Love me, love my furniture

She can't stand his old recliner. He dislikes her art. How do couples in second marriages blend their stuff?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As an interior designer, Ronni Whitman sometimes helps couples in second marriages combine "his" and "hers" possessions into an artful mix of "ours." But when she married and began the same task herself, she faced a challenge: Her husband was firmly wedded to a large, unattractive chair from his previous home.

"He had the most awful faux leather recliner," says Ms. Whitman, interior design director for the Art Institute of California - Orange County in Santa Ana. "That was really tough for me to compromise on." But compromise they did, and eventually her husband agreed to have the recliner reupholstered.

In an era when remarriage is common and possessions are plentiful, deciding what to keep and what to jettison after saying "I do" can require diplomacy, patience, and perhaps a little friendly persuasion. Love may be lovelier the second time around, as the old song claims. But that doesn't mean the furniture, art, and bric-a-brac second-timers bring to their new nest always appear lovely to a new spouse.

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Finding ways to integrate favorite belongings - and keep the peace - can be a delicate adjustment. "This is an important process," says Lisa Cohn of Portland, Ore., who remarried eight years ago. But with respect, flexibility, and inventiveness, she and others say, the results can be satisfying.

For Ms. Cohn and her husband, Bill Merkel, the process presented what she calls an "incredible challenge." Her young son didn't like Dr. Merkel's "scary" primitive art. She didn't like his 1960s-style orange-and-brown furniture. He found her simple furnishings plain.

As one solution, they created an "ours" living room with many new pieces. "We all shopped together for the furniture and some of the art," says Cohn, coauthor, with her husband, of "One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice for Stepfamilies." They also established "his" and "hers" sections of the house, where each can display favorite pieces of furniture. The children's rooms include familiar belongings.

The couple also hired a moderately priced designer. "She took our very different styles in some of the rooms and was able to blend them," Cohn says. "Bill had a lot of bright color. We got rid of some of the orange. She found a way to mix his primitive artwork with my simple wooden furniture."

The designer also turned two empty walls into separate "museums," featuring old photos of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Bookshelves display small objects, such as the silver elephants Cohn inherited from her grandmother.

Cohn, a self-described pack rat, has put some of her extra possessions in storage. "I didn't want him to tell me what to throw out," she says.

In her role as a designer, Whitman sees recurring patterns. "Usually it's the women who are attached to family photographs, family heirlooms, gifts from their children, and antiques that have been passed down," she says. Men keep artwork and objects they have collected in their travels - ceramic foo dogs or a Buddha they bought in Asia, for example.

Both sexes find it hard to part with furniture from their parents.

Whitman tells of a husband who inherited his father's bedroom furniture. His wife didn't like it, but he wanted to keep it. After having it refinished in a darker color with polished chrome hardware, the wife loved the new look.

As in many areas of life, a sense of humor proves invaluable as couples are deciding what stays and what goes. "Being able to laugh and keep the big picture in mind will help a lot in accepting his giant television with nine different remote controls and getting him to let you keep the antique chairs that look better than they feel," say April Masini, who writes an advice column called "Ask April."

She emphasizes the need for flexibility. "Agree to keep his lime-green recliner for 18 months, at which point you both go buy one together and give the old one to charity."

Or, "if you can't agree, and it's going to be a rocky road, agree to disagree and get rid of everything," Ms. Masini says. "Hold a giant garage or tag sale at both of your places on two consecutive weekends. You can even hire a company to hold the sale for you if you're too busy or too emotionally attached to your things. Use all the money to establish a 'Start Over' fund and buy new stuff."

To minimize dissension, Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, Calif., urges couples to begin their discussions prior to the wedding. "Walk through each other's living spaces before moving in together, and talk about what each of you likes and dislikes," she says. "Get a clear agreement with your spouse about the method you will use to blend possessions. Whose house will you live in? How are you going to choose colors, wall decorations, and furniture?"

For Whitman, even color - or the lack of it - was an issue. Her husband refused to let her paint walls anything but white. In time the marriage ended, and the faux leather recliner and white walls became only a memory.

Last August Whitman remarried. This time, blending "his" and "hers" has not posed problems. Describing her new husband as calm and easygoing, she says, "If he doesn't like something, he'll say so and we'll go look at another alternative. I have a couple of pieces of furniture he thinks are weird, but he puts up with them." She has even painted a two-story wall in the family room coral.

For retired couples who remarry, parting with objects invested with decades of memories and sentiment may be particularly hard. Refinishing or painting old pieces to harmonize with other furnishings in a room can create a new look, Whitman notes. So can reupholstering chairs and sofas.

Before Arnold Stolberg of Richmond, Va., remarried 11 years ago, his new wife's house was filled with antiques, Oriental rugs, and traditional oil paintings. His furniture and art were contemporary. After he moved into her house, they created a shared stylehe calls "eclectic."

As they sorted through objects, his wife had an all-purpose suggestion for some of his possessions. "She would comment, 'That would look wonderful in your office,' " he says with a laugh. "So I've got an office full of beautiful artwork and furniture."

Two years ago, they bought and renovated an old house, where they now live. "That really reflects the integration of her things and mine," says Dr. Stolberg, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

He believes the ideal arrangement in a remarriage is a home that is neutral territory for both partners. "When it's my house or your house, there is a sense of territoriality: 'This is my house, and I decorated it the way I want.' "

Some couples discover the value of simplicity. "We've kept photos and some things that have sentimental value, each respecting each other's previous life but wanting to start fresh as much as possible," says Sue Masaracchia-Roberts of Mount Vernon, Ill., who remarried after being widowed for eight years.

Jann Blackstone-Ford, a divorce and stepfamily mediator in Discovery Bay, Calif., considered certain favorite possessions - such as her grandmother's treadle sewing machine - nonnegotiable when she merged her things with her new husband's. "I've had it with me for 20 years," she says. "There are things you have to keep. You can't get rid of everything."

Still, she emphasizes the importance of keeping priorities straight. "I wouldn't sacrifice my relationship with any of my new family for things," she says.

Commingling possessions also involves legal issues. "Whatever people bring into the marriage remains their separate property," says Bob Nachshin, a family law specialist in Los Angeles. "Whatever people buy during the marriage is joint property. If they get divorced, joint property is divided equally in practically every state in the country."

Mr. Nachshin offers a hypothetical case of a man who owns a desk that his parents bought for him in high school 40 years ago. He brings it to his second marriage but has no record of ownership. If they divorce, "he would have a hard time proving the desk is his separate property," Nachshin says.

To avoid such situations, he suggests that both spouses take an inventory, and then photograph or videotape their possessions.

Whatever approach a couple takes in blending their possessions, Whitman offers a cautionary note. "Anything in marriage is a compromise," she says. "People need to know going in that you have to choose your battles. Furniture shouldn't be one of them. In the long run, furniture isn't what's important. What's important is the people, the family. The furniture is not the memories, it just is a representation of those memories. There are many other ways to keep the memories alive."

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