Fire Life

Stuck in the Middle with You, Part 2

By Anne Gagliano

My husband Mike and I are stuck in the middle of a major house project: a bathroom remodel. ‘Stuck in the middle with you,” the lyrics of a well-known song, perfectly explain how we are feeling these days. I was hoping that when it came time to write this continuation of Part 1 we’d be done with our remodel and I could put this whole thing in the rear-view mirror. But alas, we are not. The never-ending project still appears to be just that—never-ending. But the good news is, we’re still married, we’re still learning, and we are making progress. The learning part I will now share with the hopes of perhaps preparing other firefighter couples to better handle major household projects such as ours. Our pain will be of benefit—to you.

The primary lesson we’ve learned is this: Remodeling is way more stressful than we ever imagined. So be warned. Unless, of course, you have a perfect house and an unlimited budget and all the time in the world. But for the rest of us homeowners, there’s a reason the word “remodel” strikes fear in our hearts—because our homes and our lives are not perfect. Disruption, expense, time, thought, and precious energy—this is but the tip of the iceberg. The list goes on—chaos, clutter, sawdust, drywall dust, more dust, noise, and lack of privacy. Steep learning curves as you plod onward with no real help, no simple how-to list, no teacher; it’s just you two trying to figure it all out as you go. And once you begin, you’re stuck; there is no quitting, no do-over, no way out. Stuck. In the middle. With you.

“Building or remodeling a home can be about the most stressful activity a married couple can engage in,” says Dr. Don Gilbert, a marriage counselor in West Des Moines, Iowa. “All the components that couples stress over—money, multiple decisions, and different preferences. In fact, there are so many opportunities for relationship stress during remodeling that it brings out in each person the weaknesses they may have in communication and conflict management.”

Even little projects can be the source of angst and fighting and havoc. I read of a couple who was simply trying to put in a new dishwasher. They decided to do it at night after the kids went to bed. They turned off the breaker, which also held the kitchen light, and thus were installing in the dark. Though the breaker was off, he still got electrocuted, ended up in the emergency room, and set the kitchen on fire. That’s home renovations–the unexpected seems to always happen.

Remodeling is like a crash course in the viability of a relationship—a litmus test, if you will. It involves large sums of money, ego, dreams, decision making, problem solving, communication, flexibility, and lots of takeout food. It has high points, and many low points, such as having to go downstairs to use the toilet in the night. This is tough for any couple, but for the firefighter couple, I believe it is even tougher still. The reasons for this I think only other firefighter couples will truly understand. So again, be warned.

Reason #1:  Firefighting is the most chaotic, stressful job on the planet. Home is supposed to be a sanctuary, an escape. A place to nap, recover, decompress. When it too is a source of major chaos and noise during a remodel, the firefighter may very well reach the breaking point. And the firefighter spouse will feel extra guilty and angsty about this, especially if she is the one who wanted the remodel in the first place.

Reason #2:  Firefighters have sleep issues. When a bathroom is remodeled, especially the master bath, the firefighter and his spouse must go elsewhere in the house to use the facilities. In our case, we must go down a very long staircase. When my firefighter does this in the middle of the night, by the time he returns to bed he is completely awakened and cannot go back to sleep. Most people can, me included, but he can’t. Many years of disrupted sleep at the firehouse have conditioned him to wake up quickly and easily and all the way. His sleep issues just heighten the already tense situation of our household disorder.

Reason #3:  Remodeling requires multiple daily decisions for very long periods of times. This is tough for anyone, but for the firefighter—it’s torture. In our household, after a long 24-hour shift, my firefighter can’t even decide what he wants for dinner let alone how we should proceed on a major course of action. He simply doesn’t care, and he resents being asked. Fire wives, you know what I’m talking about. Sleep deprived, having just gone through major runs—some even traumatic—the size of a door seems rather trivial by comparison. Making decisions together as a couple is particularly trying for the firefighter couple and can lead to many fights, especially on a timeline and a strict budget and after a long night of firefighting.

Reason #4:  I like to call this one, “What’s all the fuss?”  My firefighter is a duct tape kind of guy. He’s used to fixing things on the fly, in a hurry, under duress, without the proper resources. He uses what he can to get the job done. He’s good at it. In a home remodel, he attempts to do the same, even though there is no emergency and we do have the proper resources. These two philosophies clash in a remodel when one of you wants to do it right (and pretty) and the other just wants to get it over with as quickly as possible. Let’s keep it simple; no drama, please. I get enough real drama at the firehouse.

Reason #5:  There is an extra level of humiliation. Having people in your home is always a lesson in humility–strangers going through your private spaces, like a bathroom, a closet, your bedroom. And then have them dig into your walls, your floors, your electrical panel, and your plumbing, and the embarrassment levels soar. It’s even more so for the firefighter, the “fixer on steroids.”  My firefighter is used to being the one in charge, the one with all the answers, able to return order to even the most extreme of situations. And he feels responsible–for everything. But in his own house, the horrors leave him speechless. Helpless. Beholden to someone else. This is unusual for him. And extra humiliating.

But we look on the bright side and press on. We now have a running toilet. No door yet, but we can at least use the bathroom in the night. Small steps. We’ll take it.

In my next column, as this project is ongoing and so too will this topic be, I will reveal how we are weathering the stress and conflict of our project in a way that is unique and hopefully helpful to others like us—the firefighter couple.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 31 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.