Q: How can I make better decisions about important couple issues?

A: Every year Bernadette and Brandon discussed moving out of their home and buying another one. Brandon inherited the home from his parents, but Brandon and Emily thought it was too big and too expensive to maintain. The discussion has been going on now for fifteen years, and now the house needs lots of repairs, and they don't know what to do.

Christina and Carlo can't decide what to do about Christina's aging mother, who is almost eighty years-old and not in good health. Her mother is also a little forgetful, and Carlo worries that she will do something dangerous such as leave the gas stove burners on. Carlo doesn't want to interfere, but a month ago Christina's mother dropped a pot of hot water on her feet and scalded her toes. Christina is feeling pressured to do something--but what? She thought of moving her mother into her home, but she would have to switch bedrooms since the guest bedroom is on the second floor. 

These couples are facing major life choices, and the significance of their decision has put their thinking on hold--again.

If you've been reading this column, you might recall that I've said that most major decisions in life are made with incomplete information. We don't know, after all, if our choice of mate will be a wise one or whether we really should have taken that job in Seattle. When we feel stalemated, we often don't do anything. But there is really no such thing as doing nothing because no decision is still a decision! 

Yet, a funny thing happens when we believe we haven't yet decided: Life changes anyway. In the first story, now that many years have passed, Bernadette and Brandon's house needs more expensive repairs. They put them off because they could never decide whether it was worth putting money into a home they didn't like. And Christina's mother's health is declining faster than Christina knows what to do.

Here are some tips to help you make difficult decisions.  As you follow the steps, you will see that, taken as a whole, the steps guide you on a decision-making journey.  But it is a journey without a specific destination.  To benefit the most from these tips, hold back on making a decision until you and your partner have had time to take in what you've learned.  Rushing a choice is just as unwise as not choosing at all, too.

Keys to the Decision-Making Journey

You each will need several sheets of paper and two pens. Each person writes responses the to the suggestions or questions.

1. Take your best guess. Without considering your partner's feelings--for the moment--what do you think should be done and why? 

2. Think back on past decisions.  What missteps did you take? Did you fall apart or did the sky fall in as a result?

3. List your top decision regrets. What's still floating around in the back of your mind?

4. Describe what you think usually holds you back from taking action. How have your parents and your early years influenced you?

5.  Analyze your answers. What pattern do you see? Do you have a "wait and see" style? Do you decide in haste just to put an end to the uncertainty? Do you research endlessly to the point that you are even more confused?

6. Take a break. Let your thoughts sink in for a few days. Review your answers and discuss them with your partner.

7. Make a list of pros and cons about this current situation. Choose several options and write out for each one what is good or not so good about each option.

8. Gather information. It's great to due your research and consult others, but put time limits on your research mode and limit how many websites, articles or people you will seek.  Don't fool yourself into thinking that you are still "in the information process." 

9. Forget about perfection. There is probably at least one other good-enough choice.  Accept that hindsight is always 20-20. "Second thoughts" are part of many key decisions.

10. Apply what you've learned about yourself.  Integrate your new knowledge from the first five items about your fears and decision-style. How are your patterns and fears getting in the way now?

11. Make a temporary choice. Act as though you've decided. Tell your friends and family.  f possible, make a few phone calls to get the ball rolling. Listen to what others say. Write down your reactions, thoughts and feelings. After about a week, choose the next top decision and act as though it is the one you are going to follow. Write down your reactions.  What have you learned? Talk out your fears, misgivings or sense of peace with your partner.

12. Choose. Take deliberate action, make a decision and accept it as the best you can do. Now move on with your life!

In the stories above, Bernadette and Brandon realized that they each feared making a mistake. They both lost a parent early in life, and their surviving parent fretted about every decision. Bernadette especially believed that no decision was the best strategy because the "devil you know is better than the one you don't." They each discovered that they were strong enough to handle any regrets they might experience, and they chose to fix up the house enough to sell it. They moved into a charming, smaller home. They missed having a big backyard, but the benefits of saving money and having a simpler lifestyle outweighed remaining in their first home.

Christina decided to place her mother in an assisted living facility. She realized that she feared displeasing her mother so much that she was afraid to take active measures.  Just as she expected, her mother complained about her new place, and Christina had to fend off what she called "The Guilt Monster." But the decision process made her come to grips with her lifelong fears of never gaining her mother's approval. She knew she had done the right thing for her mother.

Making tough decisions is never easy, but doing nothing can get you in an even worse jam. Best of Luck!