes. She noticed that each section seemed to serve as triggers for representative arguments — in the bedding section, sex; kitchen, chores; children’s gear, “don’t even start.”

And when partners are forced to compare their tastes so closely and find differences, they begin to view said differences in taste as irreconcilable issues in their relationships. “Couples tend to extrapolate from the small conflicts that arise while shopping for and building furniture that perhaps they aren’t so made for one another after all,” clinical psychologist Maisie Chou Chaffin told The Atlantic.

And when it comes to lugging that furniture home and getting down to business, the issue of who takes the lead becomes huge. After all, even though we strive to divide labor and responsibilities down the middle, some people are just better at certain tasks than others — one of you may be better suited to taking care of the finances, while the other takes care of home repairs.

“Unless one of you is the accepted leader for building something, you’re thrown into this dynamic of ‘who is in charge,’” University of Denver psychology professor Scott Stanley explained to The Atlantic. “Even when you’ve sort of figured out that one’s more taking the lead, then you’ve got the moments when the assistant sees what the leader is doing wrong. Despite the fact that we all often function better with constructive feedback, nobody likes it.”

Another issue? The Ikea manuals and guides make it seem as though putting together that lovely dresser is oh-so-simple (despite the fact that it’s totally NOT), so you and your love start to feel like idiots for not getting it right — making it tempting to vent frustration in a not-so-healthy way. “As with any anxiety, a degree of self-abuse kicks in,” Ferguson told The Atlantic. “And very quickly, if you can’t take a pause, you’re going to turn on your spouse or your partner.”

As professor of psychology at Duke University Dan Ariely highlighted, putting together Ikea furniture with your partner raises an important question: Are the two of you more likely to blame each other when things go wrong, or to understand that things just happen sometimes? It’s the prime condition for a fight, which can trigger the “fight or flight” response and make it all a very slippery slope. “The higher brain shuts down,” Ferguson explained. “The primitive brain takes over. And there’s no organization or reason there.”

Put simply, the arguments over Ikea furniture aren’t really about Ikea furniture at all. They’re about the way couples interact with each other, how they communicate, and whether or not they’re on the same page. You know, just the big stuff. So the next time you head to that land of wonders (and relationship terrors), remember that Ikea furniture is JUST Ikea furniture. . . and that we all struggle to put it together.

(Image via Fox Searchlight Pictures)


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