So most of the art stayed bubble-wrapped—and most of the walls, bare. It might sound like a head-in-the-sand approach to merging, but in fact, by not insisting that their collections be integrated, Wendy and Jim left room for a new, mutually pleasing one to develop. They started with installations that were easy enough to agree on: photos of their two kids along a hallway, their son's artwork tacked up in the playroom. Adorning their home's walls suddenly felt like fun, and they found themselves eyeing new paintings and photographs they might like to acquire—as a couple. Ironically, as they begin to fill the house with this new, mutual collection, small groupings of his maps or her oil paintings no longer cause such a huge visual disconnect, bridged as they are by common ground.
But what do you do when what's undermining a merger isn't the stuff itself, but the system for organizing it?
What seemed to work best for the couples we talked to was letting the more meticulous scheme govern—with the understanding that occasional insurrections must be tolerated. An example: though her husband, John, would be fine with a looser arrangement, our friend Laura, organizes their CDs alphabetically within genre: rock A-Z, comedy A-Z, classical A-Z. The exceptions, she says, are quite simply "anything one person cares a lot more about." So though some of John's Peter Gabriel albums should, according to the system, be filed in rock and others in world music, they stay together. As Laura points out, John is the only one who'll be listening to them—and so he's the only one who will need to locate them. "We don't make theory more important than practicality," she says. "There's no 'My logic is better than yours so you must apply it to things I won't use!'"
The same is true with Patti and Stuart, who did eventually merge their books—once Patti, a random shelver, capitulated to Stuart's precise alphabetical scheme. The bookshelves start in the sunroom (Dorothy Allison through Aldous Huxley), continue in the living room (John Irving through Tom Robbins), make a leap to the master bedroom (Philip Roth followed by J.K. Rowling followed by … well, you get the point.) "I ceded all control," Patti says wryly. Et voila! Bibliophilic bliss. But there are some books—Patti's vast number of reference works, for example—that are exempt from the system. And it's those little idiosyncrasies that turn the collection from his into theirs.
A melding of the minds
Of course, the very best mergers are those that come about organically, even when it's a glacial process. Take Anne and RJ's formerly segregated CDs, now assimilated into four large CD binders. When they met, country music was something Anne inflicted on RJ. Now he knows every word to "All My Ex's Live in Texas." And as he began reaching for Anne's CDs as often as he did his own, their personal possessions began to feel like joint property. No, not every single one—they will never truly co-own the Metallica CDs (his) or the Indigo Girls albums (hers). But when one of them brings home the latest George Strait, they consider it theirs.
Get more advice from contributing editors Lauren and Anne Purcell at purcellsisters.com.