10/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Indecision Means It's Time To Grow Up

Q: I have written to you before. At the time, I was dating someone for two years, whom I liked a lot. I felt very comfortable with him. He was really nice and decent, and he brought out in me a peacefulness that I don't usually have. However, even after finishing law school, he was unable to find a job. Frankly, I think he wasn't even motivated. I feared for my future. I wasn't able to convince him that if we were to remain together we needed to think about our future needs: homes, children, schools, position in a community, etc. He kept saying yes, but did nothing about it. My parents tried to be nice to him, but even they felt frustrated with his complete lack of ambition.

Back when I wrote to you, I was also having an affair with someone else. He was quite successful, but not very nice. I was torn between the two men and I also just hated all the lying I had to do.

As I sort of expected, you said I was using the affair in order to leave the relationship with my boyfriend - to have the decision taken out of my hands. You said my indecision was based in some part -maybe a lot - on my inability to separate effectively from my parents. Not only was I still yearning for their approval, but I was also terrified of making a mistake that would threaten my position as their perfect child.

Well, I did finally end the affair -- but only after I met another guy. That, of course, ended my relationship with my old boyfriend as well -two for the price of one, you might say. My new guy is not only very nice, but he makes me laugh. Maybe most important, he is very focused on the future. He actually produces spreadsheets to calculate the years it will take for us to save for a nice home. My parents have not expressed any opinion about him. Still, I think they approve.

But once again, I cannot make a decision. I keep thinking of my old boyfriend. He still has not found work but I still keep fantasizing that he will find a good job and become enormously successful. Then I would have it all -both he and his success -- and I would have no problem making a decision.

Don't you think so?

A: Actually, no! I don't think that if the old boyfriend returned with a sack-full of cash, it would actually change anything. The fact that this scenario is highly unlikely is not the issue. What is the issue is that you still have not separated from your parents. Separation is something that comes from within. It is not something that comes from finding the perfect man - someone who seems to solve all problems and who, on account of his near perfection, earns the enthusiastic approval of your parents.

Separation is something that you will have to work on in therapy. You will have to explore your need to remain a good child. You will have to explore the comfort you get from remaining a child. Childhood has its advantages. There are no decisions to make. There are no responsibilities to bear -and there is never the risk that you will be alone. When you are a child, you can be assured that your parents will always be there, that they will take care of everything, and that they will assume all burdens. You will remain in a comforting environment and be adored -- if you just follow some simple rules. Do well in school. Be polite. You get the picture.

Why not remain a child?

Mostly because no matter how difficult or how lonely being an adult can be, it also gloriously liberating. It entails freedom, the pride of accomplishment and the chance to create your own life on your own terms -your own family, your own house, your own crack at parenting. (Naturally, like all of us, you'll do it better.)

As an adult, you'll begin a new relationship with your parents. This new relationship will entail a new kind of love for them in which you are aware of their faults -but so what? You love them in spite of their faults. This new relationship will also mean that no longer will you be looking to your parents for constant affirmation of your wonderfulness. You will be looking to yourself for this.

Sometimes parents themselves make it hard for separation to occur. Look at what your own parents are doing. They encouraged you in thinking that boyfriend number one was insufficiently ambitious for their little girl. Now with boyfriend number two, they are mum. He seems to fit your bill and he seems to fit their bill. Why the silence? You look to them for approval and they withhold it. The three of you -you on one side, mom and pop on the other - are in total synch as enablers. You're afraid to grow up and make a decision and they're afraid to let you do it.

So, you need to understand that you indecisiveness, your inability to find the perfect person (which includes constantly thinking about the old boyfriend), are continuing -and successful --attempts to avoid making any decision at all. I always tell patients that if they want to understand their real feelings -- or to understand what someone else is really feeling - don't try to look into the heart, but down at the feet. Which way are they moving? Are they moving at all? Pardon the cliché, but actions do indeed speak louder than words.

So for the time being, don't worry about not being able to make a decision. Instead focus on the underlying reason that keeps you from moving forward. Start working on your issues about growing up. Look at your feet. Now walk to a good therapist.