A fundamental relationship truth seems to be that people just cannot with each other while they’re also attempting to put together IKEA furniture. The plans look so simple, and a genderless cartoon is getting through them, but in truth, it’s harder than it looks and the person sweating and swearing is going to start looking for someone else to blame, sooner or later.
If any or all of this sounds familiar, here’s some validation: psychologists who have studied relationships and the meatball-hocking superstore agree with you. In fact, clinical psychologist Ramai Durvasula calls IKEA a literal “map of a relationship nightmare.”
The trouble begins in the showroom, where suddenly which coffee table you choose reflects who you are as people. It’s easy to move from that mindset to projecting a deeper meaning into your partner’s opinion, too, and then to wondering if your opinions on furniture are so different, what else is different? Do you want the same kind of life? Home? Kid? WHO IS THIS PERSON?!
“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,” explains clinical psychologist Maisie Chou Chaffin.
Then, you take whatever you’ve finally agreed on home, where it’s time for the real test – putting it together.”
“Little things like putting a set of shelves together will bring up some ancient history with the partners,” says Don Ferguson, author of Reptiles in Love: Endless Destructive Fights and Evolving Toward more Loving Relationships. “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?”
And when you fail to following the “simple” instructions right the first time, anxiety and self abuse can quickly turn on the other person in the near vicinity. Because when you’re locked in a battle of wills with an uncooperative set of bookshelves, you’re not yourself. Any comment from your partner triggers your fight or flight response, and that’s when the real trouble starts.
“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.”
That said, Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor thinks you could gain some important insight about your partner during the process – it could even tell you how compatible you could be in the long run (if you haven’t already made a long term commitment) because IKEA showcases how people respond to pressure.
“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 versus understanding that things just happen?”
If you want to know if you and a partner are compatible, Dan Ariely told me, 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 bottom line seems to be that yes, IKEA is designed to test relationships in more ways than one. That said, if you’re looking for a way to decide whether or not your boyfriend or girlfriend is marriage-and-kids material, it might be just the place to spend a Saturday afternoon.