"I don't know, what do you want to do?"
September 4, 2014 5:41 PM   Subscribe

Help me break the decision-making stalemate. Partner and I are in committed multi-year relationship. One of the places we struggle communication-wise is in decision-making, especially when neither of us have a strong preference (for example, "what do you want for dinner" or "should we go out for breakfast tomorrow?". When this happens, several things may happen: My partner will parry my question back to me "do you have any preferences?" (and if/when I don't, nothing is resolved), one of us will say "I don't really care, whatever you want", or we will stalemate in an "I don't know, what do you want to do" loop. As you can probably imagine, this makes for super frustrating interaction. Does anyone with experience with this have any advice on breaking this particular pattern?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Try the oft-askme-recommended 5-3-1 game, described at the end of this comment. You can alternate who goes first (or like... on odd-numbered days you go first and on even-numbered days he goes first, or something).
posted by brainmouse at 5:47 PM on September 4, 2014 [31 favorites]

If we can't decide and we are really that ambivalent we pick something and then flip a coin. It breaks the cycle for us, and sort of trains us that if we REALLY want something and are demurring just to be polite, just say what we want rather than letting the coin decide.

We have a rule that we can't choose a distasteful/impossible option for the coin flip in order to force the other's choice. A fringe benefit is that if we both UGH at the coin flip result, we laughing realize that we *did* have a preference after all.
posted by kimberussell at 5:49 PM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Could you narrow it down a little bit by asking what the other person does not want? Or if it's something about spending money and neither of you care maybe don't do it.
posted by mike_bling at 5:53 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I once made a flow chart of restaurant options for my dad, based on price, cuisine, and location. This worked really well for the "I dunno, what do YOU want to do?"/vetoing of everything suggested deadlock we were having every Friday night dinner.

There is also a concept that my friend came up with: "Gadzooks! We've been foiled by mutual meh!" Which is to say, if neither of you is super interested in going out for breakfast tomorrow, then don't go.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:01 PM on September 4, 2014 [10 favorites]

I understand how frustrating this can be. My boyfriend is terrible at making a decision when I ask him if he has a preference. He'll turn it back on me. I wouldn't mind but I've reached the point in my life that I don't put myself last all the time. So if someone gives me the choice then I'll chose what I want. Hence I often try to give him the choice to make it fair. Then he turns it back on to me, I make a decision, he'll pull a face as he does have a preference but wasn't willing to say anything.

The worst was when he was continually refusing to make a choice and I explained what I did above about wanting him to have what he wants, he told me that I didn't always have to chose what I wanted when he gave me the choice. I could pick what I didn't want, so basically he wanted me to be responsible for his decision making too. After that day I gave up, if he gives me the choice I make the decision I want. So I decided that, if I offer him the choice and he turns it back on to my shoulders, I wasn't going to waste my time trying to find out what he wants. It makes life slightly easier as there's no back and forth. Although sometimes I forget try to see what he wants as I'm not comfortable always making a decision.

That's probably not any help to you, I was going to suggest the 5-3-1 game that Brainmouse mentioned above. I also think that Jenfullmoons "mutual meh" is fantastic.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 6:04 PM on September 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Can you take turns being in charge of making the decision? Sort of like a job responsibility that you alternate between you. If you are both really indifferent, it's simply a matter of someone picking up the responsibility to decide on something, which may be easier if both people don't have to agree on it anyway. And in the end, you'll both be okay with it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:04 PM on September 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Does anyone with experience with this have any advice on breaking this particular pattern?


"Tomorrow I am going for breakfast at [The Breakfast Place], would you like to come? They have [the breakfast food], which I know you like/claim you enjoyed last time."

"Tonight for dinner I am cooking [tonight's dinner food], which I know you like/claim you enjoyed last time, will I cook enough for both of us?"

Then the ball's in their court to either agree or suggest a definitive alternative. If their alternative is bullshit you just go ahead with your own plans.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:04 PM on September 4, 2014 [12 favorites]

Each person gets to say "I don't know/care" once and that's it. Then make a decision immediately, whatever first comes to mind, and don't second guess it.

Person 1: "What do you want for dinner?"
Person 2: "I don't know, what do you want?"
Person 1: "I don't know. Let's have spaghetti."
The end.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:05 PM on September 4, 2014 [13 favorites]

I realized that my partner may be feeling as tired of decision-making as I am at the end of the day and xe might appreciate if I just go ahead and throw something out there (something I know xe is usually OK with), and thereby remove the burden of deciding.

At the least, we've started the process off in a positive direction.

Or what SpacemanStix said.
posted by notyou at 6:05 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just throw something out there. Usually two options. Wh were do you want to go to dinner? What about Italian or Mexican? Then she chooses one of the two and we go.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:08 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I ran into this a lot when traveling with my partner. We agreed that we'd take turns to decide where to eat, with the other person not being allowed to over-rule; except that if one of us really wanted to eat somewhere, we could suggest it even if it wasn't our turn. It worked a lot better than endless discussion (though it helps that we have reasonably similar tastes).

For dinner, our general rule is 'be grateful that you don't have to cook tonight', and accept whatever the other person decides to cook. (On preview, what Spaceman Stix said, basically).
posted by Pink Frost at 6:08 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sometimes when I get in this sort of stalemate, what I actually want is for the other person to make the decision so I don't have to. Saying "I'd prefer you decided this one" can cut off the infinite back and forth, but be sure to split the deciding responsibility evenly over the long run. (On preview, what SpacemanStix said.)

I also sometimes get overly specific about how I weigh the options. Given multiple choices that seem equally appealing, I'll say "I slightly prefer X, but I'll be happy with Y or Z in case you have a stronger opinion."
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:18 PM on September 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

Just read this. I found that introducing my entire family to the Abilene Paradox short-circuited 90% of that kind of crap. If nothing else, *I* damn well state my real preferences.
posted by bricoleur at 6:22 PM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

When we're both feeling wishy washy about restaurants/food we have good success with starting by saying what we don't want. Then we'll narrow our decision down to two possible choices, and one of us usually will form an opinion slightly in favor of one or the other. Slight preference wins in the face of absolute indifference.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 6:23 PM on September 4, 2014

This is a hard one, because sometimes you really don't have a preference, sometimes you do but you don't want to impose on your partner, sometimes you do but you think you don't, and sometimes, you just don't want to make a decision.

I think decision-making laziness can be the worst of those possibilities, so explicitly sharing the decision-making responsibility can help.

I also like this suggestion, in which you express your ideal outcome as the start of the negotiation by saying "My 100% is to go to that place where they throw eggs at your head", and then your partner can go "My 100% is to not ruin this shirt, it's my favourite" and you can move on from there.

It also gives you the option of saying "My 100% is to not have to make this decision today", which can be helpful as long as you can sometimes step up and decide to decide.
posted by misfish at 6:24 PM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

I read an interesting article recently, I wish I could find the link. Basically the theory is that the less obvious differences there are between decisions the harder they are to make because it's harder to find reasons to choose one or the other. So in other words, the differences between the 2 are so small as to be negligible but we spend more time on those decisions than other ones. In cases like that it is most rational/practical to just pick one and be done with it.

I solve the problem in our house by just picking something. OK well if you don't care I fancy Chinese lets go eat. It's started to work because my husband, instead of expecting me to read his mind and guess what he fancied, if he cares enough will now actually tell me what he actually wants. If he says he doesn't care I find it easier to take him at his word, if he suggest something that's usually where we go because really, like him I don't really care & there is usually so little difference any decision is better than no decision.
posted by wwax at 6:33 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

We start with what we don't want, narrow it down to a couple options, and if we can't decide then, we do whatever it is separately or not at all.
posted by sm1tten at 6:33 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

At some point my SO and I realized that we were doing stuff like this in an effort to try and guess what the other person wanted. We had to have a serious talk about and came out promising to be totally honest about our preferences. So now if one us has preference we make sure and voice it along with how strongly we feel about it. If we both have a strong preference we can compromise. Most of the time one of us really doesn't care or doesn't want to make a decision and the other one has a weak preference.

Occasionally neither of us have any preferences and we'll need to use some of the other ideas in this thread but it happens a lot less after we had that talk.
posted by VTX at 7:01 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah. You can end this every time by saying, "Okay, Mexican then."

I normally don't care, but given his druthers Husbunny would eat Pizza or Chinese every day. So I either posit, "Feel like Italian tonight?" And I'll get a yes or a no, and we can go from there, or I'll ask, "any preferences for dinner?" And he'll either say, "Yes, Pizza," or "Not really, you pick." In which case I then say, "Fine, burgers."

At first you'll be making all the decisions, and at some point your partner will say, "Yes! I want Spaghetti-os for dinner." And there you'll be.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:14 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

We do the 5-3-1 game a lot but also this has gotten easier for us since I introduced my partner to satisficing as a choice-making heuristic. Basically, the idea is you search just until you find an option that is good enough. And then you stop. No further options are even considered - you've got something that's good enough, you pick it and move on with your life.

Depending on the choice, you might need to define in advance exactly what "good enough" would mean, but for something like dinner it tends to mean that as soon as one person throws out an option and the other person thinks "Sure, that'd be fine, I'd enjoy that," you say so and we're done. Tacos? Sure. Yes, if you kicked around twelve more ideas, you might find that you would very slightly prefer curry to tacos - but it's not worth the search cost if you've got something everyone agrees is good enough.

Now, I would argue my partner takes this too far sometimes. Like, when he is satisficing for lunch, he has been known to settle on a convenience store frozen burrito because "good enough" for him is "calories delivered with minimal effort." My must-taste-good threshold is slightly higher so that would not satisfice for me, but delivery pizza or throwing together a sandwich might.
posted by Stacey at 7:22 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Modified SpacemanStix method: flip a coin, and whoever's chosen either decides, or comes up with 2 or more possibilities and the other person has to choose. Or, if one of us has a clear favorite, he/she advocates for it.

In my relationship, both of us were either trying to guess which the other would prefer, or wanting to avoid criticism in case the choice didn't end up being great. If you and your partner are doing either of these, in restaurant-selection or anything else, you have to stop lest you lose more and more of your individuality over time.
posted by wryly at 7:38 PM on September 4, 2014

If you have the same indecision over and over again, one thing that can help is just to leave it up to random chance. Get a magic 8 ball for yes-no decisions. Throw slips of paper with all your preferred dinner options in an envelope on the fridge -- if no one immediately has any ideas, pull one out and unless anyone objects, that's what you're having for dinner. Develop a list of things you want to do (restaurants you want to try, movies you want to watch on Netflix, recipes you want to make, whatever) and just do the next one on the list when the dilemma comes up.

There's a group here in Toronto that got tired of the 'where should we go?' game when no one had strong preferences, so they started eating at every restaurant in Toronto in alphabetical order, one per week. They've been doing it since 1989 and expect to finish sometime around 2050. Sometimes the best choice is not to make a choice.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:49 PM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had an ex who was like this. Totally noncommittal, "whatever you want," etc--but I wanted his opinion.

Eventually I would just say "What do you want for dinner?" "I dunno." "Do you want to go out?" "I dunno." And then I'd give him an hour or so, and say "Okay, I'm going out for dinner, see you later."

It took time, and it took me learning not to indulge the waffling, but he eventually realized I really did want his opinion and it mattered, and we were more or less able to figure out things like that together. Essentially, you have to make it clear that:

1) You want their opinion
2) You will make a decision if they don't give it to you
3) If they complain at all about your decision, you will not listen; if they won't provide their opinion they do not get to complain.

I'm presenting this in a less nuanced way than things played out, because I don't want to write a couple thousand words. But more or less, that's what it boiled down to: you're not telepathic, you can't read their mind, and if they will refuse to give you an opinion they have no right to complain when you make a decision that goes against what they actually wanted but did not express.

This is assuming you have already cleared the hurdles of open communication and inviting collaborative decisionmaking, of course.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:07 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

My mom and I get in that loop when we pick a lunch place. The solution is that one person names three places and the other picks one of those three.

Works great.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:18 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I frequently use the elimination method with friends. I don't want Indian. They don't want pizza. Etc. When we are down to a couple of options, it's usually easier to pick because of a desired thing (oh yeah, that place does the chicken parma I really like). If there's still a stalemate, I use eeny-meeny-miney-mo. If I land on the one it turns out I did really want, great! If it lands on the one I didn't really want, I pout for two seconds and say, never mind, this! And if it really doesn't matter, at least you have made the decision.

Another trick that I have learned from my nutritionist for solo food decisions (which can be incredibly fraught) is to at some point when you are not actually hungry, make a list of 3 or 5 or so choices that are reliable. They don't need to be inspiring or wonderful or bliss-inducing, but will be fairly stable choices that tick the main boxes (depending what they are - basic tastiness, cost, time etc). When decision paralysis threatens, you have the list. Pick one from the list and go there, get food. (Picking one can be a choice or it can be a random plonk finger on paper or roll dice or something.) When food is in front of you if you really don't want to eat it, you don't have to. But I've always eaten it.

Apparently depletion of blood sugar actually inhibits decision-making, especially after a long day of decision-making. So it's pretty common. I guess the other thing you could try would be to have a snack and see if that makes it easier to choose.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:40 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe just develop strong defaults for the main categories where this occurs. For me, a casual dinner, nine times out of ten, is tacos at this one low cost spot. So instead of evening discussions being "I don't know" they become "tacos?" + "Ok" / "Nah, I don't feel like tacos, I want a salad."
posted by salvia at 9:46 PM on September 4, 2014

jacquilynne's list idea works. Every time someone thinks "we should try X sometime," boom. On the list.

Sometimes we're looking forward to it and we do it the very next time. Sometimes, it works as a strategic deterrent option and we suddenly have no trouble coming up with agreeable ideas before we get to the list.
posted by ctmf at 10:14 PM on September 4, 2014

This is akin to the iterated prisoner's dilemma. You can't force your partner to be decisive, but if you do the "I don't know, what do you want?" once, and get an "I don't know, what do you want?" answer, then choose something, whether or not you have a strong preference. Do it every time, and be as selfish as you like, because your partner will catch on and you won't be doing it for long.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:14 AM on September 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

We've decided that if neither of us has a preference, then we do the cheapest, healthiest thing (e.g., make salad at home instead of eating out; go for a walk instead of watching a movie). For better or worse, it can often motivate one of us to have a preference at that point.

I've proposed the coin flip before, but Mrs. neutralmojo has an moral objection to that.
posted by neutralmojo at 8:10 AM on September 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Very familiar with this. My husband is a very nice person and wants me to be happy so he says "Well, whatever you want to do is fine." This happens all the time when we are choosing a board game or where to have dinner or something. We've had a few discussions about it.

My strategies are:

-Ask "What are some things you might like to do?" Asking for information rather than asking a "which one" question can be helpful to prepare for my next idea.

-Suggest something and ask if he'd like to do that. (This is easy. Yes or no!)

-When he asks me what I want to do, I always just pick one of the options presented or suggest something I think we'd both like. I never say "Whatever you want to do."
posted by AllieTessKipp at 8:18 AM on September 5, 2014

As Wrinkled Stumpskin says, this means we do stuff I like ALL THE TIME. Awesome.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 8:21 AM on September 5, 2014

Typically my housemate and I solve this problem by changing the subject from "What do you want to do?" to "Why do you make ME decide ALL THE TIME?!"

At other times we have planned fallbacks. For instance, the question of "what do you want to do for breakfast?" is usually solved by "Let's just go to XPlaceX." The question of "What do you want to order for dinner" is almost always solved by "There's always Thai..." etc.
posted by kythuen at 9:44 AM on September 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

We have two lists*: New & Different vs Old Favorite.

When we are out driving around or reading the local paper, if we come across a place we've never been but looks interesting, we add it to the New and Different list. We always have a short list of Old Favorites.

When it's decision time, we first decide which list we feel like, then just choose something from it.

* We don't actually do this, because I am far too lazy. But we talk about how we SHOULD do it all the time. Then we say "I don't care what do you want" about a hundred times.
posted by CathyG at 8:49 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh yes, we have this problem constantly. I started making restaurant decision time into a stupid game. Like, I'll start with "Do you want Asian or non-Asian food?" since my partner isn't often in the mood for that, so it's easy. Then, increasingly silly options like "Do you want to sit on a patio?" "Would you like something round?" "Would you like something that comes in a bowl?" etc.
posted by karbonokapi at 3:09 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

My family is like this and I eventually realized that they truly do not care what we do, so I just pick something.
I usually say something like "okay, well I would like to do X. If anyone has another suggestion, I'm open to it."
Most of the time they don't, and we go do X.
posted by exceptinsects at 4:48 PM on September 8, 2014

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