Experts Debate Whether Ultimatums Are an Effective Relationship Tool—Even If They “Work”

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In the heat of the moment, tossing out an ultimatum to your boss, your partner, or even a restaurant manager after a decidedly awful experience might seem like the best if not only option. But, #realtalk: Are these my-way-or-the-highway brokerages ever really a good idea? Because after you get what you want and the dust settles, the result is likely not everything going back to a slightly elevated normal. So, why do we resort to ultimatums in the first place?

“When we lack the skills to convey our needs in healthy ways, we often turn to control and demands to gain a false sense of security in a relationship,” says Gin Love Thompson, PhD, psychotherapist, relationship specialist, and author. “In general, ultimatums set a relationship up for future resentments.” And that applies no matter how big or small the ask is and whether or not it's met.

Beyond highlighting some lacking communication skills, a reliance on romantic-leaning ultimatums is also a reflection of the current dating environment, says licensed psychologist Mary Jo Rapini, a love and relationship expert. “In the dating world now, there is a lot of fakeness, and nobody really wants to commit to anything, so people forget they have to set boundaries,” she says. It's true that boundaries are key in any type of relationship, because without them, it's pretty easy to be taken advantage of. And if you're not getting what you want from the relationship and find yourself giving more to your partner than you’re getting in return, an ultimatum can act as a strategy to reclaim power.

“Even if the behavior changes, either or both involved could feel betrayed by the necessity involved in delivering an ultimatum.” —relationship specialist Gin Love Thompson, PhD

But being able to decipher between effective, productive ultimatums and the variety that's more likely to blow up in your face is, perhaps, more crucial. While Dr. Love Thompson leans toward the camp of all ultimatums likely blowing up in your face, she does caveat that they can be used sparingly, as a final option, after you’ve already discussed your feelings and concerns with your partner (or boss or restaurant manager) and there has been no change. At that point, you've earned the right to say “this is a deal-breaker for me,” as a last-ditch effort to provide the other party with one more chance. But first, ask yourself whether that line in the sand is even worth your energy, because by the time a situation is ultimatum-worthy, permanent damage has likely already been done. “Even if the behavior changes, either or both involved could feel betrayed by the necessity involved in delivering an ultimatum,” Dr. Love Thompson adds.

That said, ultimatums aren’t always indicative of a relationship's swan song. If the recipient has an avoidant attachment style (has trouble committing and just sort of goes with the flow), Rapini says the structure to be gleaned from the higher-stakes ask can be helpful for all parties. Let's say you're a manager, and one of your employees has distinct potential but is underperforming. Creating a reasonable progress plan with an ultimatum-style deadline can help set boundaries for this person's success.

“[They're not always bad, but], overuse of ultimatums basically removes any power you have in the relationship.” —licensed psychologist Mary Jo Rapini

Just note that if you give an ultimatum, you have to be willing hold up your end of the hard bargain in the event that things don't go your way. And, it's certainly not a strategy to rely on. “Overuse of ultimatums basically removes any power you have in the relationship,” says Rapini.

So when small (but mighty) issues crop up that aren't necessarily monumental deal-breakers, Rapini suggests making a list of what you and the other person need to get done, dividing it up, then leaving each other alone. Plus, work toward cultivating constant and open communication regarding feelings, wants, needs, and boundaries. Once that's established, ultimatums may not even be a tempting thought.

Just because ultimatums aren't always the recommended route to take doesn't mean you can't assert yourself. Plus, here's how to cultivate unparalleled confidence.

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