May 29, 2024
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Navigating Difficult Decisions in Relationships


It’s easy to live in fear of making tough decisions, so I’ve put together a guide to help you think through your choices and come to the right decision.

It’s hardly news to most couples that sometimes you have to face tough choices in relationships. Making a decision can be hard in many situations, and when someone else is affected, things get worse. For example, a young, single and child-free person might want to move to another country. It’s a big deal! If you’re in a relationship, though, it means you’ll either have to take that person with you or break up. It’s not an easy choice, and that’s why people try to find middle options like long-distance relationships, and ultimately drag things out and make everyone unhappy.

The different options couples have

That’s just one example! Couples have to make big relationship decisions all the time: should they break up? should they get married? should they live together? should they have kids? should they move to Jamaica and become bobsled champions? It’s constant and exhausting, so therapists call it “decision fatigue”. The funny thing is, despite the choices, people prefer to keep everything the same. It’s called “decision paralysis” or “status quo bias” and it means that if you have the option to stay in a situation which might not be especially happy or fulfilling, you’ll probably choose that over trying something new because you fear it might be worse. Therefore, we find ourselves in a strange situation: romantic relationships require clear decisions, and we absolutely do not want to make them.


How to find your own right answer

 To make things worse, we’re often not logical about relationships. Speak to any teenager and you’ll find someone who, deep down, thinks that their spotty, pubescent, immature partner is going to be with them forever and will be incredibly dramatic when the relationship ends two weeks later. We can’t trust our intuition because our feelings get in the way. Everything is cloudy and mixed up and painful. To return to our original situation: I think most people think that travelling when you’re young and have options and few commitments is a good idea, yet when you’re in that position, you don’t want to say goodbye to someone you love.

Intuitive system and deliberate choices

 It’s not all terrible, though. There are things you can do to make tough choices in relationships a little easier. When making a decision, slow down your thinking. This advice comes from Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who described two different ways of making decisions. The first is “intuitive”, where a person listens to their gut and goes with their first choice, possibly not thinking things all the way through. The second is “deliberate”, and requires a slower and more considered approach. “Intuitive” thinking can be really useful, especially in emergencies, but for big decisions where you can take your time, it’s better to use “deliberate” thinking instead. In their article on the subject, the Washington Post claims that the latter should be used when you’re thinking about telling your partner that you’ve been unfaithful. Whilst I realise that these things should be discussed at the right time and place, I cannot support hiding these things from a significant other.

Take your time, but don’t succumb to decision inertia. 

There are different ways to slow down thinking. The first is to talk everything over with trusted friends/a good friend, journal about it, chat with a therapist or make a pros and cons list — although if sitcoms have taught us anything, make sure you don’t leave a paper trail that could hurt someone’s feelings. Ensure you’ve considered everything before making an important decision, and the solo activities can help you remember everything. Talking with another person can offer a new perspective and allow you to see choices you might have overlooked, and they might be able to offer specific tips on how to talk about difficult situations. I would advise against going to family members, as they’re most likely to be biased and may make things worse.

Our lives might not look the way we anticipated. 

The Washington Post article continues and discusses the importance of clarifying one’s values. When I was a child I had certain ideas about what I wanted my future life and relationship to look like: I wanted two kids, a dog, a cat, and a husband who loved Busted as much as me. Now that I’m older, things are much more flexible. Do I actually want a dog, or would that be a lot of work on top of children? Am I certain that my spouse needs to be a man? Should I go for a career change? Have my core values changed? Does “A Present for Everyone” really hold up, or do I prefer my post-adolescent angst from Olivia Rodrigo?


The reasons people avoid tough choices

Author, research professor and therapist Daphne de Marneffe, PhD gave an example based on a couple she worked with. They were miserable, had nothing in common and didn’t have a waning sex life – they had no sex life. For whatever reason, they didn’t want to get divorced, so she asked them to try a trial separation for six months to see if this would help. I can’t imagine things were always smooth, yet at the end of the trial, they realised that they were much happier apart and decided to take their own path. They were even better at parenting! Few people get married with the intention of going separate ways, so it doesn’t fit into our “life plan”, yet it’s much better to leave situations where we’re unhappy, even if it wasn’t what we initially thought was right. This isn’t the only example. Many people move to different countries, convert to religions, and look into adopting/surrogacy because they’re in love and things change. All of these decisions are tough and need to be deliberately considered.

Co-operating on important relationship decisions. 

I mentioned earlier the temptation to see things in black and white, or to find a middle ground. I’m the kind of person who will argue that long-distance relationships are the wrong choice because I’ve seen them go disastrously so many times, but sometimes they can be an option. It really depends on the situation, and sometimes you need to learn life lessons for yourself. For example, if you’re in a committed relationship and you’re offered a short-term job abroad, perhaps a long-distance relationship could work. The boundaries are time limits, distance, and factors in how much time you’ll spend away from one another. I think anything more than a half year is too much, and being within a few time zones is also important. If it’s longer, perhaps you should consider taking a break from the relationship and being friends. Feelings are tricky, and this is another difficult decision.

It’s not a breakup, it’s readjusting to a healthier relational life. 

This is discussed in-depth in the book Both/And Thinking by Marianne Lewis. She details an interesting way to rewire your brain and look at the positive parts of the situation. You could think of breakups as a negative thing, or you could think about the opportunities being single brings. If your needs aren’t being met in certain situations, think about how much happier you could be and then the changes you need to make, even if this means having to make a difficult decision.

Making deliberate choices is hard. 

Big decisions are things we all have to deal with in life as well as romantic relationships, and couples are guaranteed to disagree sometimes. Getting stuck in a decision limbo is easy, especially when you have to make a scary decision. Remember to work with your partner and thoroughly think things through. If you can find a middle ground and establish healthy boundaries, that’s wonderful, but if you have to make a firm choice, try to focus on the new opportunities. You can feel conflicted and sad and still know that you’re doing the right thing.
Rachel Hall, M.A., completed her education in English at the University of Pennsylvania and received her master’s degree in family therapy from Northern Washington University. She has been actively involved in the treatment of anxiety disorders, depression, OCD, and coping with life changes and traumatic events for both families and individual clients for over a decade. Her areas of expertise include narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and therapy for traumatic cases. In addition, Rachel conducts workshops focusing on the psychology of positive thinking and coping skills for both parents and teens. She has also authored numerous articles on the topics of mental health, stress, family dynamics and parenting.

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