Dr. Ramani Durvasula was sitting in the sofa department of IKEA when she realised the Swedish furniture store was filled with arguing couples.
“I could see all the room displays, and I was watching couples go through and I would say almost half of them were bickering,” Dr. Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University Los Angeles and therapist in San Diego, told Business Insider. “And I thought ‘Wow, this place is really bringing out the worst in relationships.'”
It was right then that she was inspired to have couples in counseling build IKEA furniture together as therapy.
“What I see is when you work with a couple, we talk this big game about communication, collaboration, and respect, but it’s often hard to build that into a task, especially one that’s manageable,” she told us. “Furniture assembly is a metaphor for what we need to be able to do in a relationship.”
Now, Dr. Durvasula uses IKEA furniture as a tool to help her clients work through relationship roadblocks and build skills such as listening, communication, and consideration.
When one of her couple clients is looking for a new piece of furniture, Dr. Durvasula will encourage them to buy something to assemble together. Since most of her clients are young, they usually tend to be on the market of IKEA pieces, which according to Dr. Durvsaula is perfect since the Swedish furniture company requires assembly as well as collaboration.
The couples then return and describe to Dr. Durvasula how it went — did someone storm off, insult the other person, or make commands? Or did they laugh and work together?
“If I had my way honestly, I would love to be in their house, but that’s not something ethically that’s possible for a therapist,” she told us. “But if I were actually observing them, they’d be on their best behaviour. The nice thing about not being there is that they’re being themselves, and they usually are pretty honest.”
Dr. Durvasula told Business Insider the most challenging pieces of furniture couples can build together include the PAX wardrobe with its unwieldy drawers and big doors, king-sized beds since they all require two people working in tandem, and called the heavy LIATORP entertainment center a “divorcemaker.”
“It’s such a great metaphor for a relationship: You get those dowels in, you get those screws in, and everything has to line up and fit together before you start,” Dr. Durvasula told Business Insider. “If you don’t, it can crack the furniture and it will always be off kilter, which is so beautiful because that’s exactly what a relationship is — getting everything lined up and then getting the timing right before everything comes into place.”
If you’re building furniture with your significant other, these are the signs Dr. Durvasula said to watch out for:
Insults or disrespect: No one likes to be disrespected, but off-handed insults such as “You don’t know what you’re doing” or “Are you an idiot?” can speak to bigger problems in a relationship.
“These are what I call the reflexive insults, which we tend to do when we’re frustrated,” Dr. Durvasula said to Business Insider.
Storming off: Tossing the instructions on the ground and walking out of the room are not an effective way to communicate. Dr. Durvasula said this was a major problem and demonstrated a lack of confronting issues and communicating effectively.
Making commands: Ordering your partner to do something can be both bossy and disrespectful, even if you have the best intentions.
“Instead of saying ‘Do that,’ they should say ‘Would you like me to help with that?’ which becomes a more helpful bounds of communication,” Dr. Durvasula said.
Denial of the other’s reality: IKEA furniture can be challenging to put together, but it can be even harder when you’re not seeing things from your partner’s perspective. Accusing your significant other of holding something wrong, too tight, or in the wrong place can lead to fighting as you both angle to be the most “right.”
“The denial of the other person’s reality happens a lot in everyday life,” Dr. Druvasula told us. “That’s really unhealthy for couples.”
And these are the things to strive for while building IKEA furniture as a couple:
Mindfulness: Putting together IKEA furniture is going to be frustrating, but taking time to check in with your partner can make all the difference.
“Building IKEA furniture forces couples to work on mindfulness,” Dr. Druvasula said. “Always take that millisecond pause before you say something because an insult cannot be taken back.”
Back-and-forth: Having a dialogue, asking questions, and checking in with each other are all signs that you are communicating effectively. Ask your partner how they’re doing and what they need from you to stay on the same page and keep channels of communication open.
Listen, listen, listen: In addition to having a solid dialogue with one another, it’s important to listen to what your partner is actually saying.
“Sometimes we don’t hear things right because we hear what we want to hear,” Dr. Druvasula said. “But when you’re building furniture, the consequences are immediate. If you say ‘I’m going to lift this piece up, I’m going to need you to yours next,’ and the other person isn’t listening, then you just broke a piece of furniture.”
Laughter: “In a moment when things aren’t going right, being able to laugh about it is important,” Dr. Druvasula said. Making mistakes happens, but instead of leading to a larger argument, the key is to find the humour, and move on.
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