Does Your Home Cause Marital Stress?


How do you make a relationship work in a small space.

Shortly after Matt and I gave birth to our second child, we moved into a Craftsman home that at first felt restful and airy, light and inviting. And I was happy there. Because moving put us ten blocks from my friend, Meg. Like me, she was juggling a toddler and a newborn, but, unlike me, she didn't complain about the demands of it. Every morning, she showered and drank as much coffee as she needed to get her day started right. "What can you do?" she shrugged, gulping down a Starbucks.

All that summer, she walked to my house or I drove to hers, as our toddler refused to sit in his stroller. On particularly warm days, we took our boys to the lake. I loved listening to my boys squeal as I skipped a rock or slipped sand through their tiny fingers. Our baby had no fear of the water; he crawled towards it, landing face first in a wave.

Meg was struggling to keep up with the demands of her part-time job as a public defender. It wasn't part-time, not really; it was days and nights and weekends, whenever her phone rang, whenever court called. Sometimes on weekends she scrambled to find baby-sitters to keep up with her workload. She, too, had begun her search for balance in her life. Meg wished to be closer to her children, while I wished for a little space from mine.

Matt, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly unhappy in our new home. In part, it was the house itself. It weighed on him, the price he paid for it, the hours he worked to sustain it, and what he felt we got for our money. We'd fallen into that trap of thinking bigger was better, when what matters is how you live in a space. But that's something only time can teach.

For example, our office was attached to our master bedroom. When we bought our home, we liked the sense of privacy the office location gave. While our office gave Matt a quiet place to work in a chaotic household, what we didn't realize was that he’d also wake me at night when he took calls from clients in Japan. With our open floor plan, we were constantly in each other’s space, and minor annoyances festered.

Matt grew up on a farm in North Dakota with breathing space. Horses grazed outside his front window. He wasn't used to the sort of compromises narrow city lots require: a view of the yard or an attached garage? Or their exploitation of space. With homes built up beside ours, he felt claustrophobic.

Soon something ugly settled between us. I knew what it was in me; it was resentment. I'd recently given birth to our third child, and I was tired, more tired than I realized. I blamed Matt for it: the hours that he worked, his unwillingness to respond to our newborn as I did. "Let her cry a little," he'd say, and, because I couldn't, I felt I was always the default. And because of that, my body never shut off.

But I wasn't sure what it was in Matt that left him unsettled. I think what scared me was he didn't seem to know either. We'd been married for seven years, and this was proving our hardest year yet. We didn't have the patience for one another as we once did. He grew restless waiting for my wandering sentences to end, while I was too tired for light flirtations. And we couldn't figure out how much of our unhappiness came from us, and how much came from our space.

Homes require both private and open spaces and that balance was exactly what we were lacking. Sarah Susanka writes in The Not So Big House "Sometimes we feel like being with others, and other times we need solitude." Our home didn't have a private place where we could cocoon ourselves to repair after a stressful day. Even our master bath, without a door to close off the toilet, had become a sort of public gathering spot. And not a very sanitary one. How can you sort through what you feel when there's no separation?

What do you think? Can a home cause marital stress?

I asked my friend Megan's adorable husband, Casey, if guys felt the same stress we do. Here's what he said: