I’m going to digress slightly from my normal format here to tell a little story. This is the story of how two people in a lasting relationship can know each other so well that they learn, over time, to anticipate conflict and resolve it long before it becomes a problem.

My story begins in that place so famous for teaching couples how they relate to each other through a subtle but definite trial by fire; a day in IKEA. Let me begin with a few words to elaborate, on the off chance you haven’t visited or are not familiar with IKEA.

While I’m fairly certain this Scandinavian furniture outlet did not begin with the intention to separate or forever bond couples, it nonetheless has shown over the years to be a spectacular proving ground for relationships. The immensely cavernous stores (which make Walmart look quaint by comparison) take hours to properly navigate and carry absolutely every  lamp, kitchen utensil, bedspread, hutch, window shade,  organizer, potholder or knickknack that any modern household could possibly require, along with thousands of other items that demonstrate the vast differences in our collective taste as a culture.

A small piece of advice – if you want to know your odds for a lasting relationship with your partner, plan a day at IKEA. There you will learn your partner’s true yearnings. Learn their favorite colors, their favored fabric patterns, their preference for lace, wood or metal, and which type of lighting they really feel will best complement your bathroom tiles. Here you will discover a plethora of products that provide you and your mate a feeling of bliss or a gnawing feeling that you just don’t have that much in common. Yes, IKEA is a great first date, and it can also be a last one.

A few years back I had the opportunity to visit an IKEA store with my aging parents. I was already familiar with the idea of IKEA as much more than just a store, so I was quite eager to observe my folks navigating through this labyrinth of decisions and tapestries.

Imagine, if you will, two people who have been staring at each other for well over 50 years now. Imagine, too, that their livelihood has been achieved through teaching others how to navigate through life. I think I would be remiss at this point not to state that my parents are both therapists and, therefore, are equipped with a fairly unique understanding of one another.

The day has thus far been fairly non-confrontational. Of course, they already have long ago established that different things appeal to them, so rather than bore each other, they each take a share of their list and meet back periodically at different checkpoints. As this isn’t their first trip here, they know that sticking together can often be counter productive.

While my mother wanders off to check on frilly patterns and bold, colorful colors; my father and I marvel at the tiny packed bedrooms and the sleek, efficient, modern kitchen pieces. He checks his lists and picks up an item here and there, as do I, and eventually we all end up back together. My father shows my mother a list with the word “sponge” circled on it. Deciding this is an item of some importance, they proceed to navigate the kitchen supply area together.

Let’s digress for a minute and have a few words on living with someone for half a century, an impressive lasting relationship to say the least. To say you have reached an understanding in your living arrangements is probably a gross understatement at this point in a marriage. The truth is, as the old adage so aptly reminds us, “everything has its place.” In the house that my parents have occupied for well over 40 years now (they moved into my childhood home in 1969 and still reside there), a certain sublime order resides. They still put the silver candles in the same spot in the dining room cabinet, the alcohol is still above the pantry in the kitchen, the washrags still above the utility room sink, and the silverware, knives, measuring utensils, spices and everything else have remained essentially unmoved for decades. Sure, they’ve upgraded here and there (they use a Krupps instead of a Mr. Coffee now, and the ancient Amana Radarange was finally retired a few years back and replaced with a spiffy jet black microwave with a bevy of one-touch buttons and digital readouts), but everything still remains in its place.

After so many decades of cohabitation, my folks have figured out a pretty important concept. Taking the time to get it right in the first place avoids all sorts of foolish arguments and problems down the line, not to mention the simple efficiency of knowing where things are. In fact, they know where things are so well that the next two generations have also been trained. My nine year old nephew knows where the place-mats and serving coasters are too and can set the table upon request. While most of us move around considerably more in our lifetime than my parents did, the idea of finding the “right” place for something is admirable and leads to greater ease of living with one’s partner or cohabitants.

Back at IKEA, my parents are standing in the sponge aisle having what would sound to any casual passerby like an argument. I am watching intently,  flabbergasted by the incredible array of sponge options. There are counter top washing utensil containers, under-counter holders, holders that attach to the wall, to the stove, to the refrigerator. Sponges come in small, large, heavy, light, natural, steel, wool, lambskin, plastic, rubber and more; a simply overwhelming selection.

If you were just moving into a new place with your mate and you hadn’t yet argued about which way the paper toilet roll goes (a classic), this aisle alone could end your relationship before it ever gets started. You might want a green plastic scrubber to go in the goldfish sponge holder while she wants the floral one that goes in the vase that attaches to the wall. Yes, IKEA tests your will and your ability to find compromise and reconciliation. Do not be fooled into believing this plethora of choices is a good thing, unless you negotiate well.

Well, my parents do know how to negotiate, though sometimes rather loudly. My mother suggests it go to the left of the sink and my father points out that this is where the knives hang. My mother states, a little louder, that the knives are hanging far enough up the wall that it really shouldn’t be a problem. My father would prefer it go on the right since he’s usually the one who handles the dishes (I’m pretty sure my father has been in charge of loading the dishwasher for at least 20 yeas now) and because he does so, he feels he should have the final say in this one. My mother agrees as long as they don’t get the large clear plastic separator my father is leaning towards, because she thinks it’s tacky. My father tries to defend his choice, but realizes quickly that he has already basically won the decision, if he will just acquiesce on this point. So he does. Is a lasting relationship really this simple? Or this profound?

While the debate seemed heated in the moment, it illustrated the keys to my parent’s lasting relationship; communication, compromise, and a commitment to solving the little things before they become big. A few moments in IKEA deciding sponges and holders has settled an issue that will never come up at my parents’ house again: Where is the sponge?

The moral of this story is simple: Little things become bigger things over time, and learning to recognize and communicate with your partner about the seemingly trivial things in life may well lead to more contentment and ease as you grow together.

My advice to you is to take this little trip to heart. Next time you are in IKEA with your partner (or, really, anywhere that you have to make material decisions together), try to remember this story before you find yourself arguing over whether the lampshade should be salmon or navy blue. Find the right thing and the right place, and your  lasting relationship may follow suit.

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