A House Divided: Relationship Red Flags Your Contractor Can Spot

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Your contractor probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about your personal life. Hire a plumber, and he’s not going to obsess over whether or not you’re getting along with your kids or whether you’ve been going through tough times with your spouse; he just wants to do his job, wash his hands, and get paid (preferably in that order).

However, contractors work in close quarters with their clients, and they occasionally notice signs of dysfunction—even if they’re explicitly trying to mind their own business.

This makes sense, considering how contentious of a process remodeling can be. A survey conducted by remodeling website Houzz found that 46 percent of couples said the remodeling process was frustrating, and 12 percent considered separation or divorce. That said…

“I don’t care about anyone’s marriage. That’s the furthest thing from my mind,” says Bill, a 32-year-old electrician (with a changed name to protect his business). “What’s weird is that, even if you’re trying to ignore that kind of [stuff], sometimes people will put it right in front of you. It’s incredibly awkward.”

We’re working in your home, so if there’s a lot of tension there, we’re going to walk right through it.

To reiterate, you probably shouldn’t think of your local handyman as a relationship expert, but the next time you hire a contractor, you might want to keep a few of these anecdotes in mind.

1. If you’re arguing about the remodeling job, the arguing might not stop there.

“I had one job that was supposed to be simple,” says Andy, a 33-year-old former painter. “It was just a single room. I budgeted a few hours more than I thought I’d need.”

For any contractor, a quick, simple job can be a godsend. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen here.

“A married couple owned the apartment, and as soon as I arrived, the wife was waiting for me. She’d insisted on getting the paint. ‘No problem,’ I said. They’d cleared out all the furniture and everything, so they were already in better shape than half of my clients. But a half-hour into the job, the husband comes in with a different paint.”

Couple painting a room
Roselyn Tirado on Unsplash

Andy quickly realized that he was getting into the middle of a domestic dispute, so he forfeited the “simple job” on the spot.

“I knew right away that there was a problem, because the paints weren’t even close to the same color. Plus, he was criticizing the paint she picked out while she was standing right there. I told them to get on the same page and call me back later—politely, of course. When I left, I heard them arguing.”

The remodeling process is “in some way a litmus test for what your current relationship is and what it could be,” Peter Pearson, co-founder of The Couples Institute, told Houzz. If you can make it through it, though, it’s worth it: Four out of every five couples told Houzz they felt more comfortable in their homes after remodels were complete.

2. When one partner is rude, the other one usually steps in to clean up.

Metaphorically speaking, of course; nobody really helps contractors clean up.

“We’d been working on a house while a family was out of town, and we weren’t finished when they came back,” says Andy. “They knew we were still planning on finishing the house next week, but for whatever reason, the state of the house wasn’t up to the husband’s standard that weekend.”

Immediately, Andy’s job became much more difficult. In addition to painting the house—the job he was contracted for—he had to go out of his way to keep his client calm.


“I was called out on a Sunday afternoon to do a walkthrough and talk with the customers. That wasn’t ideal. To make matters even worse, the in-laws were over, and each of them had to share their complaints with me, too.”

“Again, I tried and tried to explain that we weren’t finished painting, and if they just waited until Monday, everything would come together. They weren’t having it, though. The husband and his parents were so mad, and they threatened to not pay for the entire week’s worth of work we had already done—which was a ton of labor.”

Realizing that he was facing a huge loss, Andy tried to work something out with the homeowner.

Couple with dirty clothes, standing next to each other holding hammer and paint roller
Umanoide on Unsplash

“The husband’s solution was that I could come by Monday, finish their laundry room only, and wait for him to come home and inspect the work. If he was satisfied, then we could finish the rest of the house. I agreed because I didn’t know what else to do and couldn’t risk losing this entire job’s payment.”

If you’ve ever wondered why some contractors insist on a portion of the money upfront, now you know.

“When I showed up on Monday, the wife—not the husband—was waiting at the house. She apologized for everything that happened the day before and basically confided in me that she was simply trying to keep her marriage together any way she could at this point. She paid me for all the work we had already done and told me not to bother finishing up. I didn’t touch anything else in that house ever again.”

For what it’s worth, research indicates that marital conflict spikes when husbands don’t behave in a positive manner. The effect isn’t as pronounced when wives aren’t positive (we can thank societal gender roles for the difference). However, we’re guessing that this relationship had much more severe issues than a simple lack of positivity.

3. When one person completely ignores their partner’s wishes.

“We had a new construction job, and this husband and wife were on the site every once in a while,” Bill notes. “The wife was alright, but the husband was a piece of work. He was constantly butting in and asking about how we were doing this or that. Whatever, I’m used to it.”

“One thing I noticed was that his wife was completely quiet most of the time. She’d occasionally try to voice a concern—to guide the project the same way the husband was guiding it—and he’d ignore what she was saying completely and tell us to do the opposite. I felt bad for her. She had better ideas and questions, by the way.”

Communication is a crucial factor in any relationship, and one-way communication doesn’t count.

“When your partner disregards your thoughts and attempts to talk about tough subjects—you feel like you can’t get a word in edgewise—that’s definitely a red flag,” says therapist Alisha Powell, PhD, LCSW.

Granted, we don’t know anything about that couple; maybe they communicate effectively on other issues. Bill doesn’t think so.

“Like I told you, if I notice that someone is having a problem with their marriage, there’s definitely a problem,” he says. “I work with electricity, so I’m really not paying attention to anything other than the job.”

4. When they try to get the contractor to weigh in on their issues.

“I was snaking out a toilet—it’s a glamorous life, I know—when I heard arguing coming from the other room,” says Dale, a 45-year-old plumber. “I didn’t pay much attention to it. People argue, whatever. But then I hear footsteps headed towards where I’m at.”

The couple was coming over to ask Dale for advice. Well, sort of.

I’ve got your toilet disconnected, it doesn’t smell great in here, but you’re both butting in to ask me about some stupid argument.’ I might be bald, but I’m not Dr. Phil.

“They wanted to know who was being unreasonable. He’d gone out with friends, and she was angry, or maybe it was the other way around, I don’t remember. They’re both looking at me and trying to tell me their side of the story, and they’re acting like my response is going to actually settle the problem.”

Dale realized that he didn’t have many good options, so he told them the truth.

“I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re both being unreasonable. I’ve got your toilet disconnected, it doesn’t smell great in here, but you’re both butting in to ask me about some stupid argument.’ I might be bald, but I’m not Dr. Phil.”

The blunt approach worked; Dale says that the couple calmed down, apologized, and let him go about his business. They also tried to pay him more than he’d quoted, but he refused.

“I guess I felt bad for them, on some level, but generally I don’t take tips unless my quote was way off,” he explains. “Even when someone asks for my award-winning relationship mediation services.”

Construction worker walking through foundation construction zone
Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Powell, the actual therapist, doesn’t recommend directly intervening in these types of situations. With that said, she has some basic advice for keeping the peace.

“When you see a couple fighting and they ask you for advice, encourage them to slow down and to listen to understand instead of respond. Suggest that they take time outs when they get upset with each other.”

We certainly wouldn’t expect a contractor to do any of that, but it’s good advice to keep in mind.

“I didn’t tell them to take a timeout, that’s for sure,” Dale says. “I did the job, got my tools, and got out.”

We asked him whether relationship issues are a common sight for contractors.

Gut rehab house, with walls busted out
Milivoj Kuhar on Unsplash

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but yeah, sort of,” he says. “We’re working in your home, so if there’s a lot of tension there, we’re going to walk right through it. Just don’t make it our problem, and I won’t care. I’m certainly not going to tell anyone about it—unless they’re asking me for my opinion like you are.”

At the end of the day, contractors don’t care about your relationship squabbles. All homeowners need to do to keep them happy (and to keep the bill under control) is treat them respectfully.

“Remember that [contractors] are busy people,” Dale says. “I don’t have time for stuff like that. If you want a relationship counselor, go hire one. When you need your pipes fixed, well, you’ve got my number.”

Worried some red flags are showing up on dates? Check out Check Please: Relationship Red Flags Your Server Can Spot by our friends over at FashionBeans.

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