In honor of Valentine’s Day, Science of Us is spending this week talking about love — specifically, what happens when it goes wrong. If you ever wondered about the psychology of breakups, we’ve got you covered.
It’s been almost eight months now since the last time I cried in an Ikea.
The problem, I think, was that we had gotten too cocky. Everything had been moving relatively smoothly: My boyfriend and I had picked out a bookshelf without incident, and a desk, and even found a coffee table narrow enough for our teeny living room (it was actually a TV stand, but still). We were that couple that went to Ikea and came out unscathed, and it was going to our heads.
And then we got to the kitchen carts, and found ourselves in an unfortunate Goldilocks kind of situation: One of them was too big; one was too small; none were just right. For easily an hour we stayed by the kitchen carts, first debating whether to get one at all and then eventually just standing there in stony silence, staring at our options. And then I started tearing up, out of both frustration and a strange sense of loss: It turned out we weren’t the couple that escaped unscathed, after all.
At least we were in good company. After its delightfully Scandinavian product names and its meatballs, the Swedish furniture store might be best known for its mysterious love-busting powers. BuzzFeed has a listicle of “19 Ridiculous Ikea Fights That Will Make You Want To Be Single Forever”; there’s a Valentine’s Day episode of 30 Rock in which a trip to pick out a dining-room table very nearly leads to a breakup; one psychologist has even referred to Ikea as “a map of a relationship nightmare.” And she’s not wrong — from beginning to end, the whole Ikea process seems almost engineered to stir up tension among the poor fools who naïvely enter its doors.
You’re overwhelmed by choice, among other things.
Ikea is not an errand, it’s an experience — and part of that experience is resigning yourself to the fact that you’re going to be there for a long, uncomfortable period of time. You’re going to get tired, or you’ll be annoyed by the crowds, or you’ll realize that you have to pee and the only way to the bathroom is by following those little arrows through the closet section, the kitchen section, and the sofa display with all the other sheeple.
And on top of an already less-than-pleasant situation, you have to deal with the reason you came in the first place: to pick out a piece of furniture, a task that can seem be daunting when it means narrowing a zillion options down to one. The Ikea website currently lists more than 30 different types of side tables alone, and a side table’s one of the least consequential types of furniture you can get. And once you land on the model you want in the price point you want, there are supplementary decisions to make — size, color, etc.
There’s some debate surrounding the concept of ego depletion — the idea that you have a finite amount of mental energy to spend before you become decision-fatigued — but even for someone with infinite willpower, making all those choices with a partner can be a fraught, highly delicate balancing act, says psychology professor Julie Peterson, who leads the Self and Close Relationships Lab at the University of New England. Shopping for a high-stakes item is stressful even when you’re on your own, “but then you add a relationship partner to that — who you care about, love, ostensibly want to please in some way — and it it just compounds it even more,” she says. “Any big shopping experience, when you’re doing it as a dyad, it becomes ripe for conflict … [You have] so many choice options, and then on the other hand you have this sort of burden of balancing your needs and desires with your partner’s needs and desires, and as a result it kind of creates this perfect storm.”
Which, in turn, can magnify any disagreements, infusing the Ektorp and the Knopparp with a symbolism they don’t really deserve. Suddenly, a chair isn’t just a chair — it’s a metaphor for all the ways you’re incompatible. If you’ve seen that 30 Rock episode, you may remember that excellent moment when a man tells his female companion, “I’m just not sure that my chair wants to be with this table.” Her reply: “Why, because deep down your chair would rather be with other chairs? … The table thinks the chair takes too many camping trips with Richard.” It may be an exaggeration, but not a huge one: “People misattribute that arousal, that ‘We can’t even agree on a chair,’ to something that’s indicative of their relationship,” Peterson says, “when likely it’s just indicative of all these other forces working on their really limited cognitive capacity at that moment.”
Frustration breeds more frustration.
Once the arguing starts, you find yourself trapped: both literally, in that it’s impossible to find your way out of Ikea, and figuratively, in that the fight can bring unrelated past grievances to the surface. “Disagreement puts people in a negative mood state, and when you’re in a negative mood state, you actually remember more negative things,” says Ozlem Ayduk, a psychologist who heads up the Relationships and Social Cognition Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. It’s a process called “mood-congruent memory recall”: If you’re happy, you’re more inclined to look back on happy memories. If, on the other hand, you’re peeved because your better half has spent an hour going back and forth on the same two sofas, you’re more likely to recall other times when they made your life harder by dawdling.
And even if it’s not your partner that’s ticking you off, they may still receive the brunt of your anger. Peterson points to a concept known as the frustration-aggression theory, which is basically exactly what it sounds like: We get aggressive when our attempts to get what we want are thwarted. And if what you really want is to be done already and get the hell out of there, you can end up channeling those unfulfilled desires into some pretty ugly stuff — “lashing out at your partner, saying things you wouldn’t normally say or mean, or behaving less kindly than you normally would,” she says.
The fun doesn’t end when you leave the store.
Here’s the cruelest of all the cruel jokes Ikea plays on its customers: If — if — you and your significant other still make it out of there with minimal strife and all the furniture you need, you still have to go home and assemble it. And that, for the uninitiated, is a whole other can of worms.
Ikea famously does not write out the instructions for assembling its pieces, but instead uses pictures of a cheerful, human-shaped blob, a strategy that unfortunately leaves plenty open to interpretation. Which means — you guessed it — more decisions. “You have a lot of steps to go through to get to that final product,” Peterson says, “and you’re compromising every single step of the way, because most of us don’t do things exactly the way our partners do them.”
Or at least, that’s the best possible outcome, even if it’s mentally exhausting. Another alternative: You don’t compromise, and instead butt heads every step of the way about what those confusing little arrows in the illustration are actually saying. “It’s a situation where there needs to be clear communication, but there’s stress on the system because the instructions are not clear,” Ayduk says. And that stress can lead to a lot of finger-pointing when things go awry: “It’s open to misunderstanding, errors, and then people get into blaming mode,” she adds. “And then it becomes more than just disagreeing over a bad interaction in the context of furniture assembly.” As with the chair that goes on too many camping trips, a spat over which peg goes where can quickly roll down the slippery slope into don’t you trust me and you never listen.
If you don’t want to let Ikea win, assume the worst — and plan accordingly.
There’s no foolproof way to conquer the beast, but at least you can anticipate its tricks, Peterson says: Have “some amount of communication about how there are going to be extra stressors on this decision-making process before you go.” Worried you’ll be paralyzed by indecision? Pick things out online in advance. Get hangry? Pack a snack (or agree that you’ll carve out time for those meatballs). Are you the type to become cranky when you have to wait in long lines? Talking about it on the way “allows you during the moment to be like, ‘Those lines [are long], we were right,’ and then it’s sort of a bonding experience rather than getting frustrated,” she says. Make a plan — and double-super-pinky swear that you won’t deviate from it — and the whole thing becomes a lot more bearable, if not pleasant. Or you can can give your partner the greatest, most love-affirming gift of all, and volunteer to go alone.