Whether it's marriage or lunch, decisions can flummox you. Time to step up
Amy and Jack have been living together for three years. They seem to be doing well together, but Amy is getting impatient. She wants to get married and start having kids, but Jack hesitates. Their situation typifies your classic case of commitment phobia, right?
Maybe, but there’s something else at work here. You see, it turns out that Jack doesn’t just waffle around marriage, he can waffle about anything—taking a new job, buying a new shirt, whether to go for the special at Arby’s, or what to bring to the company picnic. The problem is that Jack is indecisive overall, not just about Amy or marriage.
Why is Jack so afraid to just be bold and jump in?
Here are 3 possible reasons for his hesitation (and maybe yours)—and their solutions:
1. Making a big mistake. Jack’s head may live in "The World of Right." He worries that marriage or job will lead to regret and "The Land of Woes." In his mind:
- The shirt might not fit after it is washed
- The Arby's special will taste awful and he’ll regret his stupidity and recklessness for the next two days
- He’ll bring the exact same dish to the picnic as three other people, and his will be untouched.
While none of this is likely to happen, he worries that it might, and over the emotional consequences of making a "mistake." He gets immobilized.
Solution: Jack thinks that he needs to anticipate all these possibilities, ad infinitum, and have a solution to each of them, before he can act. For him, every decision is just as important as every other. What he needs to do is to take the risk of being decisive. He needs to train his brain to see that the everyday issues that may arise on the job or marriage are simply new problems, not reminders of his bad choices. The shirt, picnic, the Arby's order—all of these may be good learning experiences, teaching him to move up a size on the shirt, skip Arby's, or keep it simple and just bring a six-pack to the picnic.
2. Others may be hurt or upset. Maybe it's not really fear of making a big mistake. Maybe Jack is dithering about marriage because he feels that sex (and overall affection, for that matter) with Amy has never been that great. He doesn’t verbalize these concerns, though, because he fears hurting her feelings. And the staff picnic? Well, he'd rather skip the whole thing, but he's worried that his colleagues will think he is standoffish. Again, paralyzed. Trapped by a problem and an emotion.
Solution: Amy will likely be hurt by Jack's criticism of their sex life. But later she may appreciate that his honesty is preferable to holding it in. She may realize (as hopefully Jack will, too) that this is part of testing and forming a strong relationship—that each person can weather the other's honesty and solve problems together.
As with the big mistake, Jack needs to try thinking that Part 1 of his approach is speaking up; Part 2 is helping Amy deal with her hurt—a new problem. Ditto with his colleagues: He can take the risk of saying that he is bowing out of the picnic, and then gauge the reaction. If they give him a hard time, then he can plan how to tackle this as a new problem.
3. He’s conflicted. In this model, Jack clearly has a mix of feelings, they all are jumbled up, and he can’t sort them out. Marriage, potato salad, blue shirt vs. white shirt—it doesn’t matter. Being "right" or worrying about others' reactions may contribute to his paralysis, but Jack may simply be overwhelmed and unclear what to do with so many options and emotions. He’s in that murky state of ambivalence. He’s likely thinking about this way too much; he has a hard time separating the important from the less important.
Solution: The antidote to ambivalence is action. He needs to pick…something. Set a date for the marriage and see what happens. Commit to the potato salad and realize that at worst he’ll have it for lunch the next day. Buy the blue shirt, don’t wash it, hang it up and stare it for a few days, and gauge how his feelings change.
This is all about getting out the mental fog. Through action you get closer to how you really feel. If that the action itself is too overwhelming, Jack can still ramp it up by setting a date to act. For example, he could give the relationship another six months and use that has a drop-dead time for making a clear decision.
Of course, there’s a parallel process and story going on here: Amy’s own indecisiveness. Where Jack seems hesitant to jump in, Amy may be hesitant to jump out. Ambivalence can be contagious. Maybe it's time for her to be decisive?