Båts Against the Current: How Ikea Nearly Ruined My Marriage

by Corinne Purtill

This 2011 essay received an honorable mention in the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. The website where it used to live is shutting down. I’m reposting it here so that it has a home. 

In every relationship, there is one person who enjoys Ikea, and another who finds it a blue and yellow Abu Ghraib of the soul. I like Ikea. When I moved into my husband’s apartment in New York, he had an Ikea bed. More accurately, he had a pile of broken bed parts with a mattress flung on top. The mess could have easily been reconstituted into a bed with a $10 replacement part that Justin refused to return to Ikea to buy.

The first time we visit Ikea together – four years, one marriage and one child into our relationship – I prepare for our visit with the diligence of a Secret Service advance team. I determine the closest of greater London’s four Ikeas, studiously compare cots and bookcases, measure walls and rooms,  compile an annotated shopping list. The goal of this prep work is to expend less of our time (and Justin’s patience) on operational matters and more on marveling at cartons of 99-pence doodads.

And the plan works, for the most part. On the day of our visit I consult tags, make notes and cross-reference, while Justin pushes the stroller and breathes in a way that resembles the relaxation exercises they showed us in birth class. We are ok, and then we realize that the van is due back in an hour and a half, and that the baby needs to eat, and that we still have to procure our purchases from the giant joyless warehouse part of the store.

In the dim-lit aisles we load a dolly with boxes whose heft suggests the amount of marital discord contained within. Then comes the checkout line, which looks exactly like passport control in a developing country: disinterested checkers  processing lines of people with overloaded carts and the defeated, desperate look of those who have come too far in their journey to turn back. We emerge with a Hensvik cot, a Stuva dresser/shelf unit, an assortment of clever nylon boxes to organize toys, and an Expedit bookcase.

The Expedit bookcase comes in two oblong boxes, each of which weighs as much as a collapsed star. On each box is a decal bearing two cartoons. In the first panel, a vaguely human shape with a frowny face and a hammer stands before a jumbled pile of boards. This image is crossed out with a decisive X. In the next frame, the humanoid has made a friend, and the smile they exchange over the pile of boards means that assembly of this product requires two people.

I know one thing about these mute genderless persons: they are not married. Because if they were, Ikea’s graphic designers would be legally required in a third panel to render the rage, frustration and recrimination that comes with building the Expedit bookcase with the person you love.

Justin hates building Ikea furniture only slightly less than he hates actually being in Ikea. He does not enjoy assembling things, not when he could honor the talents and training of a local craftsman by paying him for his work. He is upfront about this.

I love building Ikea furniture. Transforming a pile of particle board and screws into a piece of furniture with at best a five-year life expectancy makes me feel like God molding man from the clay of Life. In my heart, there is only marginal difference between the family heirloom cradle my great-great-grandfather carved in Italy 100 years ago and the one I pieced together one afternoon with an Allen wrench.

Exactly five days after we moved to London, a Harvard Business School professor published a paper called “The ‘IKEA’ Effect,” which said that consumers love the things they buy more if they have to put in a little bit of labor before they can use them. People crack an egg into a bowl of powdered corn syrup and convince themselves they’re baking from scratch; I push a drawer front onto a wooden dowel and fancy myself an artisan. I am just as unhandy as Justin, but I believe that I’m not, and this, I realize, is about one hundred times more insufferable.

When our daughter goes to bed that night we tear open the boxes and spread the Expedit’s guts across the living room floor. The arguments begin instantly. A completed Expedit will fit neatly into the space along the wall (I know, because I measured it!) but there is not enough floor space to lay it flat during assembly. Furniture must be moved. After a cursory glance at the directions, Justin begins hammering and screwing with grim determination so that he can get this over with as soon as possible; I refuse to proceed until I have parsed every step of the directions (or “specs,” as I secretly and sadly call them in my faux-contractor head).

Of course, we install one of the pieces upside down, and of course, we discover this only when it’s too late to even begin to think about fixing it. Whatever material this monstrosity is made of – some NASA-grade invention that manages to be both heavy and flimsy – would not survive a second attempt at construction, and neither, I suspect, would our marriage. The Swedish probably have a word for the time you spend convincing yourself and your partner that the furniture is “supposed to be like that,” and another for the air of mutual resentment that permeates a room when two-college graduates realize that a sexless cartoon is a better builder than they are.

It takes an hour – or maybe two, or maybe twelve – before we finally, sweatily hoist the shelf against the wall. Justin is silent and fuming. I am ashamed of the barking, shrewish harpy I have become and how little time it took me to get there.

In the Ikea showroom the Expedit looked like a chic, sleek place for books to preen themselves, like an airy Berlin gallery. In our living room, decoupled from its showroom lighting and cheerily artificial surroundings, it looks like what it is – a cheap, hulking mess that dominates the room with the charm of Cousin It. And because the house is so old and the floors are so warped, it does not even lie flush against the wall, but lurches forward at a 15-degree angle like a drunk about to vomit.

I look over at Justin, who is sweating and tired and covered in a fine particulate dust that probably contains asbestos. He works so hard. Today he spent what little time he has outside the office in a place he hates because his baby needed a bed and that’s where his wife wanted to buy one. That is love.

I know all this and yet I am still furious at him, and that is marriage.

Why has Ikea caught on? We think it’s so great. We line up in droves for meatballs and Lack tables, but at the end of the day your marriage is worse and there’s an ugly bookshelf in your living room. This is no way to live. Yet still we beat on, båts against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the great blue box off the freeway.