Getting an Answer: When He/She Won’t Make a Decision

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A recent letter triggered me to thinking about how I handle this tough situation.  I have been using the all-purpose skill, I'm going to describe here, for over a dozen years, recommending it to my clients.  Some use it. Some don’t.  Sometimes it makes things “better.”  Sometimes it seems to make things “worse!”   Life is like that. “Who can tell.”  Take a-look.

By writing this, I may become less popular with some readers.  The trick is to turn “no decision” into a “clear decision.”  I just don’t see any other way out of this situation.  Do you?  So, take courage.

I am reminded of a study about divorce that was done, oh, 20 years ago.  The question was, “After a divorce, how long did people stay single, before they started looking for another partner.”  My memory was that these figures came from Australia, which my friends tell me is/was a pretty strongly macho culture. (I might be wrong. This might be one of those “lies in search of the truth.”) 

The answer was that the average “woman” waited something like seven years and the average “man” waited something like seven months.  And one of the factors seemed to be that the women had children – to raise, live with, and have relationships with; and the men had no one – were alone.

What got me to thinking about this study was the question of “How long should you wait?”  Let’s say you are a Clinging guy and your partner is an Avoiding gal.  So she leaves you and you learn all about What To Do When He/She Leaves.  So you give up pursuing her, you get into therapy, you learn, your practice patience, and you wait.  But how long? 

I know this is a sexist version of the situation, and so the gentle reader will have to do the translations to “men avoiding women” or to gay couples.  I’ll wait and give you time. 

But, let me give you another situation that I am real familiar with.  A gal has been having a long-term relationship, affair, with a guy who is married.  He promises to divorce his wife, but has not made a move.  The gal has put her relationship-life on hold waiting for this guy.   How long should she wait?

Same situation!  Different, but the same.  So here’s the tool.

Step One:  Determine how long you can wait. 

Obviously, if you were dumped on a desert island, you can wait a long time; but, you are not on a desert island.  You have a life to live.  I am 66 now, as I get older I think about both the “end of life” and “wasting time.”   I fear that I see an awful lot of people “wasting time.”  It saddens me.  So this question of “how long” I frame this way.  How long do you choose to wait for this person –  your distant and perhaps indecisive partner, to make a decision? 

And lets remember what that decision is.  It is a decision to start working, slowly or quickly, on learning the skills to get along well together – University of Life stuff.  Generally that means finding a therapist, counselor, pastor, someone who “knows how” and who can guide you both. 

This is not a decision to “the other.”  Nope.  It is a decision that says, “I don’t know how to live fully peacefully with this person, and I am gonna learn how to.”  The decision has to be “fair” in that both have to be free to make that decision with full integrity. 

One factor in setting the time is whether you have children and what are their ages.  Remember, you teach them the relationship skills they will use in life and most of this teaching takes place before they are 8–years-old.  I would love it if people learned great relationship skills before they gave birth to a kid.  Vintage Love parents would be awesome.  But we can survive and recover amazingly.  Humans are tough.  Still it would be nice to be learning relationship skills before your kids hit 3.  I have found that going through the University of Life after your kids hit the teenage years has a lot of drawbacks for a lot of people.  I did it.

So settle on how long you can wait before starting into the University of Life with a partner.  Nail it down. Write it on a wall. 

Step Two:  Tell your partner.

 Of course this can be tricky, so I’ll give you some ideas.  If your partner is not making a decision, anything you do may come across like a threat.  And so you are going to have to consciously move into “making a threat.”  But all of us understand that banks want their money back.  Loans are not forever.  If you don’t pay for the car, it will be reposessed.  We know this.  Why not in relationships?  

Here’s a way of delivering this message with the minimum threat potential.  “Honey, I care about you.  I want to have a great and happy life with you.  I am working on this teaching myself lots of things.  But I find I need a partner to work with, to practice all these skills I am learning.  I really, really want it to be you.  But I know I cannot force you to work with me.  That’s one of the things I have learned.  Still I don’t want to wait forever for your decision to join me in this work.  I don’t think that would be fair to you, (to the kids), to me.”

“So here’s the deal. I ready to wait quietly for x-length-of-time (3 months).  I am not trying to force you, I just want a decision I can live with.  So if you have made an appointment with a counselor of your choice and we have seen that person for, oh, 4 sessions, by date-x-length-of-time away, then I am your partner.  You have my commitment.  If for any reason you decide to not make the appointments or not work with me, that is ok.  I will be very sad, but I will be ok with it.  I will then proceed to get on with my life, separate clearly from you, and find some other partner to work with.   Remember, I gotta learn anyway and I would prefer it to be you.”

“Please don’t respond to this now.  Just make your decision and either let me know or don’t.  It is your call.  Thanks for listening.” 

If you look at this lengthy speech it has all the elements:  your preference to be with your partner, your respect for them, your achieving a decision even if they do nothing.  This is a way to turn “their doing nothing” into “their making a clear decision.”

Step 3: Do it and don’t turn back easily! 

If you get to the end of the “warning time,” I suggest you get on with your life.  Do what you have to do to give yourself determination.  This is tough, but Do It!  You are working on the issue of Reliable Membership, so be reliable.

Also remember that finding a new partner Ms. Right or Mr. Right, takes time.  If your partner changes their mind and decides to work with you while you are “dating” others, make whatever decision at that point that you think is right.  I  have frequently met couples who didn’t believe in their partner’s commitment.  They had to see it to believe it.  I think this is part of what is behind a lot of dangerous extra-marital.  

Remember the goal is you getting to Vintage Love, rather than giving up and living in Door #2.

Good luck.


Getting an Answer: When He/She Won’t Make a Decision — 18 Comments

  1. Dear Al,
    I think I’ve finally figured out that my on again off again boyfriend has commitment phobia.. He is so sensitive and so afraid of commitment. Which resulted in us not able to talk about the future at all. It’s like walking on eggshells. No matter how well things were progressing, how closer we were becoming compared with before, as soon as i mentioned anything about future or commitment, he panics and walks away. He said he feels there is something missing despite enjoying being in a relationship with me. What it is missing he can’t tell himself.

    He came from a broken family. He grew up watching his parents fighting all the time. He told me he has never felt ‘sure’ about anyone. He is there he is not. One minute he is so loving and caring, next minute he is cold and distant. One week he wants to see me every day, next week he would play disappear. He is halfhearted. He keeps his options open when he is dating me. He keeps in touch with his exes. He doesn’t want me to meet this family and friends. He is easily attracted by people, but as soon as he ‘gets’ the person, he won’t like her anymore. He misses me and wonders if he would ever find anyone as good as I am when we break up. When we were together, He picks on me, getting unhappy about me not being very western (I’m Asian, he is western). He wants someone with similar background. So that they can communicate at same intellectual level etc etc.

    It has been very painful. Every time i tried to break things, he would tell me that he has been doing that since a teenager. And he was ready to make a positive change. We would then get back together. Have to say things are getting better each time. However still repeating the same pattern. I’ve talked him into get counselling. And it really helped. But the effect didn’t last.. I really want a loving and committed relationship. All the people around me told me to move on and find someone else that’s more capable of love. But i feel he is a big part of my life, like a family. I know he is really struggling. He is very lonely, very lost. He is doubting himself. He doesn’t know what he wants hence cannot make a decision wether to commit to me or to move on. I wish there is anything i could do to help him. Together or apart, i’d like to see him well and happy.

    Is there anything that you would suggest me to do, Al? I guess I’m lost too. ūüôā


    • Hello Lily, Sorry to take so long to get back to you. Of course he has “comittment phobia.” Most people raised in our country struggle with that. Commitment Phobia is that fear we feel when we visit a prison and are walking away after the visit – don’t wanna go back in there. I served in the Navy and no matter how great my experiences were, I still had nightmares for years about being forced back into the Navy. Twas AMAZING.

      So this guy sees a relationship a bit like a jail or a trap. Your job is to act in such ways that he sees safety and freedom if he’s with you, even when he imagines a trap. So all you have to do is identify those things you do that remind him of being trapped and visibly and aggressively get rid of those habits. Sounds easy to say, but it does take time and study and practice. Repeat to yourself (5000 times), “My goal is to be a source of Freedom to you. I’m gonna do it. If you need Freedom, come to me and I’ll help you get it.”

      One of those things you can do is walk with him as he builds confidence in obtaining his own Freedom. Look for any time he says, “I can’t do that.” and chat with him about what he might need to change and practice in order to turn that “I can’t do that” into an “I can try that.”

      Freedom is a big deal and Commitment Phobia almost always is the left over of having felt incarcerated and helpless. Often a childhood state.

      Good luck.

      • Hi Al,
        Thanks so much for your reply. All you said made sense. I’ve read lots of your articles. I understand for me and this guy to have a good relationship. I would have to be the leader. But I’m so bad at it. I feel I’m losing the battle with myself. I knew what to do, but never seem to be able to keep going for long enough..
        When things were good and stable for a while. I would think that we were close enough to be more committed. I would mention something, he would run away. Just like a fairy tale Castle built with unglued matches, no matter how nice it has been, everything just collapsed in a blink of eyes.. I wish I were more patient. I blamed myself for not being patient. Which basically drove me to try again and again. But I’m so tired.. Al.
        I’ve been going to counseling. The counsellor said that I have been extremely patient. Perhaps he would never change. And that I should look after my own needs. And consider looking for someone different. What’s your opinion? I’m worried that I would be attracted to similar kind of people. And perhaps its better to work on myself than changing partners. I would really like to chat with you. However the time difference and my work will make it hard. I’ll see how I go. Will be in touch if I don’t feel less confused soon.
        Thank you so much again for your time and advice.

        • Hello again Lily, Sure does seem tough. I was lucky and took a bunch of courses in college in Learning Theory. They were all about how to go about learning which is the subject of changing yourself. If you are finding it very very hard to learn, to change yourself, then you just have to figure out how your kind of person learns. That’ll make it easier.

          Now, I share a lot of stuff but I tend to write it the way I learn it, so it may not be too useful to you. Keep studying. But also strike a balance with taking care of yourself. Part of lifesaving is to make sure you are safe and ok.

          My guess is that a full blown avoider can take years to turn around, years from the last time you really “scare ’em.” So being relaxed and living with low expectations may have to become natural with you.

          We could chat. Email me and explain your time constraints.

  2. I’ve been married for 17 years and together for 19 years. My marriage started having problems last year in May when i thought my husband was being unfaithful and i told him i wanted a divorce and gave him for the first time fake divorce papers thinking maybe he will react and that i was not going to put up with unfaithfulness and scare him. On the same week all this happened he said for us to separate and that he was not sure if he still wanted to be with me but i said no i told him we have to confront our issues at home and that i don’t believe in separation, it’s like everything turned against me like if i was the one who gave him a reason not to trust me. Also, just so you know this was the 3rd time in our marriage life that i had brought up divorce. As of today i have NO proof of my husband (41 yrs old) being unfaithful but he use to do things to make me think otherwise like taking his phone to the bathroom erassing all his text and all info from his phone daily. i have gone thru his phone and he was aware of it and he was not happy about that.

    Now today, my husband told me on July 7th that he is depressed and feels down all the time and he told me that he can no longer lie to himself and me, that he loves me but he is no longer in love with me that the sparkle he had for me is no longer there that he is also tired of all the years of nagging, when he told me that i told him all of this did not make any sense at all. To stop loving a person for the nagging, i told him is like me telling him that i stoped loving him because he still smokes even though i knew he smoked before we got married. He left the house on 9/25/14 but he is not talking divorce right now that he needs to figure things out and see what happens. he is not sure if he will be back to his family (we have 2 girls at home a 15yr old and a 7yr old) and he can’t tell me how much time he needs. He is staying at his mom’s 2 houses away I had to tell him that he can’t be doing the things at the house like he use to do before like taking showers, ironing his clothes because he was doing that. I told him i can’t make him love me, that i love him and he is the love of my life and that will never change. I believe he is being selfish and not thinking of his family or my feelings. I did tell him that i wanted our marriage to work. I also told him that this seperation was not going to be a free pass for me or him to be fooling around with other people, that the seperation was going to be of him trying to figure out what he is going to do about us and his family.

    What do i do? I’m going crazy with anxiety and taking pills to calm me. I started reading your site and I find it very interesting. I hope i hear from you soon and see what advise you can give me


    • Dear Maria, Lots of things to do and lots of thoughts. I believe life is always a matter of “waking up” to what you are unaware of. In this case is sounds as if things that needed addressing just got put off for years. Check out my Map of Relationships and see if you two haven’t been in Door #2 for a long while. The good news is that there are two other Doors to go through. Try Door #1. Head for it and determinedly proceed.

      • Al, thank you for responding. I will start reading Map of Relationships and hopefully this will help my marriage and my husband comes back to his family. I will keep you posted.

  3. Hi Al,

    My husband of a year and a half (we dated for 9 years before we got married) has left me because he is not in love with me anymore and has found his soul mate. We both were caught up in the power struggle, I more so than him… he has had an emotional affair twuce in our 10 years together and sadly, I have held them against him far too long. Now he wants a divorce so that he can marry this new woman who he has fallen in love with since this April. I am trying minimal contact, and taking care of myself. I really want to give our marriage a chance, but he seems to have made up his mind to leave. He is not ready for any couselling either.What do I do?

    • Well, Varsha, first thing is you “survive.” This sounds like a very rough time. Tis ok to look at it and learn from it after you have solidly gotten your feet on the ground.

      That said, the most common saying people say when they leave is “I’m not in love any more.” There’s almost a clear line around those who think “falling in love” is some magical commitment and those who know that everyone falls out of love and all of us have to deal with it. People shift from one group to the other usually by the experience you are having. And it hurts. He’s probably not there yet.

      Can you compete with a dream person, one he’s saying is his perfect partner. Hell no! But then she won’t stay a “perfect partner” for long. Power Struggle is coming for them and at that point you can be in pretty good shape. Getting out of the Power Struggle with him is a lot quicker than finding a new person.

      Glad you’ve found my stuff. Should help a lot. While is gone learning his lessons, you will probably benefit from a lot of reading. After you’ve gotten those shocked feet back on the ground.

      Good luck.

  4. Hi Al!

    My name is Tamra and I have a partner who believes he is a “commitment-phobe.” I left a comment on one of your articles regarding your thoughts on “commitment-phobia” back in April, and since then, I have been attempting to prune all of my habits that threaten him.

    A bit of background on my partner: He is a people-pleaser. He seems to have a rough relationship with his parents, particularly his mother. He has said that she was very emotional, negatively and positively. He has said that strong emotions make him feel nervous and anxious. It is my belief that this is because of his relationship with his mother and her emotions. He even has a trend of partnering with emotionally -expressive/passionate women. Funny how we are always attracted to what is familiar! Unfortunately, his wounds seem to be so deep that he rarely connects with a partner for long. He claims to be a self-prescribed “commitment-phobe”.

    Our relationship has been very cyclic, on-and-off. We have been “on and off” four times now. I feel unsafe because I am so afraid that anything I say or do will scare him and he’ll leave! My only predictive information on him has been that he will leave, and this brings me a lot of pain. I believe that I can only work on my stuff, and I have been working on my habits of emotional expression that threaten him. I really like this partner. I want him to stay. I have expressed desires to work on my habits that scare him, and stated my curiosity about any such habits. (I said, “Please, I’m very curious about the things I do that make you feel unsafe. I’d like it very much if you could tell me any habits I have that threaten you, so feel free to tell me when you think of them.)

    I am working on non-pushing ways to tell him my feelings, as it is important to me and to the relationship to be able to express feelings safely. I am trying to find a way that makes him feel “safe”.

    My current struggle is this: I am losing hope. I know it only takes one to make a marriage, and that patience is something I need to learn. But he has left me four times, and come back four times. I think that this makes me a failure because he keeps leaving. I am starting to really think in my heart that it’s much better for him to be with someone else. I have expressed this to him too.

    But he always comes back. The uncertainty is really starting to drive me crazy. I think that it might be time to make him choose to work with me or to accept finally that I need to try with another partner.

    Do you have any thoughts for me? My preference is really to stay with this current partner, but he might find his happiness with someone else, and I want that more than anything.


    • Well, Tamra, it sounds to me that you are on the right track. ¬†Somewhere I wrote about “turning the marriage”, that event when people stop focusing on their partner as the problem and start focusing on themselves as a problem to be repaired. You’ve done this, it sounds. ¬†Great. ¬†And now that old “hopelessness” is beginning to appear, that urge toward Vintage Love that seems more and more remote. ¬†So what to do next?

      Couple of things come to mind. ¬†My guess is that you tend to awfulize and do some thinking that is scary to you yourself. ¬†So I think you would do well to have some friends with whom you can talk out your thoughts to help you see where your doing “silly thinking.” ¬† E.g. he’s left you four times, sure, but before you learned anything about Clinger/Avoider or patience and during those days you might have been fairly awful yourself. ¬†OR ¬†Of course things are cyclical cuz you are “both” working on recovering from the early life wounds you both carry. ¬†Makes me think of a four-wheeler trying to get up a steep sandy bank and making many tries at it. ¬†You’ll get there. ¬†Best thing is to really absorb the Map of Relationships and get familiar with the University of Life. ¬†Seems you are trying to get in there. Go for it.¬†

      On your list of things to work on, on yourself, add one item.

      • habits of emotional expression that drive him away
      • patience
      • learn to help him feel “safe”
      • AND retrain yourself to not scare yourself. ¬†Keep your own Lizard calm no matter what he (or anyone else) does.¬†

      Just a thought. 

      • Thank you. Thank you so much, Al.

        I have friends that can help me with this “silly thinking”. I think I’m on track. I need to do this work as much for me as for him.

        Thank you for your ideas. I’ll work on my boundary skills, and training my soldiers so that I can keep my lizard more calm.


  5. Dear Kat, 

    Actually this sounds like a lot of stumbling around and confusion.  I see if differently from your counselor (of course I have only your letter to go on), and he sounds pretty normal to me.  

    To me "mid-life crisis" is just a label we-all put on a time of re-examination of values.  If you are in a relationship, you sure want to be in the middle of that re-examination so that you can be part of the solutions.  What happens in the end of the Power Struggle always looks like a mid-life-crisis no matter what age it happens at.  

    Of course people use that term (mid-life-crisis) in all sorts of ways.  One dangerous way is to create more distance from him and his process.  Sounds as if you got way to much of that.  Sounds as if you both are considering, and wandering near to Door #3, divorce.   Your free to chose that door, but I wouldn't. 

    So let's just look at the surface of things.  You give me a lot about your observations, theories and labels for him.   I am used to the idea that in a relationship both are involved in each other all the time, and I use the model that both are responsible 50%-50% for what is going on.  I'm glad you used the word Passive, because it allows me to ponder your relationship from the point of errors in Autonomy gone amuck  And as I get an email from you, I tend to focus mostly and what you think you are, or have been, doing that has contributed to this situation.  

    I hear he left you.  Well, that's a cue to "What to do when he/she leaves", and it is also a clue to his sense that being away from you is refreshing.  So I focus on what do you do that makes this so.  I focus on this, because this is something you can change right away.  I believe as a loving partner (you sound like one) you want him to "struggle with life" and come home to you to feel refreshed.  I often speak of this as remaking your presence into a Source of Safety to him.  

    Quickie thoughts:

    • Complaining never works.  
    • I don't track what the job issue, your job, is. 
    • Choosing to not express yourself, or "betraying your feelings" never works, in my experience.
    • Glad you are 39 and have so much time to learn-to-do-better.  
    • He sounds like the right kind of guy (Mr. Right) for you.
    • If the kids are between 3-7 or so, I think they are learning how to reproduce your kind of relationship later in their lives.
    • Glad you are both counseling.  Hope your counselor is learned in relationship skills and concepts.  Lots are not.
    • I don't like the idea of waiting out "his crisis".  Sounds like a good way to throw away a lot of time.  I like the idea of getting to work

    Best wishes.  Al

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