Recurrent Relationship "problem" - partners who "just want what I want."
March 7, 2019 1:47 PM   Subscribe

How do I best express my need for my partner to express his needs and wants?

OK, recurrent relationship pattern. This time, I am interested in doing the work necessary to figure out what's up with this pattern and how to fix it before it drives me nuts. It's a real "problem," but this is the pattern:

Me: Do you want to go to X?
Him: Sure, if you'd like to.

Him: So where do you want to eat?
Me: I'm not very hungry, why don't you pick?
Him: We can go wherever you want, or we can stay home if you aren't hungry. [like wtf dude, you're hungry!! Why would we go home??]

Me: Do you want sushi?
Him: Yeah, if that's what you'd like.

Multiple guys, over multiple kinds of relationships, over multiple years. I want to tear my hair out, and I know it's kinda awful for me to complain about dating people who want me to have it my way, but Jesus Christ, I don't want to be responsible for every decision (past practice shows that always has another shoe to drop), and sometimes I just don't want to have to pick. I want a partnership where HIS needs have equal value and he can say "no" to sushi and suggest cotton candy instead.

I am not super great at relationship communication in the first place. This pattern in particular really triggers me back to my ex-husband, who used this kind of pattern in a super fucked up way; most others I think have just done it out of ambivalence or wanting to make me happy, but I'd like to avoid that rabbit hole and take this relationship on a happy path, so please - how do I communicate that what would make me really fucking happy is if we did something that he likes because he wants to??

I tried to do some research but I don't think I explain this well anyway - it's like just to one side of the 5-3-1 decision-making practice (I can make a decision, I just don't want EVERYTHING to be premised on my preference or that we do it because it's what I would like to do).
posted by mibo to Human Relations (40 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure this answers the bigger question, but have you tried giving options? “Sushi or tacos?”
posted by bluedaisy at 2:07 PM on March 7 [6 favorites]

Not a romantic relationship, but one of my closest friends is like this. Sometimes I just tell her, "I'm feeling a bit burnt out on (planning/deciding). Can you please (narrow it down/make a decision)?"
posted by too bad you're not me at 2:10 PM on March 7 [22 favorites]

Dump them until you meet someone decisive. Honestly, decisive people are usually decided into relationships, but they’re out there. Numbers game. If they don’t plan the first date move on.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 2:13 PM on March 7 [16 favorites]

My wife and I definitely also do the “I’m tired (etc.), please make this decision” and then, ideally, the person who is making the decision will take into account the other person’s known preferences and the person who asked the decision be made accepts it even if it’s not something they really truly want, because not wanting to make the decision outweighs the need to have something specific.

We also have a thing where if you veto someone’s decision, you have to make the next one: “What do you want for dinner?” “Mexican.” “No I don’t want Mexican.” “Ok, your turn.” “Pizza.” “Cool.”

This isn’t exactly foolproof but it cuts down on a lot of indecisiveness just by making it clear the burden at this particular moment is having to make the decision, rather than figuring out the optimal choice.

But also definitely agree with Rock ‘em: filter for decisiveness as a trait if it matters to you enough for this to be a recurring problem.
posted by griphus at 2:19 PM on March 7 [39 favorites]

I saw my cranky friend put „What I want is for someone else who is NOT ME to make the decisions!“ to good use.
„Oh!“ said her boyfriend and promptly did all the deciding for the rest of the evening.

But he was not a hesitant person per se.

So I guess the question is, are you picking partners who are naturally insecure? And what attracts you to them? Or is there anything you are doing to make people loath about making decisions (like, do you pout when you end up not liking their choices?)

In general, you can totally say, „What I want is to be lazy and not decide - you do it!“
But with some people it‘s so ingrained to be passive and nothing you can do will change them into the decisive co-decider you say you want. It‘s a personality trait.

And yes, it‘s lazy and unattractive as hell to always make the other person decide and never bear the responsibility, so I totally get your annoyance.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:20 PM on March 7 [9 favorites]

We sometimes take turns "being in charge". It's kind of fun, even. If he knows he's in charge, he sometimes really takes to it. However, this only works because we know each other well enough that we trust each other to make good choices.
posted by amtho at 2:21 PM on March 7

This restaurant thing is one for the ages. Nobody ever wants to pick the restaurant. Maybe you could set up a system whereby you take turns deciding, with no option for getting out of it. I should probably do this myself in my own relationship. The vast majority of the fights we've had in our 25 years together have been on vacation when we're hungry and can't decide on a restaurant.

For the larger pattern, though - I can only tell you that I broke up with a really nice person in college because he agreed with everything I said and never seemed to have any opinions of his own. It was disconcerting. I tend to be pretty opinionated, though, and until I learned otherwise later in life could be quite controlling, so in retrospect I wonder if part of it was him wanting to keep me happy. That maybe he felt as though his opinions weren't as strong as mine, and therefore didn't matter as much. It might be worth considering if something in your own personality makes these guys think you prefer to make the decisions even if you really don't.
posted by something something at 2:22 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]

Personally, I tend to be on the ambivalent side of the frustration (sorry!) for two reasons. First, I have to make so many high pressure decisions in daily life that sometimes I just don't want to decide anymore. Second, deciding means taking on the responsibility for a choice that may result in others being unhappy or having a negative experience and often I'd rather be unhappy with the choice myself than feel like I'm responsible for someone else's unhappiness.

The way my poor beleaguered spouse and I deal with this is by trading off on who decides. The non-deciding person can veto, but otherwise has no responsibility for coming up with choices or making them. It makes each of us happy 50% of the time, which works for us.
posted by past unusual at 2:22 PM on March 7 [9 favorites]

Some people (myself included) either do not have strong opinions about these kind of things or are bad at figuring out what they want. If you want to have close relationships with them, you need to either take charge of these situations or train the other person to build their skills in decision making.

As a slight aside, I was called out throughout my childhood for "not caring" about things like this and it took me a long time to figure out that what was actually happening was that I was expected to read my dad's mind and tell him what he wanted to hear, and a childhood of confusion about what I wanted has made playing this game very much not fun. Not to accuse you of doing this, but please remember that there are complicated reasons that people are the way they are.
posted by Dmenet at 2:22 PM on March 7 [24 favorites]

This dynamic can sometimes evolve between 2 people; it depends on WHY person A and B don't want to make a decision. Person B maybe be genuinely ambivalent, open to anything, and therefore prefers to figure out and do what Person A wants to do, to make them happy. WHEREAS Person A may have an opinion, even a strong opinion, but doesn't want to voice their opinion for reasons. If I'm Person B [the guy, in your scenario], I'd pick up on that after a while, and get frustrated in making suggestions for an activity because person A vetoes my suggestions unless/until I suggest what Person A secretly wants to do. It can get tiresome, and it is quicker if both people just say what they want from the get go, even if it's "no opinion".

So, I'd encourage both of you to be more direct and honest. To rewrite your examples:
Me: Do you want to go to X? I do.
Him: I don't want to but would be happy to do it with you.

Him: So where do you want to eat?
Me: I'm not very hungry, I want you to pick.
Him: We can go wherever you want, or we can stay home if you aren't hungry.
Me: No, I asked you to pick. I will be fine with your decision.

Me: I would like sushi.
Him: OK

It sounds like you are both erring by being too sensitive to the others needs, which isn't a bad thing. Just be more clear about your actual needs ie, it's not so much that I need you to make the perfect decision, it's more that I need you to make a decision.
posted by smokysunday at 2:27 PM on March 7 [34 favorites]

I grew up with a dad who would veto any suggestion I made* so I learned not to make any restaurant suggestions. Maybe something like this has happened to your dudes as well. It's a lot easier to be "go with the flow, I'm cool with whatever" person than Person Who Always Picks The Wrong Restaurant For Everyone Else's Preferences And Makes Them Mad. Also, what smokysunday said. Person B may genuinely have no preferences or be afraid to actually have any.

* until I got fed up, made a flow chart list of all the restaurants by price, location, cuisine, etc. and forced him to pick every time. That worked wonders.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:39 PM on March 7 [7 favorites]

This is a man abdicating emotional labor in the relationship. It wrecked my last one. I think you should be very clear with him that this is lopsided and he needs to take a more active participation in the relationship. I don't know how long you give him after to show improvement, but it should be a conversation you have once.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 2:44 PM on March 7 [11 favorites]

I had this exact problem with a dear friend (who is also an ex-boyfriend) who came to visit me last summer. I had to make decisions for EVERYTHING, even when I presented him with choices. I told him I was feeling decision fatigue and he needed to be more decisive. When I mentioned this to my therapist she demonstrated a physical activity with me that really helped hit the idea home...

Stand facing your partner, your palms pressing against theirs (sort of like this, but fingers don't need to interlock). Use a little pressure and press back against them, they're supposed to do the same, so you both feel the tension, but no one is pushing anyone over. Keep doing it for a little while, and when they think they understand "the game", you let go, and you do it over and immediately let go again. The game is not fun anymore if you keep giving in. The entire point of spending time with another person is to feel that fun tension, of the give and take from both sides. Otherwise, one person is having to do the heavy lifting for two. You want a partner, not a dependent.
posted by pdxhiker at 2:49 PM on March 7 [16 favorites]

My partner is like this. It's mostly just because he's very low-key. In the early days of our relationship, I'd ask if he wanted to do something--go to a movie, get dinner, whatever--and he'd sort of shrug and say, "Sure." Which to me was a very lukewarm reaction. I'd suggest other things and get the shrug and "Sure." So we'd do things, and I never felt sure they were things he really wanted to be doing.

Eventually we figured out that this was pretty much as enthusiastic as he got about things. He's just easygoing about a lot of stuff. I, on the other hand, am very expressive. So, if I wasn't feeling sure of his feelings about something, I'd ask him, "Can you translate that into Orlop-speak?" and he'd say, "Yes! I am very enthusiastic about this idea! I would very much enjoy seeing the movie!" And other times, I was just OK knowing that if he said, "Sure," he meant it, even if his demeanor seemed kind of unenthusiastic to me.

Another thing we do is check in about each other's 100%. Here is a post I wrote under my previous user name about exactly where this came from. (My most popular post as that user!) But the short version is that it can be helpful to ask someone what is their perfect outcome--if they got everything they wanted, what would that be? So you might ask your partner, "What's your 100% for dinner this evening?" and they can answer with the thing they most want to eat, and then you start negotiating from there.

We have most recently used this very effectively with one of our children, now 15, who has always been very attuned to other people's feelings and has always wanted to keep everybody else happy. Getting him to tell us his 100% has really helped him learn to speak up for himself and ask for things he wants and needs. My partner and I have also been able to use it to get past our difference in communication styles in a cooperative rather than frustrated way.
posted by Orlop at 2:53 PM on March 7 [28 favorites]

At most one of your examples is one of indecisiveness or subordinating his desires to yours. Two or all three are instead examples accommodating you when he doesn't personally care.

My guess is that your pervasive relationship problem isn't dating / marrying indecisive or self-abnegating men, it's dating / marrying men whose areas of interest, to say the least of actual specific interests, don't match yours. I'd further guess that all of these men are quite decisive in areas that you don't much care about - e.g. what games to play or TV shows to watch, what stocks to buy and what stocks to short, etc. etc.
posted by MattD at 2:54 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]

Two ideas here:

1, just say a thing. "Do you want sushi?" "Yes." "What do you want to do today?" "Go on a bike ride." "What do you want to order for dinner?" "Pizza." Most of these are pretty low stakes situations, so there's no real reason for a lot of deliberation. I agree that this habit is annoying in other people but one way to shut it down is to just answer something and move on. Hopefully, by doing this, you will send the message that these back and forths aren't interesting, and your partners will also start to act more decisively and contribute their opinions, too.

2, Tell people the first time it happens that this is a pet peeve. Say that you're happy to weigh in sometimes, but that you want to hear their preferences, too, and that the waffling drives you crazy.
posted by the milkman, the paper boy at 3:01 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]

I agree this is a problem and that this is emotional labor. Deciding what to amke/where to go for dinner is often a last minute decision when you are tired or hungry, so it is not fair to leave it all up to one person. It is kind of a low stakes thing but it has to happen every. damn. day. If a brief talk about how you want them to participate doesn't change things, it is time to move on.
Activities are a bit different in that some people just don't go out and find things to do as much as others. This is not always indecisiveness if they are just a homebody.
posted by soelo at 3:33 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]

Nobody ever wants to pick the restaurant.

Once again, AskMefi reveals to me that there are weird people out there, and they are in the majority. I would love to pick the restaurant for the rest of my life! (Sadly, my husband is the same.)
posted by The Toad at 3:43 PM on March 7 [15 favorites]

The problem with being like “they just don’t care!” is... almost everyone cares what they eat. And if they don’t, “Hey, I don’t care what I eat, you pick for me” is quite an ask. Like, a bit of a 1950s American gender roles ask.

I doubt you can truly socially engineer your way out of this so I would try to have a real, sit down conversation with him (as an individual) about why he’s putting the burden of choice on you so often. In one case I had this convo with a guy and it boiled down to 1) fear of rejection and 2) control issues. If he wants tacos and I’m like “ugh, tacos!” then he felt rejected and like he lost leverage. Obviously that’s a little effed up and it was an assertiveness thing. But yeah, sorry men, lots of women don’t want to be your decider all day long.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:45 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]

I love the 5-3-1 solution: one person picks 5 options (easier, just throw things out there), the other person narrows the choices to 3 (thereby getting to veto things they find unacceptable), and the first person picks 1 from the remaining 3 choices. It almost always works or starts a discussion that ends in a decision. It’s so much better than thinking up and presenting options that are either lukewarmly received or just endlessly vetoed.

I try to be aware of this and also get cranky about it because it’s an emotional labor issue. When one person abdicates their part in decision making, it puts a burden on the other to anticipate their wants and needs. It’s not a big thing if it rarely happens, but if it happens more often, it really adds up.
posted by quince at 4:10 PM on March 7 [7 favorites]

My partner and I alternate.

Seriously, no one cares where they eat most of the time. It is also true that no one, neither men and women, wants to be put in a position where they are responsible for meeting their partner's unspoken expectations. The reason you don't want to pick is the same reason he doesn't want to.
posted by cirgue at 4:15 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]

The problem with being like “they just don’t care!” is... almost everyone cares what they eat. And if they don’t, “Hey, I don’t care what I eat, you pick for me” is quite an ask. Like, a bit of a 1950s American gender roles ask.

We do 5-3-1 a lot of the time. For my partner when he says "I don't care where we eat." what he means is "You have the more restrictive set of requirements and desires, so if there is a place you would like to eat, I am sure it will meet my requirements" and he means it, always. And I don't mind picking most of the time. Sometimes, less often, what I want is not to choose, or for him to just show up with food and when that is the case, I tell him so. We're aware that this is a division of emotional labor in our relationship and it's compensated in other ways where he does more of the heavy lifting.
posted by jessamyn at 4:58 PM on March 7 [7 favorites]

So, I did this a lot. I often get very little particular enjoyment out of food, whereas my partner gets a lot of joy out of food most of the time, and I enjoy seeing them happy about food. Many times I would default to "whatever you want is fine" because I either a) have literally no preference because as long as it's not dirt it will all be equally unremarkable, or b) I have a small preference but would would get more enjoyment out of their "OMG this quesadilla is SO GOOD!!!" than the .1 boost to tastiness I would get from acting on my preference.

My partner found this frustrating because sometimes they didn't have a preference either or didn't want to make a decision or wanted to go somewhere specifically to make me happy. But when they asked, "Do you want to go to x or y or z?" I never kew if they 1) had something in mind they would enjoy but wanted to give me options, 2) had no preference or wanted me to make a decision, or 3) wanted the opportunity to make me happy by going somewhere I would enjoy. If they have something in mind and I have no preference or just a small preference, it'd make me happiest to go where they want. If they have no preference or want me to make a decision, I can pick something at random or go with my small preference if I have one. If they want to make me happy, I can voice any small preference I have or tell them honestly nothing in particular tickles my fancy right now.

The dialogue I've started using is:

1) No preference: "I have no preference but can make a decision if you want me too."
2) Small preference: "I'd enjoy pasta right now, but I'd be happy with something else too."
3) Rare large preference: "I'm really craving sushi."

Have you actually determined whether it's literally no preference versus wanting to make you happy? Because it might be that they literally just don't have a preference, but are happy to make a decision if you want them to. If it is the case that they have a preference but are trying to make you happy, then express to them that sometimes it would make YOU happy to go somewhere THEY enjoy. Tell them you want to hear their preferences, and it's frustrating to never get the chance to return the favor and prioritize their wants over yours (which is what partners do for each other, but it has to be a back and forth!).

It might help to make clear what your expectations are when asking about dinner. "What do you want to do for dinner?" is really a pretty unclear question in terms of what you actually want. If you have a preference but want their input or want to give them other options, try, "I was thinking sushi for dinner tonight, but [I'm open to other suggestions/I could do tacos or pasta too]." If you just want them to make a decision, try, "I don't want to think, pick something for me." If you specifically want to go somewhere to make him happy regardless of what you want, try, "I want to go somewhere you'll enjoy, let's pick one of your favorites." My partner is not great at doing this, but when they manage it it helps a lot to let me know what they want, which helps me express what would make me happiest. Which usually ends up being going where they want, again, not because I value their wants more than mine, but because I get more enjoyment out of seeing them happy than I do over picking what generic flavor my meatbody fuel comes in.*

*Unless it's freshly grated cheddar cheese melted on tortilla chips. Which I will never pay money for because I can just make it at home and commercial versions ruin the simplicity with ten million toppings. Sometimes the answer is, "I don't care where we go for dinner, but if you make me chips and cheese for a snack when we get home I will be overjoyed."
posted by brook horse at 5:01 PM on March 7 [7 favorites]

I'll just say that I was in a relationship once where I did this sort of thing as a survival mechanism. I learned very quickly that any decision I took ownership of was very likely to result in massive amounts of blame and outrage if my decision ended up at the top of a branch of events that ended up displeasing the other person. So for example if I said "lets have sushi tonight" and then later on it turns out that her miso soup is too salty, that would be my fault. Or if I decided we should get netflix and save money on cable (having to make a paper proposal in this case that ran the numbers), but then later (months, years?) a particular show turns out not to be on netflix (or to be there no longer), then the ruination of tv-watching time is entirely upon me. Or if I chose the internet provider but then the internet goes down - also my fault entirely, and my responsibility to FIX RIGHT NOW or be judged as useless and or lazy and or uncaring. I hope you're not like that.
posted by some loser at 5:59 PM on March 7 [8 favorites]

I’m the one who is always saying “Whatever you want is fine.” It reflects the biggest issue in my marriage.

To some extent this dynamic reflects a situation similar to the one Jessamyn describes: Mr. Carmicha is a very picky eater who probably only eats about a dozen dishes within even fewer cuisines (although he loves sushi, thank dog). In our town, for example, there are only about four or five restaurants he deems acceptable, although he will tolerate others if he’s certain they serve one of his few foods (nb, his father would only eat at 3 places in all of South Florida, so this is hereditary and, moreover, means that Mr. Carmicha thinks he’s a paragon of flexibility). So when Mr. Carmicha invites me to choose, what he really means is “choose an option from within the narrow range I find acceptable.”

I used to suggest whatever I actually wanted, but then it would get rejected or the whining and foot dragging would commence. And this dynamic makes me go all Bartleby the Scrivener. I will not pretend that I’m choosing what I want when I’m really just accommodating the mister. So I do not choose; I would prefer not to.
posted by carmicha at 7:56 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]

Lots of times, figuring out where to eat can become a game of 20 questions where whoever ostensibly "picks" has to go through a long list of what the other person will approve of, and this can get tiring. I'm also like brook horse in that I generally don't have extremely strong food preferences beyond, "I want to get food at a reasonable price."

It could be that you're really into food, and there just aren't a lot of people with strong food preferences where you live.

I suggest alternating food decisions with catch that, within a given price range, the other people must accept.
posted by deanc at 8:52 PM on March 7

Have them read "What Women Want When They Test Men?"

"For example, here's a famous one that men all around the world have been failing since the dawn of time:

"I'm hungry."

Seriously. If a woman has ever told you that she's hungry she wants you to make a decision. If you're married and there's a ton of food in the fridge yet she sits next to you on the couch ... and opens her mouth to say , "Honey, I'm hungry" something deeper is going on."

I've been struggling with this in some relationships too, including the current one. We're about to have the talk. I want - NEED - him to take charge in such situations. In order for me to feel happy, relaxed, respectful, taken care of. This is a small thing, but somehow, psychologically, it's huge, and I cannot help it.
posted by LakeDream at 9:15 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]

At first I was going to explain how I am the woman in a hetero relationship, how I used to be extremely unopinionated, how I had to practice noticing what I wanted, how it got better, etc. but it seems like the problem you want help with is how to break out of this recurring pattern between relationships.

(One of the saddest sights I have seen is a middle-aged couple taking a dance lesson -- it is obvious that the woman has dragged the man to the class to get him to take charge, and he's struggling, not getting it, and asking her what move to lead next.)

And to that, I'm going to thoroughly go with Rock 'em Sock 'em's advice -- dump until you find one.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:45 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]

how do I communicate that what would make me really fucking happy is if we did something that he likes because he wants to??

Direct quote of a series of text messages between me (a laid-back omnivore who is happy to eat almost anything anywhere anytime) and Most Excellent Friend (who sometimes has Strong Opinions about what she's in the mood for and sometimes doesn't) while making plans to see a movie:

Her: "Dinner first? Preference?"

Me: "Sure. No preference."

Her: "Get one."

If dude can't handle that directness, then that's something to think about re: other aspects of the relationship.

As various people are pointing out, this kind of, "no, you make the decision" is often a form of shirking emotional labor, but (reading the answers above) clearly it can come from a variety of different places - genuine low-key no strong opinions, fear of making "wrong" decisions, elements of Ask vs. Guess, some fairly old-fashioned ideas about "always do what the woman wants even when she won't say what she wants." So while you've had this experience with multiple men, I do think it might be worth digging into why this particular dude does this - which will itself require some pretty direct conversation, but then the two of you can work out your decision-making strategies from common ground.

Me: Do you want to go to X?
Him: Sure, if you'd like to.

Him: So where do you want to eat?
Me: I'm not very hungry, why don't you pick?
Him: We can go wherever you want, or we can stay home if you aren't hungry. [like wtf dude, you're hungry!! Why would we go home??]

Me: Do you want sushi?
Him: Yeah, if that's what you'd like.

I feel like I should point out that in every one of your examples, you're starting with a question about what he wants to do. If dude is coming from a place where he's gun-shy about making decisions because someone taught him that he's always going to be wrong, that looks like a trap.

Or, looking at it another way, your opening conversational salvo about a decision is framing it as totally dependent on his opinion, and not as a preference or opinion of your own. While you're understandably frustrated that he won't make decisions, to some degree you're constantly asking him to make ALL the decisions - you are not, yourself, directly expressing an opinion about what you want to do.

Stop asking, start telling. It's OK to want things, it's OK to directly say you want things. It is a very gendered pattern of behavior, where women are taught to, well, pander to everyone else's needs or desires. And hence everything starts with a question.

It doesn't have to be that way, and as Rock 'em Sock 'em points out, decisive people will find other decisive people.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:53 PM on March 7 [9 favorites]

Have you tried the phrasing, "Break the tie for me, X or Y?"

The idea is to be explicit about being okay with either and wanting someone else to decide.

There does seem to be a gendered pattern of women trying to guide men to decisions they've already made. Admittedly this is probably because they've had men respond badly to direct instructions.

I had a boss once who would ask, "Do you think we should do X?" And I'd think, "Well, she's the boss, so she's either quizzing me or genuinely uncertain." So I'd think about it and sometimes say yes and sometimes say no, the latter of which she would take as insubordination. I never did figure out how to tell when she actually wanted me to think for myself, so I just start responding to all such questions with, "What do you think?"
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:24 PM on March 7

For dinner play 5-3-2-1. First person offers 5 choice, second person narrows to 3 from the 5 and so on. It’s a kind of game so introduce it as such.

My husband and I use numbers to express strong preferences, a scale of 0-10. For us it’s abour whether or not we want the other person to join us at some event. 10 is I strongly expect you to be there. 0 is I’d rather you not come. 5 is im absolutely neutral and it’s up to you.

I also agree with others who have said that you aren’t being direct enough. It’s ok to say;
- I need you to decide.
- I really want to do X tonight and I want you to join me (or not).

If you decide to pursue this with current parent, let them know that it’s also ok for them to be more direct and respond with things like:
- I also don’t want to decide (then you both need to go and do your own thing and recharge a bit!)
- I don’t want to do X. I want to do Y.

If it’s *not* ok for either of you to be direct with one another, then that’s the issue to address.
posted by CMcG at 11:16 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]

N-thing 5-3-1! Or even 3-1 because sometimes it’s hard to come up with 5 options. If I’m feeling really ambivalent I ask my partner to come up with the initial 3 so I only have to make one choice (the one veto to narrow it to 2). If I actually do have some cravings but can’t decide I come up with the three so I know I’ll be very happy with the final choice. It’s a lifesaver for restaurants but it really does work for lots of things and it can be as little or as much of a discussion you want it to be.
posted by like_neon at 12:03 AM on March 8

I'm quite guilty of this behavour, but it is more because it is learned than I'm imposing it. I usually have no preference and when I've made a choice in the past I've had another different choice been suggested to me instead and agreed to go along with the new choice. This has happened multiple times so now I just make a suggestion and then go with whatever the wife wants to do anyways. I truly do not care which restaurant we would go to, I have a much more adventurous palate and will find something wherever we would go, so instead of putting forward a choice and being overruled it is simpler to go with the flow.

Look into past occasions where you have offered a choice. Did you overrule or refine (even slightly)? It is very easy to do and overlook, but if it happens you could essentially be teaching these people to just be complacent as it is simpler. It could be as innocuous as:

You: Where shall we go for dinner?
Him: How about some Italian? We could go to the place at the top of the hill?
You: Italian sounds great lets go the the place at the bottom of the hill.
Him: Sure

You essentially takes his suggestion and modified it. Why should he have bothered making the suggestion, when you could have just said that you wanted to go to the restaurant at the bottom of the hill. A worse example:

You: Where shall we go for dinner?
Him: How about the Mexican place?
You: Nah I don't feel like Mexican.
Him: Italian?
You: Nope.
Him: Fish and Chips?
You: Ughh too greasy
Him: Japanese
You: Too Salty
Him: Thai
You: Too Spicy
Him: Ethopian?
You: Doesn't tickle my fancy
Him: German?
You: Nah too sausagey
Him: Portugese?
You: I'm not a fan of salted cod
Him: Tapas?
You: I don't want to order a lot of small dishes
Him: A curry?
You: yeah sounds good lets get a korma.

It would have been so much simpler to just say that you fancied a curry for dinner instead of going through the whole rigmarole.
posted by koolkat at 2:14 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]

I have found this is a common problem with two polite people in a relationship. As polite people who are married to each other, my wife and I have developed two techniques to prevent this.

First is the Electoral College technique.

Second is the phrase "Take me at my word." It means, "I am using these words in their literal meaning, and I swear to you, on the sanctity of our relationship, that there is no subtext."

For example, "Take me at my word: I'm happy to eat anywhere you want" means "I don't have a pre-decided restaurant choice that I'm trying to suppress out of politeness -- I really, truly don't care where we eat."

Note that the point of "Take me at my word" is to free you from the cycle where your partner thinks you have an opinion you're suppressing out of politeness, so he suppresses his opinion out of politeness, and neither of you says what you want. As a result, "Take me at my word" loses its magic power if you use it (even once!) when you do have a secret opinion. Use it wisely!
posted by yankeefog at 4:59 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]

Had this problem with daughterMogur, and found (even when she can't pick anything) that she can say what she doesn't want.

Me: What do you want?
Her: I don't know.
Me: What do you not want?
Her: Chinese food.
Me: Okay, how about (insert name of chicken restaurant here)?
Her: Okay.

It's a bit like the 5-3-1 technique, above, which I am totally going to copy next time.
posted by Mogur at 6:02 AM on March 8

I'm like this a lot in both my romantic and platonic relationships. It's a combination of factors. One, I genuinely do not care a lot of the time. What I want is to be spending time with the friend or partner, and I honestly do not have strong feelings about which thing we eat, which movie we watch, etc. I probably have a few things I really *don't* want but beyond that it's all fairly neutral. Two, I am a highly anxious person and I worry a lot about getting things Wrong in some nebulous way. Three, making my friends' and partner's lives better is a really high priority for me and one of the things that makes me happiest, so I get a lot more happiness from, say, a lunch that my friend loves even if I only sort of like it, than one where I get my favorite food but my friend's meh about it.

The good news is that while those latter two tendencies can lead me down a "I don't care, you pick" path, they can also help me work my way out of it! I have, for example, a dear friend who has told me in the context of her dating travails that she very much wants to find a partner who will take on an equal share of proposing and planning dates. I filed that information away and now I know it's important to her to not always be The One Organizing. So now I know that I can make her happy by doing more of the choosing and organizing, even if that means sometimes she doesn't get her favorite thing or I don't pick the movie time she'd like best, because there are other aspects of me choosing that make her happy. I have to remind myself of that regularly when I interact with her, because it's not my default state, and I'm sure I still don't step up to the planning literally 50% of the time, but I try do to a reasonable share of it because I love her and I know it's important to her.

Which I guess all boils down to: 1) If your partner doing more of the choosing is what you want, that's something they should listen to and at least make good-faith efforts to meet you halfway about, and it's definitely okay to just say that! But also 2) It might help you to consider that him not having a particular preference may not mean his needs aren't being met, or that he doesn't think they have equal value! He may just genuinely be a person whose need and primary happiness source is "spending quality time with you and doing his best to ensure you are happy," and that he does not actually give a solitary fuck if he gets to eat sushi at the same time. If that's the case, though, there will probably still be *some* times when he does care - like, there are definitely days when I could murder a cheeseburger and might die without one, no matter how much I know my partner would prefer Indian food - and hopefully he can communicate well when that is the case, and express those needs when they do arise.

There's a big wide world of middle ground and hopefully you can get there with some good discussion about what you're each actually trying to communicate when you have a choice discussion. Don't have the discussion when you're both hangry and lying around sadly making "I don't know, what do YOU want?" noises at each other, though. Order a pizza because it's the baseline easy decision, eat the dang pizza, and then have the discussion on a full stomach.
posted by Stacey at 6:07 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]

These decisions got so much easier when I realized my preference was often “I want you to pick” and it’s okay to say specifically that. You do have to both carry your share of the decision making, but recognizing and voicing this preference can go a long way.

It also helps me to specify the degree of my preferences: “I’d like either X or Y, but I have a slight preference for X.” I remember reading a comment here where a couple would assign numbers to their preferences and the higher number won out, but I don’t have to get that precise. There’s also a distinction between “I’d be happy with either” and “I don’t care” and learning how to communicate those is helpful - sometimes one person is trying to express equal enthusiasm for multiple options, but it comes across as indifference.

I’ve also found that if I’m stuck, the best option is sometimes to choose nothing. This took a while for me to learn when choosing restaurants, because I generally really like restaurants, but if I can’t muster up the enthusiasm it doesn’t do any good to force it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:19 AM on March 8

My partner is easy-going and not trying to make me do extra work when he says he's good with whatever I want so what has helped is:

-I take him at his word (as mentioned above)
-if I want him to decide where we're eating I try to let him know in advance and give him any dealbreakers on my side ("I want you to pick where and when we're going out tonight, I am happy with anything but thai" - he inevitably responds with "Ok McD's it is then!" harr harr)
-we have a list of takeout places we're both happy to go to or order from, it's in our kitchen and includes which days the places are open/closed, so one of us is allowed to just order dinner from that selection without input from the other, or can be asked to do that
-if I want no questions or decision burden I tell him "I am not thinking of, answering, or deciding anything, I trust you to handle it" and then I quietly fuck off so he can't ask me anything
-I very generously compliment and admire his planning/decision-making capacities so that he knows it's a thing he can do that I appreciate a lot
-I find out what he really really likes and suggest it once in a while, because he truly forgets and doesn't really care 90% of the time whether we're eating hotdogs at home or at his favorite restaurant

Also fwiw my partner likely has ADHD so I think it really does tax him to do the planning, it taxes me too but not as much, so for us it's a tradeoff thing, I make him do things (like make phone calls) that I hate to do.
posted by lafemma at 10:39 AM on March 8

The problem with being like “they just don’t care!” is... almost everyone cares what they eat. And if they don’t, “Hey, I don’t care what I eat, you pick for me” is quite an ask. Like, a bit of a 1950s American gender roles ask

If the choices are Thai or Mexican, there’s stuff I like on both menus so I wouldn’t much care which we went for. Now if somebody insisted I had the yellow curry and wouldn’t let me pick off the menu myself, that would be weird and over-steppy. But picking a restaurant, presumably from a shortlist of previously-enjoyed options, would be fine with me. Equally if it’s a first date or I’m visiting out of town and I know none of the local options, I’m happy to be guided by somebody who does.
posted by tinkletown at 12:40 PM on March 8

I was kinda like this and my brother was super like this, because we were raised to believe that "easygoing" was the best thing to be with other people. I started realizing how much work this created for other people after reading When Anger Scares You: How to Overcome Your Fear of Conflict and Express Your Anger in Healthy Ways by John Lynch, which gives practical ways of addressing reluctance to "make a fuss" or express one's own needs. It also gave me a framework for talking about it with my brother, who immediately understood that his effort to create less work was actually creating more work, and he's been much better about it when he visits me (and has since gotten into an awesome longterm romantic relationship that seems way more balanced than his previous ones).
posted by lazuli at 10:18 AM on March 9 [2 favorites]

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