What do you do when you want two different things but can only have one of them?
David Schnarch, PhD, founder of Crucible Therapy and author of Passionate Marriage, wrote about the two choice dilemma. I have to confess that when I read about it, I thought it was redundant. Of course a dilemma involves choosing between two things.
Schnarch coined the phrase over a decade ago. He used the phrase to define what happens when you want two things to happen, but only one can actually happen. A common two choice dilemma for couples is the desire for more intimacy, and the desire to avoid the anxiety that comes with allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to open to more intimacy.
Another way to look at the two choice dilemma is that in relationships, couples delude themselves. When faced with a choice they don’t like, they ignore the implications of the second choice, especially when that choice is implied. Instead, they believe that if they ignore the first choice, the default will be the status quo. In this example, if I avoid deeper intimacy, I’ll also avoid the anxiety and everything will stay the same. Unfortunately, there comes a time when the status quo becomes intolerable to one person in the couple. That’s when you have to face the two choice dilemma.
It takes courage to force a two choice dilemma, to explicitly state both choices and be willing to stand by the consequences. I had the opportunity to experience this two choice dilemma in my relationship recently. It hasn’t fully unfolded yet, but the initial volley left both of us unsettled. It also gave us the opportunity to go deeper into the consciousness of our relationship.
We are moving to Hawaii this fall. It’s a complicated process involving a 6,000 mile move of three people and three animals. We are renting our home in Massachusetts, so we need to find responsible tenants. A lot is up in the air; we’re what I call “swimming in the Void.” It’s like creating a house of cards, everything has to happen in just the right order and timing, and we have no control over most of it. Needless to say, it’s a little stressful.
It all started when my husband promised me that we’d move back to Hawaii this year. We told everyone and started making plans. Then he started having second thoughts. He’s not sure he should leave his job and he’s concerned about moving our teenage daughter. It triggered one of my core wounds, and we fought for a week. I felt unable to trust him and he felt I was pushing him to move faster than he felt comfortable. It was a classic case of the two choice dilemma: he thought that by ignoring the first choice (moving to Hawaii) that the default would be that we would just stay put for a little while longer.
Then I made him face the second choice: allowing himself to feel conflicted and move forward regardless. I told him that I would move ahead of him and he could stay behind until the house was rented. That triggered one of his core wounds and he felt like I was abandoning him. I have no intention of abandoning him, but I also have no intention of seeing snow fly again. I gave him a deadline for the move, which I extended twice. I had to look within and see how important it is for me to stand by my word. I discovered that it’s extremely important to me; integrity is a core value of mine, and that includes standing by my word.
One great benefit to forcing the two choice dilemma is this: both people have the opportunity to get very clear about what they really want. My husband got clear on what he really wanted and it helped him get off the fence. He can acknowledge his discomfort about leaving, but still be clear that it’s the choice he’s making. I am clear that I will be moving the third week of October. I have a strong preference that he comes with me, but I’m willing to do it alone. I have a strong faith that we are being divinely guided to move. I think the universe is conspiring on my behalf, and if that is in fact true then it’ll work out perfectly no matter what happens.
The two choice dilemma invites a couple to go deeper, to explore the wounded, fearful parts of themselves, and to heal those parts together. Facing the two choice dilemma with consciousness and compassion brings you closer if you’re willing to face it together.