DESIGN CURES STRAIGHT FROM A THERAPIST: CHATTING WITH MELISSA DIVARIS THOMPSON
It’s a tacitly acknowledged fact among all of us here at Affordable Interior Design that design services are only part of what we offer. We’re first and foremost problem solvers. We help our clients through major transitions, optimize their day-to-day living through functional design, and find winning style solutions for spouses with different aesthetics.
Since emotions are so often at the root of our design dilemmas, Betsy sat down with our favorite local therapist, Melissa Divaris Thompson of Embracing Joy to discuss the best ways to handle home-related issues.
Keeping Up With the Joneses
Betsy: As suburban mom living in Westchester county, one of the most expensive counties in the nation, I can see how women constantly feel under a lot of pressure to keep up and be perfect. How do people deal with feelings of needing to be the perfect housewife and mom, and have that reflected in their homes?
Melissa: It’s such a challenge, particularly when you move from a busy city to a privileged county like Westchester, where it’s quieter and can also feel much smaller. What maybe wasn’t triggering in New York City may be more so here because you can see the grand homes, which look fantastic, because people have the ability to hire interior designers. All that can definitely spur a feeling of not good enough.
Betsy: The wealth is so much more obvious here! In the city, the playing field was much more equal because no apartment was really that much bigger than any other — New York City apartment are all limiting in so many ways. People would wait to buy investment pieces until they had more money or more space. But in the suburbs, people start to flaunt what they have, and what they don’t have can feel much more conspicuous.
Melissa: Absolutely. So when I’m talking to someone dealing with these feelings, I approach it from the angle of what they do have. Maybe it’s a wonderful relationship with their husband or other things in life they’re grateful for. In terms of decor, I direct their attention to those unique items that they feel connected to, or sentimental about, that can make their homes feel more special. I encourage them to focus on what makes their home reflect who they are, as opposed to the size of it or the price tag on it.
Betsy: I love the idea of keying into something sentimental, whether it’s a family heirloom or something that triggers an important memory (even if that trigger is a painting bought on Art.com of a place where they went on a really great vacation). I like that idea of having it as a focal point in the room, so you’re not just thinking about it a lot but you’re visually experiencing it a lot when you’re in your home. And having a conversation piece shifts guests’ attention from where you got your sofa to looking at the piece and wondering what’s that. The meaning behind it is what makes it special, so it’s something they couldn’t buy, even if they did have all the money in the world.
Melissa: When I hear clients comparing their homes to to other people’s, that’s often a signifier that maybe they’ve lost a little bit of who they are. From a psychological perspective, many women feel like they can’t express themselves once they’re moms. It happens a lot with clothing, because pieces don’t fit them anymore or they need to wear something they can nurse in, or they don’t want spit up all over it. And it happens with their homes.
When I was single or newly married, I had so much freedom to pick out whatever I wanted in terms of decor. I didn’t worry about glass pieces or decorating in white. But now that I’m a mom to two very active children, I feel like my style can’t come through as much. It’s become more practical instead of fun and exciting. And since many people feel their home is a representation of themselves, then the decor constraints can really feel like identity loss.
But there’s a way of reclaiming your space and not losing your identity, which is so important.
Betsy: How much you feel that loss may depend in part on what your style is. If you love an elegant aesthetic with lots of thin legged furniture, or if your style is glam with a ton of mirrored furniture, then I can see where concerns about fingerprints, sharp corners, and breakage, can make you feel feel like you can’t express yourself.
But you can segue your style so it’s not totally lost. For example, you can use your favorite colors, but pick furniture with rounded edges or made of material other than glass. Or buy those things but put them up high or behind doors, out of kids’ reach.
And it’s important to set boundaries. The master bedroom is a place where you should fully express yourself. Buy the sumptuous bedding that feels like a splurge. Get that lamp that you’d never get for the living room because it would definitely get knocked over.
Of course, it can be hard to implement boundaries in real life, but it’s doable. I have clients, particularly here in Westchester, who want a formal dining room, and then they teach their kids to behave differently in that room. I’m super strict about my office and my kids know it’s off limits. It’s important to bend in some areas and be firm in some areas. There’s a duality that you need to create as a mom to maintain your selfhood.
Betsy: I have a hard time with perfectionism. I like my home to look magazine-ready even for playdates, because I am an interior designer. But the day-to-day reality is that it looks very lived in. It cleans up nice, but just before anyone comes over, I spend a frantic hour tidying.
Melissa: It’s such a trap we all as moms fall into! The other side of mom guilt is the feeling that you need to get everything done perfectly all the time, whether it be with respect to your home, your appearance, or your reaction to your kid’s public meltdown. There’s so much pressure for moms to do it all, be it all, and show up for everybody.
It’s very important to learn how to give yourself permission to slow down, let yourself off the hook, and turn to what you’re doing well. There are ways we can work within ourselves to be more compassionate and kind with ourselves, and that in turn, allows us to be that way for others.
Betsy: So should I still make my husband take the kids out of the house for an hour before every playdate so I can frantically clean it?
Melissa: if that’s what’s going to alleviate anxiety for you, then do it! I do the same thing, but then friends will walk in, and I’ll realize I forgot a corner. Then I worry they’re going to think I’m a slob and I don’t have my stuff together. I’m a therapist so I feel like I’m supposed to have it all figured out. In that sense, I’m in the same boat as you — I’m always worried what people will think of me professionally. So if it’s going to alleviate your anxiety, do it. But know there’s a line, and that sometimes you can just sit back, kick your feet up, and relax.
Betsy: I’m definitely going to keep manically cleaning before playdates.
Resolving Stylistic Differences
Betsy: Let’s talk about couples. The main arguments I see couples having is over style. One likes traditional, one likes modern, and the styles feel super at odds and no one can flex or bend — one needs to win out.
Melissa: I have so much to say about this, but the first piece is really learning how to listen to your partner. I don’t mean half listen, where your defense is ready to go as soon as they finish talking. I mean really trying to put aside the rebuttal and hearing what they say. In therapy, I’ll even have each person repeat what the other said back to me, because often what comes out of one person’s mouth somehow gets changed around mid-air and lands in the other person’s mind in a completely different way.
So very practically speaking, you can say, I’m going to give you 5-10 minutes to hear what really matters to you in terms of style, and then switch turns. And this will help the designer too.
Betsy: I’ve been starting out with a bit of a different approach. I have them fill out questionnaires separately, so I can get a good, clear vision of what each one is fighting for before I start mediating these issues. But when I’m there, I deeply listen to each person. And they can trust me, because I have no investment in the outcome. I don’t care which way it goes, so I can listen without the rebuttals, and I can get a sense of who really cares about what. Maybe he doesn’t really love traditional style, he just wants comfortable and is afraid that the modern look won’t feel cozy and inviting after a long day.
So I always ask myself, what are they really saying to me? Is this really about style or something else? So often, we can solve this a different way. But I know that neither will trust me until they know I understand them.
Melissa: I also ask couples to mull over 3 must-haves and 3 can’t-stands. And then we try to ride the line between these 3. For example, my husband loves football, and he has a flag of the team he cheers for. In our wedding vows, I said I would try to appreciate all of him, even his love of football. When fixing up our new home, he promised he would only unroll the flag on game days, which became game weeks, and then game months. But I recognize that this flag is from before he met me and very meaningful to him. It’s so much about compromise and picking our battles.
Betsy: It is! And about finding that place where somebody will bend. My husband loves Syracuse, but I definitely didn’t want any paraphernalia in our living room. So instead I asked him, what can I do to reflect you in each room? And we came up with the idea of having a bit of Syracuse colors — blue and orange — in every room.
Betsy: So many of my clients call me when they’re moving and anxiety-ridden. How can I help alleviate the nerves that come with big changes?
Melissa: Hopefully they’re moving somewhere better.
Betsy: Not always. Sometimes they’re moving because the rent went up too much, they’re getting a divorce, or they need to be closer to a new job. It’s not always for a reason they’re happy about.
Melissa: And moving involves such an outpouring of money – movers, buying new furniture, etc. — it disrupts the normal flow of life. So I always remind people to take it step by step. Write down the steps to alleviate some of the overwhelm and then tackle them one at a time. And if you are moving to a space that is smaller or doesn’t necessarily bring you joy, try to find a way to move into your space with some intention to make it your own.
Betsy: The first thing you have to do is fall in love with your space, so you can commit to this new journey. Maybe it’s the view or the fact that you can afford it or the neighborhood. Identify something. Because there is going to be a long to-do list of emotionally taxing items, and you’re going to have to struggle through every step of the way. So latch on in whatever way you can and find a way to embrace joy.
Melissa Divaris Thompson is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in New York City. You can find Melissa at www.embracingjoy.com. She is also part of the 3-person team creating a wonderful resource for moms, www.honestmamas.com. Look out for their podcast to launch this fall.