Why can’t he make a decision?

Why can’t he make a decision?

I just want my husband to make a decision...about anything! I ask him a question like "where do you want to go for dinner?" He says "where do you want to go?" I pick a restaurant and he says "is that what you want?" It's more than an annoying habit about meal selection, I think that it's laziness, in appearing flexible or easy-going he's actually making me make ALL the decisions. Thankfully this doesn't seem to come up too often around big things but still, I'd like to figure out how to put my foot down. What's going on with him?

I don't actually know your husband, so I don't know what is going on with him, whether this is a habit he's picked up lately, or he's always been this way around smaller decisions.

The inability to make a decision

There are a number of issues you have wondered about. One issue you mentioned arises in routine choices like: "Where to go to dinner." We'd call this a trivial choice because they'll have very little bearing on your collective future goals. But it makes for troublesome conversation around what’s suppose to be enjoyable. You want to believe he is invested in you, your mutual goals and outcomes. No matter how trivial, you want to feel like he cares, he puts out ideas, he embraces strong options or offers new and intriguing ideas.

You are asking for professional advice, so here’s how we think:

Where and when does it happen?

It’s important to point out that he’s able to chime in on more vital decision that all mature adults need to make in their lives. I also don't hear you saying that as an employee he's equally troubled. His indecisiveness hasn’t cost him his job or position.

One way I try to pinpoint the problem is to understand not only where it shows up, but where it doesn’t. The exceptions to the rules. You might do well to look for these exceptions as well. If he fishes, does he struggle to decide what bait and lures to bring? What clothes to wear? If the answer to these questions is “certainly not!” you’re narrowing down the issue. If, on the other hand, you see this uncertainty in every area of his life, that’s a different matter all together.

I see men in positions of high authority in their careers who simply recoil from having to make decisions they aren’t personally invested in. They make hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions in each week or month, and they simply refuse to do it at home. In their minds, they’ve compartmentalized work “where I decide” and home “where she decides.”

So one thing to ask is: “Is this a disorder or a preference?” Is there something wrong with his personality or are there more pragmatic issues at play?

Painful consequences

Making a choice suggests investment: living with the outcome of that decision. If you advocate for that new sushi place and it’s horrible, you can laugh it off together or you can point the finger at the one who made that decision. The way you respond when a decision goes bad will also clearly dictate whether another new place is suggested in the future. You can always lament together a horrible outcome, and can enjoy doing it. Or one person can feel personally responsible for every decision to the point where if it doesn’t turn out well, they are humiliated or defensive.

Where to go to dinner

Going out to dinner can be a common event or a special occasion. When partners are enthusiastic and engaged, even a Friday night pizza at a prized dive can be a satisfying way to spend free time. Many couples set up rituals and routines that they look forward to. It gives texture to their lives, a greater richness and meaning.

  • P1: “Let’s have the sausage this time. The hamburger wasn’t that great last week…”
  • P2: “Ya, and let’s do it with extra peppers and no onions. The onions will already be in the sausage.”
  • P1: “Ya, that’s a great idea.”

What you can notice in this exchange is the investment. They can taste this new pizza they’ve designed. They are excited before they go. Once there, they can talk about their decision. Once home, they can plan their next Friday’s pizza. They have shared passion.

In contrast, when you ask your mate, one restaurant is interchangeable with another. There are no preferences, no passions, no dialogue. You are standing alone.

Where to go on vacation

Ready to go on vacation? There are three delights in a vacation: planning it, going on it, and talking about it afterward. But instead of excitement, you are seeing flatness or a deer in headlights response and it's confusing. Isn't this supposed to be fun after all? Packing bags, booking flights, heading out on a new maybe even exotic adventure?

You are trying to generate mutual enthusiasm; he's violating your expectations by being agreeable.

  • P1: “How about the mountains?”
  • P2: “Sure.”
  • P1: “Does the ocean sound better?”
  • P2: “Whatever you want…”

His responses, instead of being “friendly” and “agreeable,” which may be his intent, are leaving you feeling lonely and disappointed.

Similar to the dinner out, you have no excitement for planning. No discussion of possibilities. No mutual investment.

It’s hard to maintain your excitement in the face of his passive response. You can't tell if he doesn’t want to take a vacation, he's worried about the expense or has different priorities altogether. Instead of generating excitement, he's wearing you down. You're the cheerleader promoting the cause of getting away. He's not shooting you down for your commitment to the upcoming fun, but at best, he’s mildly engaged. It’s like being at a college football game with someone who never jumps up and screams at the touchdowns your home team makes. He may quietly say to himself: “Nice play,” but it’s just not the same experience.

Movies to see, television shows to watch

There are so many programs to watch, with dozens of episodes. TV and movies are one way couples can relax and escape the stressors of the day. They offer greater benefits for couples, however. They allow the couple to enter a different world together, give them people and situations to discuss, emotions to share.

Some couples anxiously await Tuesday or Sunday night to watch their favorite show. They already expect certain things to happen. They’ve discussed what those are. They have their villains and their heroes. They anticipate the outcome of the cliffhangers. They laugh together or gasp together. They enjoy these moments and revel in having them.

A neutral spouse who isn’t particularly invested in watching anything, takes that “great escape” down a notch. He may say: “Whatever you want to watch…” and walks out to get a beverage during a dramatic scene. Or he’s fallen asleep. He doesn’t say “Pause that, I have to get a drink!” or “Can we record this for tomorrow to watch? I can barely keep my eyes open!” It’s clear to you that he isn’t invested, he isn’t engaged.

When it comes to movies, you aren’t eagerly anticipating the release. You each don’t read the reviews. You don’t talk about the movie before you go, and you don’t talk about it when you leave. It was simply an evening out.

You’ve shared nothing of that experience. You’ve just co-existed for an evening.

Thoughts

No one needs to enjoy going on vacations, eating out, taking in a movie or watching TV. But they must have leisure patterns that they can create together that bring them closer, allow them to have a shared experience, or just veg on a couch and do nothing.

What’s so painful about a passive spouse is that they aren’t actually “in the game.” Even if they are forced to choose, one option is equal to all others. The issue isn’t the choosing, it’s the investment. The joy in having these moments of relaxation together. These private moments and memories.

We can analyze historically why this may be so.

  • Who has modeled this behavior for him in the past?
  • Ask him if he's had bad things happen to him if he was forced to take sides in the past as a child?
  • Were members of his family always fighting?

But a more immediate question is: “Where are you?” What’s happening that you are so disinterested in our daily lives? Anyone can hand the ball over to a spouse and say “Can this be your area of decision?" and can totally groove on his partner’s fine tastes. But this can’t be done with every area of private life.

Those of us faced with a stubborn partner who makes a unilateral decision and refuses to budge, over and over may envy you. But I doubt you are only upset by having to make all of the decisions, because you told us that he’s willing to make the big ones. But life, in fact, is made up of hundreds of little decisions, and these are where you stand alone.

It looks like an annoying bad habit but it’s actually more. Your husband may be depressed. If this is a new behavior, you’ll want to check that out. But if it started immediately after the courtship ended, or was even what attracted you to him (“He’s so easy going. I asked him on our first date. I suggested marriage and he agreed…”) it may be in intractable personality feature or what Gottman calls an “internal working model” of life.

But if it is simply a guy who has a great time with whatever you choose, there are many practical things you can do.

  1. Give him particular tasks to do, like researching 5 new restaurants in your area. Tell him you’ll make the final pick, once you’ve looked over the options he presents.
  2. Ask him to read the weekly local paper and outline events he wants to go to by circling them and handing you the paper afterward. You can take turns arranging for tickets, transportation, babysitting, etc.
  3. Ask him what his 20 favorite things to do are. We have worksheets we do with couples that include additional details to check off like “Over $20?” “Last time you’ve done it” or “Can you still do it at 80?” It’s fun to learn new passions that your husband has that have, perhaps, been forgotten about. Time to re-activate them!

Hope that helps!

About the Author Kathy McMahon

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online private couples retreats.

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