Because of the gravity of an ultimatum, it’s important not to confuse it with healthy boundary-setting—which communicates guidelines for a partner’s actions based on your values, with room for compromise. An ultimatum, by contrast, implies some degree of finality, says neuroscientist Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, author of the forthcoming Wired for Love. “If you look at the etymology of the word ‘ultimatum,’ it comes from the Latin ‘ultimus,’ meaning ‘comes to an end,’” she says. An ultimatum, similarly, is a way of telling a partner that your relationship will, in fact, come to an end (or some version of an end) if they don’t take a particular action. And that's precisely why ultimatums are often synonymous with threats.
“Relationships and marriage are considered to be areas that individuals should enter with freedom and enthusiasm.” —Jess Carbino, PhD, sociologist
As far as popular ultimatums go, those centered on marriage (and when it may happen in the scope of your relationship) can feel particularly threatening because the stakes are so high, says relationship expert Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for Bumble and Tinder. “In our contemporary society, relationships and marriage are considered to be areas that individuals should enter with freedom and enthusiasm,” she says. And once an ultimatum is thrown out there, it can be hard to disentangle whether someone’s making a relationship choice out of free will and desire, or simply because they were strongly convinced.
Marriage aside, though, there’s something to be said about the power of (soft) ultimatums to spark change in a relationship that’s stalled or gone south. After all, once any kind of a threat is floating around, however veiled it might be, people’s ears tend to perk, and there’s extra motivation for all partners involved to get clear on what they really want.
When ultimatums could be a good idea in a relationship
Almost always, more communication in a relationship is better than less. And sometimes, an ultimatum can work as a way to communicate to your partner that you feel strongly about a particular issue and stand up for what you want, says psychiatrist Susan Edelman, MD. “In fact, if you’ve spotted a potential deal-breaker, it’s only fair to give your partner an indication or a head's up if you want to save the relationship,” she says.
That’s particularly the case if the issue isn’t one that’s been surfaced previously. For example, if you feel hurt by the fact that they’re in contact with their ex, you might not spring to the ultimatum of, "If you contact them again, we’re done." But, you do need to let them know in clear terms that this behavior is a no-go for you, so that they’re able to respect that deal-breaker in the future. You might simply say something like, "I’m not okay with you being in touch with your ex."
Stating such a deal-breaker matter-of-factly can open up the floor for conversation and offer clarity as to where both parties stand, says Dr. Carbino. It also sets a precedent for future ultimatums to be issued, should that clearly stated boundary be crossed.
For example, if you’ve expressed to your partner that flirting with a coworker constitutes emotional cheating to you and is a deal-breaker, and you learn that they’ve done so, a “me or them” ultimatum can be a good thing, says matchmaker Susan Trombetti, CEO of Exclusive Matchmaking. The same goes for ultimatums around abuse of drugs, alcohol, or anything else that can affect a partner’s ability to uphold their side of the relationship bargain, she adds: “Stating that they need to seek help—or else you will need to end the partnership—is part of looking out for your own needs.”
How to deliver a good ultimatum effectively
In a few words? Not when you’re angry or upset. These emotional states can both cloud your vision of what you’re hoping to achieve and put your partner on the defensive, which is not where you want them to be if you’re trying to align on an issue. Instead, start up a conversation when you’re both calm and ready for a serious talk, says Dr. Edelman.
By engaging in that discussion with an open mind—equally ready to listen and speak—you could find that it shifts more toward compromise territory than ultimatum land, anyway. “Sometimes, we get so caught up in the script that we write for our future that we miss an opportunity to connect with our partner,” says Dr. Cacioppo. “Consider if the thing you’re asking for is what you really want or if it’s what you think society or your parents or the culture wants of you. Is this thing really a deal-breaker right now for your true self?”
Perhaps you find that it’s more of a misunderstanding that you need to talk over with your partner because your values have changed, and there's no need for the finality of an ultimatum. Or, maybe there is a real deal-breaker that you need to relay because it could be cause for a breakup—but your heart is in saving the relationship, whatever it takes. In that case, approach the topic in a non-argumentative tone, using "I" language to frame your words around your needs instead of your partner’s (perceived or real) shortcomings, says Dr. Edelman. As a twist on a marriage ultimatum, for example, you might say, “I’m uncomfortable that we have no plans to marry and wonder if I may need to move on.”
This type of statement can effectively call the relationship into question and encourage your partner to figure out what they truly desire, says Dr. Carbino. The end result releases you from relationship gridlock: Once your deal-breaker or ultimatum is safely out in the open, you can feel justified either moving forward with or ending the relationship accordingly.
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