When couples start getting cozy, the question soon becomes, “Your place or mine?” As they get cozier, the question then becomes, “Your stuff or mine?” As any established adult who has merged with another has found hearts merge easier than households.
Just ask Sara Nation, of Castle Rock, Colo. Two weeks ago, the 59-year-old program manager for a large health system and her committed partner, Austin Tilghman, a 65-year-old bank consultant, who are both divorced, moved into a house they are renting until they either buy or build a house next year.
When the couple met at a charity event five years ago, she had a 3800-square-foot home, where she had lived for 15 years and raised her three children. His home was more than twice that size, and had been home to his ex-wife and their two. That’s a lot of sofas and chairs.
Because they wanted a fresh start, he sold his house. She rented hers out. And now they are shoehorning their edited belongings into a 4500-square-foot home. You do the math.
“I thought we had gotten rid of a lot and downsized enough, but we’re not even close,” she told me over the phone. “I’m still struggling with where to put stuff.”
Adding to the chaos, Nation’s daughter recently moved back home. “So, we have my stuff, his stuff, and her stuff,” she said. “I’m dizzy thinking about it. Nothing matches.”
His Tuscan-villa style furnishings clash with her contemporary pieces. “The whole place is a mishmash of furniture and art that doesn’t go and doesn’t fit the new cottage-style house. You don’t walk in and say, ‘Ahh, this is home, and I’m happy to be here.’”
In short, Nation is in a state.
That they’re renting throws another wrench in the works. “My challenge is how can we live here for the next year until we have the house we want to be in for 15 to 20 years. Until I know what that looks like, it doesn’t make sense to buy furniture. Between now and then, I need some beauty and comfort. I need to come home to a house I like again.”
Professional organizer Ben Soreff, of Norwalk, Conn., agrees. “Families in flux too often make the mistake of labelling a living situation as temporary. You assume the child will get a job, or the parent will move to assisted living, or your new house will be built soon, then a year goes by.”
Rather than put up with disarray, “lean into the situation and forget the temporariness,” said Soreff. “If you don’t, no one feels settled.”
Nation is trying. “It’s not that we have trouble letting go of old belongings,” she said. (Pause right there for a round of applause.) “We’re happy to leave the past behind, and are very excited about the next chapter. We just don’t know what to keep.”
“What do you want for sure?” I ask.
“We have one piece of art that we both love, that we bought together. That’s it,” she said.
“Sounds like an excellent to start to me,” I said.
She thought a bit more, then added, “And I have an antique chair that was my grandfather’s and his lamp, which I want no matter what. The chair is made of old sturdy fabric, just like him. And Austin really likes his large brown leather ottoman.”
“You’re on your way.”
“We see fights, which are mostly turf wars,” said Soreff. “Fights often develop around stuff because, when a loved one speaks about removal or cleaning, it can stop being about the stuff and start to feel to the partner as if he or she is being told what to do.” That’s not helpful. Instead, he offers these suggestions for tackling a merger:
Create the vision. Talk about how you want your house to look and feel. One aim could be having just enough, but not too much furniture, so rooms function and flow. You might also strive for clean, clear surfaces, said Soreff.
Separate out the sentimental. “Gather your keepsakes, but remember not everything is important,” he said. “You can save keepsakes, but not out in the open. Those items live more remotely.”
Don’t keep score. Once you separated keepsakes, and have only neutral items left, act as if your combined belongings are all in a store, and you’re shopping. Then the question isn’t whose is it? But rather which will work in our new home as we picture it?
Focus on the finish not the feelings. Keep your eye on the unified style you’ve settled on so discussions don’t feel personal.
Work by category. Don’t sort piece meal. Gather and spread out all the kitchen gear or all sheets and towels. Look for multiples. Select the best. Donate the rest. When choosing between appliances, pick the newest or best model, and say good-bye to the others. Be sure what you keep has a place to live.
Do not throw another person’s things away when he or she isn’t around. Enough said.
Sell two buy one. If neither of your sofas or dining tables works well, sell them online and use the proceeds to buy one you both like.
Don’t say, ‘just for now.’ Everything is temporary. Make now nice.
Join me next week when a top designer trying to blend households with her fiancé shares her tips.
CAPTION: Mixing it up. Austin Tilghman and Sara Nation get cozy in their kitchen in Castle Rock, Colo., where they are blending their lives and furniture. Photo courtesy Sara Nation.