When actress Judy Greer (‘Valley Girl,’ ‘Kidding’) started overhauling her L.A. home to make room for her husband, she knew it would be tough on her sanity and her wallet. What she didn’t see coming was how it would affect her marriage.
My husband and I recently remodeled a house, a lovely little bungalow in Hollywood that needed a makeover. I’d bought the place about 17 years prior and had done small cosmetic fixes over the years, but the time had finally come to do it right. A house will tell you when it needs a hug, and this one’s request came in the form of chunks of the ceiling falling down and major cracks climbing up and down my walls. The 1923 relic wanted some love, and I wanted to sleep without rolling onto a pillow covered in drywall dust.
I love my husband, Dean, and we have a great marriage. Like snowflakes, no two marriages are the same, and ours started out with a lot of autonomy—like, way more than the normal couple. We didn’t move in together until seven years after the wedding. We did try to spend every night together when we were both in the Los Angeles area, where we live and work most of the time.
We kept separate places for two reasons: (1) so his kids from his first marriage wouldn’t be inconvenienced and (2) so when we didn’t have the kids, we wouldn’t have to suffer an hour-plus commute twice a day. It was sometimes confusing: A lot of wardrobe doubles were purchased; there were two dry cleaners; and things for sure went missing. Like the pants to his navy suit: vanished. Once, he had to wear sweatpants hiking on a 90-degree day because all his shorts were at the other house. And sometimes I would hear, “Babe! Where are my black dress shoes?!” But we got more flexible, and I kept a set of workout clothes and a pair of black pumps in the trunk of my car at all times.
The time went by too fast, as it does while kids are growing up, and one day, we realized we were about to face two empty nests, instead of one. After one particularly cruel commute on the 405, which ended with me stomping in the front door declaring, “I can’t do it anymore! I have been in the car for 2 1/2 hours! To drive 43 miles! We are going to Lucas’s high school graduation in a U-Haul packed with all our sh-t and never coming back here!” (I am an actress, remember, and prone to drama.) So right there, in the entryway, with me still clutching my tote bag and car keys, we decided we’d rent out his place and turn my little home into our first together as a married couple.
I doubt I need to explain how stressful (and expensive) a remodel is. It’s taxing in so many ways—on relationships, on bank accounts, on our time. I expected all of that going into this project, but what I didn’t anticipate was how much fun it would be. Dean did: During a meeting with the builder and architect, he grabbed my hand and exclaimed, “This is going to be so fun!” I loved our long, wine-induced conversations about what we wanted our life to be like and how we could build this house to serve those dreams. All he wanted was a room where he could listen to records really loud while watching Dodgers games on mute, and a double vanity so he didn’t have to wait for me to finish getting ready for bed before he brushed his teeth. I got to call the shots on everything else.
I wanted a walk-in closet and a delicious bathtub to soak in. I also wanted to keep the general footprint of the house, but class it up. After going back and forth with our architect at fullBRANCH, a firm we chose because their style blew me away and the principal is a woman, we realized our only option for the new master suite was to add a second floor. If we built out the back of the house to accommodate a third bedroom, that would put at least one of our nightstands in the pool. And so the compromises began. While I was creating endless Pinterest boards for each and every nook and cranny of our future house and Dean was choosing which turntable and speakers he would splurge on, permits were being pulled and contractors were working on estimates.
“As we tore down walls, ripped out cabinets, and exposed damaged beams and flooring that all needed some kind of rescue, I was learning how to build not only a house but also a relationship.”
As the walls started to, literally, come down, so many problems came up. The foundation was crumbling along the north side of the house. How much would it cost to pour a new foundation? There goes the wallpaper for the hallway and master bedroom! While demoing the front of the house, we found that the existing wood was termite damaged. It all needed to be treated and repaired or replaced, so…our landscaping plan got a lot simpler. And there were more, so many more problems that came up, but one thing that never reared its ugly head (no, not mold—we had that, too!) was even the smallest hairline crack in our marriage.
As we tore down walls, ripped out cabinets, and exposed damaged beams and flooring that all needed some kind of rescue, I was learning how to build not only a house but also a lasting, solid relationship. Each construction issue had to be discussed, and you couldn’t put anything off or the work would stop. Similarly, if an issue came up in the relationship, we would talk it out immediately, make sure we were both on the same page, prioritize, and make decisions together. I learned the importance of spending the time and effort to build strong, sturdy infrastructure. Without a good foundation, solid walls, and an airtight roof, everything else is cosmetic and won’t last through the storms. And life brings the most unexpected storms.
We are now living happily ever after in our gorgeous, slightly larger (273 square feet larger, to be exact) bungalow and loving full-time cohabitation. My closet turned out a little smaller than I wanted, so poor Dean had to make some deep wardrobe cuts. And we have two sinks in the master bathroom, so my tub is more compact than I anticipated. But these are the sacrifices we made for each other so the foundation of our “house” is sturdy. Now he grabs my hand when we’re doing mundane chores at home and says, “Isn’t this fun? Doing this stupid stuff together?”
I’m by no means an expert, but I do believe this metaphor is meaningful. As we go through life—and I am writing about marriage, but I believe it’s true of any relationship—a couple needs a solid foundation. We all struggle with toxic relationships that have a lot of history, but history is different than infrastructure and it’s important to know the difference. Infrastructure is something that should be invested in. It’s not always sexy and fun, like upgrading the electrical panel instead of splurging on Heath Ceramics tiles for your backsplash, but this is what a lasting relationship is built on and that’s how to create and cultivate deep, sustainable bonds. It’s an investment, and totally worth it.
By Judy Greer | Illustrations by Katherine Streeter
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Reveal, Drew & Jonathan’s lifestyle magazine.