The Dos and Don’ts of Ultimatums
Six tips to help you successfully solve your biggest relationship dilemmas.
We’ve seen the headlines over and over: “Brad issues Angie a marriage ultimatum! Marry me or else!” No one knows for certain if it’s truth or lies (we’re guessing something closer to the latter), but it is, in fact, a situation that many individuals find themselves in. After years of pent-up hostility, fed up with the current scenario, one half of a couple lays down the law. Whether it involves getting her to say “I do” or picking up his dirty socks, most of us have given an ultimatum at one time or another. The big question: Is there a right way to do it?
When she was in her 20s, Susan was happy to be with guys she loved but weren’t “the one.” But by the time she turned 34, she knew she wanted to get married and have a family. Soon after meeting 26-year-old Trevor, she realized that he shared those goals. However, their timing was different. He wanted to wait a little longer. She decided she’d been flexible enough and couldn’t afford to continue waiting. She delivered an ultimatum: “I will not live with you until we are married. I want to have children and I would like you to be their father, but I have to have a commitment from you now.”
Trevor was being transferred to another state and Susan said she wouldn’t go with him unless they were married. When faced with this choice, he was able to get clearer on what he wanted, too. After a few conversations, some tears (hers) and some patience, he proposed to her within the month.
Psychologist Pam Lipe related this story to BettyConfidential to prove that, in some cases, an ultimatum can have a positive outcome. “He proposed without feeling like he’d been coerced because she delivered her ultimatum in a clear and calm manner,” the St. Paul, MN relationship therapist explains. “She gave him time to think about it, and they had more conversations – but she was ready to walk away if he decided to reject her ultimatum or ignore it by making no decision and telling her she’d need to wait ‘just a little longer.’”
“I think the constructive way to deal with situations like commitment, substance abuse, infidelity, obnoxious behaviors, etc. is to honestly explain to your partner why it’s important to you for him or her to change this particular behavior,” says Lee Crespi, a New York psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience in relationship and marital conflict. “This means being clear about the extent to which you find it harmful or painful, and asking your partner to offer you his or her plan to deal with it.”
Both Lipe and Crespi agree that ultimatums can help resolve certain relationship impasses, but there are some key principles to keep in mind:
1. Don’t try to convince him he’s wrong/bad/misguided/ lazy/irresponsible by not going along with you. If you do, he’ll likely react in a defensive and uncooperative manner. “Instead of telling him what’s wrong with him, focus more on what you need,” Lipe explains. “It’s perfectly reasonable to ask for what you want. On the other hand, it’s also reasonable that the other person doesn’t want to give you what you want.”