The psychology behind why couples always fight when assembling Ikea furniture

They’re only smiling because they didn’t build that bed together.
They’re only smiling because they didn’t build that bed together.
Image: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
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If you have assembled a piece of Ikea furniture with a partner, then you have probably argued with a partner about assembling a piece of Ikea furniture. Domestic battles over the Swedish retailer’s products are such a common feature of modern cohabitation that comedian Amy Poehler once joked that Ikea was Swedish for “argument.”

But why, exactly, is assembling flat-packed furniture so contentious for couples? How do conversations about sofas so often lead down such dark corridors?

Quartz spoke with a number of research psychologists, behavioral experts, and family therapists who explained why each step of the Ikea process is rife with emotional triggers and how, once identified, those triggers can be avoided.

“Little things like putting a set of shelves together will bring up some ancient history with the partners,” Don Ferguson, author of Reptiles in Love: Ending Destructive Fights and Evolving Toward More Loving Relationships, told Quartz. “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?”

The shopping

Many couples start the assembly process with the disadvantage of having recently been at an Ikea store, itself an emotionally destabilizing experience.

The clean, stylish, spacious idealized home in the showroom “literally becomes a map of a relationship nightmare,” clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula told the Wall Street Journal (paywall).

Couples in her therapy sessions mentioned Ikea-related arguments so frequently that Durvasula began making research trips to the store. She found that themed areas triggered related arguments: bedding (sex), kitchen goods (chores), children’s gear (don’t even start).

The showroom is also where troubling questions of taste arise. In an environment where choosing a coffee table is marketed as an expression of identity, it’s easy to project deeper meaning onto a partner’s opinion. If I like the Lack and you like the Klingsbo, do we want the same kind of home? Do we want the same kind of life? Who are you, really?

“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,” Maisie Chou Chaffin, a London-based clinical psychologist who works with couples, told Quartz.

The unboxing

One of the most pivotal moments in the assembly process happens before anyone picks up a screwdriver.

Even couples who aim for egalitarian division of labor across the whole of their relationship find that when it comes to individual tasks, one person usually steps forward as the lead: she oversees paying the bills, for example, while he’s head chef in the kitchen.

Presented with a new task—like, say, assembling a Hemnes dresser—couples may have competing ideas of who’s best suited to take the lead.

A power struggle ensues, and power struggles are breeding grounds for conflict. (This is also why driving directions are such potent argument-starters.)

“Unless one of you is the accepted leader for building something, you’re thrown into this dynamic of ‘who is in charge?’” said Scott Stanley, a psychology professor at the University of Denver and author of the book, Fighting for Your Marriage.

“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,” Stanley commented to Quartz. “Despite the fact that we all often function better with constructive feedback, nobody likes it.”

The reading of the instructions

Designed for use in any culture or language, Ikea’s deceptively simple assembly manuals give users the (often incorrect) impression that the project can be accomplished without much time or effort.

If that mute, genderless cartoon figure can build a rolling kitchen island, it stands to reason, surely we can too. When those expectations are dashed, egos take a hit.

“As with any anxiety, a degree of self abuse kicks in,” said Ferguson, the author of Reptiles in Love who is now a Veterans Administration psychologist in Auburn, California. “And very quickly, if you can’t take a pause, you’re going to turn on your spouse or your partner.”

Feeling frustrated by a task can immediately affect your feelings for a partner. In a 2014 study, researchers at Monmouth University and Ursinus College split 120 subjects into two groups. One was given the simple, stress-free task of writing down numbers chronologically; the other, a complicated set of math problems.

Upon completing the task, both groups were asked to write down compliments they might give their partner upon returning home. The stressed-out group came up with 15% fewer nice things to say about their loved ones.

“The acute experience of stress undermines relationship behaviors, and furniture assembly-induced stress is another way to undermine positive relationship behaviors,” study author Gary Lewandowski of Monmouth University told Quartz.

The construction

If you want to know if you and a partner are compatible, Dan Ariely told Quartz, take a canoe ride together. An experience packed with factors out of your control—weather, currents, sharks—offers telling insights about how people react to pressure.

“The question is, do people have a tendency to blame the other person, or to understand that things just happen?” said Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. (He was also part of the Harvard Business School team that in 2011 identified “the Ikea effect,” the observation that people love a thing more if they participate in some small way in its creation.) He added:

I think the same thing would happen with Ikea furniture. During the process, things happen in an unexpected way. There are pieces missing. People put things together in the wrong way. The question is, how much do we tend to blame the other person?

There’s also the problem of fundamental attribution error, Ariely said. We tend to attribute our own mistakes to external factors (“I put this together wrong because the instructions were bad”) and others’ mistakes to internal ones (“You put this together wrong because you never pay attention.”)

On a good day, maybe you’re pretty good at avoiding blame and taking an enlightened view. But we’ve already established: this is not a good day. This is an Ikea day. The showroom made you feel inadequate, you’re subconsciously battling your partner for power, and you’re embarrassed that it’s taken the better part of a Saturday for two educated adults to build a chest of drawers.

So now, it’s time for…

The fighting

An Ikea-inspired fight stops being about the Stuva pretty quickly.

Arguing with a partner can trigger the “fight or flight response,” the physiological state of hyperarousal that evolved to help primates cope with acute stress. Inessential functions like maturity, patience, and reason temporarily switch off. You are primed for battle.

“The higher brain shuts down. The primitive brain takes over. And there’s no organization or reason there,” Ferguson said.

That’s why couples “start arguing about a set of shelves and by the end of the fight they’re talking about each other’s parents and themselves and their kids.”

So how do you keep a simple home improvement project from turning into a relationship-defining (or at least weekend-ruining) battle? This is what the experts told Quartz:

Step one: Assign responsibility, not blame

Before you even open the box, have a frank conversation about what you’re trying to accomplish and who is going to take the lead. If you’re in charge, communicate instructions and feedback clearly. If you take the assistant role, resist the temptation to criticize the leader.

Step two: Take a break

Experts repeatedly cited the value of stepping away briefly from this charged situation. Leave the room. Step outside. Have a cup of (decaf) coffee.

“The most successful people [in these situations] are people who can step back in innocence, have a sense of humor about it, press that pause button,” Ferguson said.

In case of emergency: Just don’t do it

“There are some couples who have a fabulous life together who just recognize they should not be building things from Ikea together,” Stanley said.

Ikea now offers delivery and assembly services for those who can’t face the quagmire that assembling a crib often becomes. Sites like Taskrabbit can also link furniture buyers with handy types willing to build your purchases for you.

Or call a friend—someone who likes you enough to help you build a bookcase but doesn’t come with the heavy emotional baggage of a romantic partner.

“If you had these conflicts with a friend you wouldn’t be friends anymore,” Stanley said. “We’re not as polite with the people we love the most. That commitment thing, we take advantage of it.”