A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: Dealing with indecision

My husband seems to be stuck in indecision. He was offered a new job, which he thought he wanted but then could not make the decision to take it. We have enough money to sell up and relocate to the countryside - where he says he would like to buy a lifestyle block - but he can’t make up his mind to do this, even though we have looked. His discontentment is taking a toll on our marriage. He can’t even seem to decide whether we should have the garden landscaped or spend the money on upgrading the car. I love him but I feel all the colour is being drained out of our lives with his constant indecision and unsettledness.
We can all relate when someone tells us they just can't make their mind up. Photo / Thinkstock
We can all relate when someone tells us they just can't make their mind up. Photo / Thinkstock

We can all relate when someone tells us they just can't make their mind up. This can range from the simple dilemmas about what to have for dinner through to the bigger ones like whether we should blow our savings on a holiday rather than fixing the roof - and on to the really significant decisions like staying in a marriage or changing a job.

Healthy psychological development for adolescents and young adults involves figuring out identity via lifestyle choices they make. This covers a whole range of issues from careers, to clothes, to friends, to beliefs. Interestingly, we are now increasingly seeing these challenges about self-definition cropping up for older adults as well. Science tells us that the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain exercised in the activity of decision- can only handle about seven pieces of information at a time. In an era of bombardment of choice, we are starting to see how challenging this is and how, on a bad day, the experience of pressure can interfere with a sense of who we are, and what decisions would seem to be the right ones to be making.

So what might feel like the luxury of options on a good day can become a burden when the stakes feel too high, or there are too many competing alternatives. But mostly we can work it out with a bit of reflection and analysis, and the preparedness to accept that the risk element is part of making decisions.

However, the all-pervasive indecision that you describe your husband struggling with is recognised as a potentially disabling anxiety condition. It has even been given its own name - 'aboulomania' - and is characterised by obsessional procrastination.

When we drill down and really look at what indecision is, the clearest description is that it is anxiety about uncertainty. Fuelling that anxiety is the spectre of making the wrong choice. It is this fear of what will happen if we make the wrong choice which is at the heart of this condition. Fending off fear is an exhausting activity, and stuck-ness along with its dark twin, powerlessness, will only feed that fear and will often feature a degree of depression as well.

Research tells us that cognitive behavioural therapy is a useful path when life is compromised by procrastination. When we tell ourselves persuasive stories about what will happen to us if we make a mistake, or, worse still, why we must never make a mistake, then little wonder we become paralysed. Using a gentle approach which challenges our faulty convictions, the grip of fear can be loosened and the person caught in the headlights can finally breathe out again and move.

The two related aspects in my response to your letter are, that your husband needs some quite urgent help with this very painful anxiety he is experiencing, and that you both need to be able to understand what the problem actually is and how to manage it.

Talk through with your husband about the fact that he is not in fact his indecision but that like a big black crow, procrastination has landed on him. Remind him what it is that you love about him and why you support a way forward to rid himself of this crow.

Solutions to indecision tend to lie in small steps. The first step in your case might well be about discussing the option to book a conversation with someone who understands how hard it feels and what to do about it.

The existentialist story of the starving donkey, trying to choose between two perfect and nourishing bales of hay in the barn, says it all. At its sharp end, this condition is disabling and, as you say, drains colour from life. We can afford to laugh at ourselves when we can't decide which choice of clothes will fit that social occasion - but to address the real price exacted by obsessional procrastination is sobering.

The good news is that it can motivate us to seek a remedy for this very human condition.

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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