We often praise people who give ultimatums, who say things like “By such and such date, if I don’t have a ring, this relationship is over.” Or “I want ______, and if you’re not willing to give that to me, then I’m done.”
After all, they’re just standing up for their beliefs and needs. They’re just standing up for their happiness. They’re being strong and self-assured. We think Wow, they know what they want, and they’re not afraid to ask or even fight for it. We see this as admirable.
Or we give friends advice to give ultimatums. We say, You need to tell them they better do X or Y, or you’re not going to put up with that. They better come home earlier. They better stop nagging you. They better start calling more. They better get a job. Or else, you won’t come home either. Or else you’ll leave. Or else you’ll get a divorce. Or else….
But ultimatums are actually destructive to relationships. For starters, “an ultimatum is a demand,” which is expressed as a deal breaker, said Jean Fitzpatrick, LP, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in working with couples in New York City.
It’s essentially a threat with consequences, said Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships in Orange County, Calif. An ultimatum is usually drastic and all or nothing. Nickerson shared these examples: “Stop drinking or I am going to make sure you never see the kids again.” “Marry me or I will find someone who will.” “Have sex with me more often or I am going to start cheating.”
Ultimatums are destructive because they make your partner feel pressured and trapped, and force them to take action, she said. “Generally, we don’t want to force people to do anything, because they’ll do it, and it won’t be genuine, and resentment will form….[I]t’s hard to feel loving towards someone who is making threats or demands.”
Plus, “By forcing your partner’s hand, you are raising the tension level even higher in a situation that presents an important opportunity to nurture mutual understanding and trust,” Fitzpatrick said. “And if you win, it’s not a win for the relationship.”
We glorify ultimatums because we confuse them with being assertive and standing up for our needs. But an ultimatum is not the same as a request for your need to be met. The difference, Fitzpatrick said, lies in how you express it. For instance, “If you want to commit to a monogamous relationship and your partner doesn’t or isn’t ready, then you can make it clear that you yourself have limits and desires and you need to pay attention to them.”
Instead of issuing ultimatums, Fitzpatrick and Nickerson stressed the importance of having open, sincere, vulnerable, respectful, calm conversations, which focus on understanding each other. Each partner shares their perspective, and explains where they’re coming up.
For instance, according to Nickerson, if you’re the partner who needs to have more physical intimacy, you say: “Honey, I really want to talk about our intimacy and what sex means to me. I only truly feel close to you when we’re physically connected and physical touch is how I feel loved. I know you feel loved when I say nice things and help around the house, so we’re different in this way. What can we do, or what would you be willing to try, so we can have a little more intimate time together?”
Fitzpatrick suggested doing an exercise from John Gottman called “dreams within conflict.” One partner is the dreamer, and the other is the dreamcatcher. The dreamer candidly shares their thoughts and feelings about the issue. The dreamcatcher listens intently without disagreeing or debating. They ask questions to make sure they understand what their partner is saying. Then they switch roles.
Fitzpatrick shared this example: Instead of saying, “I need a ring by my birthday or I’m done,” you say: “I’ve been focused on my career for a long time, and my priorities have shifted. I enjoy living with you but I want a marriage and family. I love you and hope you can be my life partner. I want us to build something together.”
Your partner, the dreamcatcher, asks clarifying questions, such as: “Does this relate to your background in some way?” “Is there a fear in not having this dream realized?”
When you switch roles, your partner might say they’re hesitant about an engagement because: “My parents have been married for 40 years and I want my marriage to last like that,” or “My parents’ divorce was so hard for me and my brother. I don’t want to do that to my kids.” You, as the dreamcatcher, then ask: “Are there memories that stand out as especially painful from your parents’ divorce?” or “What are all your feelings about this?”
In other words, Fitzpatrick noted, “The idea is to explore the underlying meaning and feelings in order to build mutual understanding and empathy.”
Depending on the issue, you also might devise a game plan and deadlines (which include following through), Nickerson said. For instance, for the drinking scenario, you say: ” I am really concerned about your drinking and how it is affecting your relationship with the kids. Let’s talk about it…” After some discussion, you say: “OK, so we both agree that this is a challenge. Let’s make a plan with some goals and deadlines. I can be at peace with your working on this if you start attending AA every week by March 1st.”
If you’re at an impasse, Nickerson suggested seeing a therapist. It’s also important to do some self-reflection. For instance, if your partner still doesn’t want to get married, ask yourself: “Do I really need to get married? Does it really have to be my way? Am I OK with letting this person go if they will not marry me?”
“If the answer to all of those is yes, that go ahead and give the ultimatum…. or just let them go,” Nickerson said. Of course, this is so much easier said than done. But, again, this is something you can work on in therapy.
Ultimately, ultimatums aren’t healthy for relationships. As Nickerson noted, “I haven’t seen a lot of ultimatums go well, where there’s no resentment by one party and no lingering doubts by the other.”
Ultimately, honest, supportive, curiosity-driven communication is key. “Love your partner enough to not give them ultimatums. Talk to them, work with them.” Even though it can be painful, conflict offers couples an opportunity to grow and even strengthen their connection.