When newlyweds Erin and Joe Miller bought furniture for their first home -- a sunny yellow guest house on a Hunt Valley farm -- they had surprisingly good luck. She liked the green-and-white sofa that he picked out for the living room. He complimented her on the glass coffee table she selected. And both agreed: An antique chest finished the room.
It was all so idyllic that they were completely unprepared for what happened months later.
"He would wait until I left the house and move all the furniture around," says Mrs. Miller, a 24-year-old aerobics director for Brick Bodies. "Every day I came home and something was different. It got to the point where I'd walk in and think, 'Gosh, what has he done now?' "
One day he'd moved the television from one side of the room to the other. Another afternoon he'd repositioned the sofa and love seat across from each other. Then there were the coconuts shaped like pirates' faces. A gag gift, he'd put them in the living room as knickknacks.
"At the beginning, I gave her carte blanche," explains Mr. Miller, 25, a student at the University of Maryland Dental School. "But I was spending more time there than she was. I had to look at it all the time. So, little by little, I took initiative and moved things."
If marriage is equal parts love and compromise, newlyweds often get a crash course in both when it comes to decorating their first home together. With couples marrying later in life and remarriages on the rise, today's bride and groom are more likely to have lived on their own, accumulated furniture and refined their taste in everything from where the sofa goes to what color they want the bathroom to be.
"Sometimes you have to be a shrink to deal with it," says Gary Lawrik, president of Lawrik Interiors Ltd. in Annapolis. "You try to take the best of both design worlds and work with them. But you can only take eclecticism so far."
Although he's never seen fistfights break out over a couple's decorating decisions, he has witnessed plenty of tense conversations and icy stares that translate into one common theme: "You're condemning my things."
Similarly, Wynelle Seiler, president of Wynning Design Inc., an interior design firm in Hunt Valley, says that how couples negotiate this process often reveals a lot about how they'll do in ++ the sometimes-rocky world of matrimony.
"We see divorces coming," she says. "If they can't work something out about inanimate objects, they're never going to be able to work out real-life crises."
Decorating has become a more complicated endeavor in part because men are now far more involved in the process.
In recent years, Mr. Lawrik, a 26-year veteran of the design business, has watched men become more vocal about their preferences. With his clients, nearly half of the husbands now accompany their wives on meetings and shopping trips.
"It's not that they want to know where their money's going. They want to like what they're living in," he says.
Steve Hasler is an example. When he and his wife, Donna, recently bought their first home -- a cedar-shingled cottage in Sparks -- they decided to keep much of his rustic country furniture and sell most of her Victorian pieces.
"Steve has such strong opinions, from the paint color to the china pattern," says Mrs. Hasler, 30, a public relations executive. "It took us six months to find a dining room wallpaper we both liked. The way we make a lot of decisions is: Whoever has the strongest opinion wins. Over time it becomes evident who it's more important to and we'll then say, 'We'll do it your way.' "
But even the Haslers have had to call in a mediator at times.
While painting the living room, they discovered that finding the right salmon color was causing friction between them. Mr. Hasler's first choice looked like baby aspirin on the wall. Mrs. Hasler's preference resembled a shade of bubble gum. So they let Mr. Hasler's mother, Judy, an interior designer, make the decision. In the end, the brownish-pink she chose pleased everyone.
"The tension level ebbs and flows," says Mr. Hasler, an advertising executive. "So when we finish something, we'll take a few weeks off."
While men like Steve Hasler are becoming more common, IKEA designer Susan Dixon says women still have more influence, particularly in choosing colors and patterns.
"If a woman is thinking floral, most men will still concede. They'll say, 'I'll live with it.' Women seem concerned with the overall appearance of the room and men ask more about function, durability and longevity," she says.
Smart couples bargain by letting one another have control over certain rooms. Ms. Seiler recalls working with a couple recently where the husband did all the cooking and the wife worked out of their home. He got the last word in the kitchen, and she got to design her own office.
For designers, diplomacy is key in helping newly marrieds decide what stays and what goes.
"People get very attached to their belongings," says Mr. Lawrik. "You have to ease them out of them by saying, 'The scale is wrong,' or, 'The color isn't right for the room.' I had a client once who had this $499 dining room table she loved. Her new husband's was a $5,000 or $6,000 set. There, you have to talk about quality."
But there are times when love simply has to win out over good taste.
When Ms. Seiler was working with elderly newlyweds who were moving into a Towson retirement community, she had to help them make hard choices about what furniture would fit. The husband refused to budge on one thing: his Victorian console. Although his wife disliked it, she and Ms. Seiler put it in a front corner of the new home.
"He's happy because he gets to see it when he walks in," says Ms. Seiler. "And she's happy because when she's sitting in the living room, she doesn't have to look at it."
Yet this Cupid business can go only so far.
After getting over the shock of her husband rearranging the furniture, Mrs. Miller has left most of the pieces where he put them -- except for the coconuts, which have been banished to the basement. And she draws the line at allowing him to accept a gift from her father: his 20-year-old beige recliner.
"It's the ugliest thing I've ever seen," she says. "It's a total eyesore. Joe's determined we're going to have it, but I keep saying no! no! no! . . . So far, I'm winning."