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Flat-pack and fighting: why assembling furniture makes couples fight

Comedy artist Amy Poehler joked that Ikea, the company that sells do-it-yourself furniture, was Swedish for ‘argument’ because assembling furniture makes couples fight. Flat-pack furniture is touted as cheap and chic – and easy to assemble – but it is also the start of contentious arguments (Quartz, September 18, 2015).

Behavioural psychologists and family therapists maintain that assembling flat-pack furniture releases emotional triggers that commence long before anyone picks up a screwdriver. They document five argumentative phases: (1) showroom shopping, (2) unboxing, (3) reading instructions, (4) the construction, and (5) the fighting.

Shopping for the flat-pack furniture is said to be an ‘emotionally destabilizing experience’ and a ‘relationship nightmare.’ The showroom is where the potential for arguments begin (although some say the catalogue phase can be the onset). In the showroom there are choices to be made regarding the design of the furniture. If couples can’t decide on the design – then they tend to extrapolate that they may be incompatible in all other areas of life and living.

A pivotal moment in flat-pack assembly is the unboxing. One person usually leads the unboxing and laying out the pieces of furniture. However, there can be arguments about who is best to logically set out the pieces and ‘manage the production.’ This is the initial power struggle. Who is in charge? What if the assistant sees that the process is not going well? Does he or she step in and point this out to the leader? No one really likes constructive feedback.

Reading instructions is the frustrating phase. Instructions are usually lots of pictures with little or no text, aimed for everybody, no matter what language they speak. The assembly instructions sound like the construction phase should be easy – with minimal time and effort. Anxiety rises. Self-abuse kicks in, says author of Reptiles in Love: Ending Destructive Fights and Evolving Toward More Loving Relationships, Don Ferguson.

A 2014 study at Monmouth University and Ursinus College in America divided participants into two groups. One group was given a simple, stress-free task of writing down numbers chronologically. The second group was given a complicated set of mathematical problems. After the task both groups were asked to write down compliments they might give their partner at home (whom were not present during the experiment). The stressed out group had 15% fewer nice compliments to say about their loved ones than the non-stressed group. Even though the partners had nothing to do with the experiment. So what hope do couples have when assemling a flat-pack!

Psychologists say that the construction phase of flat-pack furniture assembly can be a killer – in theory. The blame game sets in when the furniture has only three legs and falls over. Dan Ariely at Dukes University in America, and part of the Harvard Business School team that coined the terminology ‘the Ikea effect’ in 2011, says ‘people love a thing more if they participate in some small way in its creation.’ But during furniture assembly ‘things happen in an unexpected way. There are pieces missing. People put things together in the wrong way.’ Who do we attribute the problem to – the instructions or the person reading them? Of course, there are always people who begin assembly without reading the instructions. Feelings of inadequacy rise. Up goes the anxiety levels.

The fighting phase tends to go beyond the construction of the furniture – and ends up with arguments about the parents-in-law, the children, the office, the lack of holidays, and so on. It’s no longer even about the furniture. And the ‘fight or flight’ response ensues. The couple either argues or one person storms off in a huff. By this stage there is acute anxiety and stress. Maturity, patience, and reason are temporarily switched off. Dan Ferguson says, ‘the higher brain shuts down. The primitive brain takes over. And there’s no organization or reason there.’

The Quartz article documents steps in handling the conflict. Step one is to assign responsibility, not blame, before the box is opened. Have a conversation about what will be the end-product and who will take the lead. The leader should communicate instructions clearly, while the assistant should avoid criticizing the leader. Step two is to take a break – have a walk around the garden or have a coffee break – ‘press the pause button’ occassionally – and have a sense of humour. Step three is stop, don’t continue, call a friend, or an expert in furniture assembly!


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