How dangerous are ultimatums in a relationship?

Ultimatums are such a dreaded word when it comes up in relationships. It can even be the death of a relationship because of the weight that it carries. By Definition, an Ultimatum is “a final demand or statement of terms, the rejection of which will result in retaliation or a breakdown in relations.”  It’s either you do this, and if you don’t this will happen.

Ultimatums in a relationship are drastic and harsh and should not be taken lightly. When a person gives an ultimatum to their partner, it means that they may be at a point where they won’t be able to tolerate a particular behavior or situation for much longer and want a change.

Are ultimatums the right way to go?


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​Very often people are praise for giving ultimatums because they feel that it may solve an issue in a relationship. Such examples are, “if you don’t do this thing for me, I am done with you” or “we’ve been dating for so long, if you don’t propose to me by this time, I can’t do this anymore”. Giving an ultimatum may seem like a good thing because the person is standing up for their beliefs, they are straightforward and they know what they want.

Friends may also give advice to use ultimatums. I am sure you have heard some of these: “you need to tell him/her that if he/she is not willing to give up his/her friends for you, then you’re over it!” or “you need to tell him/her that if he/she doesn’t do this, you’re ending it!” or “if he/she does not get it together, tell him/her you will get a divorce.”

Believe it or not, ultimatums are actually destructive in relationships and can end up doing more harm than good in the end. Jean Fitzpatrick, a Licensed Psychologist, says that an ultimatum is a demand expressed as a deal-breaker -an all or nothing. Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D., says that it’s a threat with consequences – either you follow my demand or that’s it.

WHY ARE ULTIMATUMS DANGEROUS IN A RELATIONSHIP?

It can cause your partner to feel trapped and pressured

 

 

No one likes to feel pressured or trapped, because it doesn’t feel great. If your supervisor came to you and said “if you do not meet this deadline by 5 pm today, you are fired!” How would that make you feel?

Giving an ultimatum puts your partner in a position where they are forced to make an action before something drastic happens. When you force someone to do something, the intent behind it will not be genuine. Your partner may only be fulfilling that action because of the demand, and not because it was something that he/she truly wanted to do.

It can create resentment that festers

Once your partner feels pressured and trapped, resentment may start to build. They will start to feel bitterness towards you and it can become difficult for them to express love because threats and demands are starting to wreak havoc on the relationship. Tension also rises and what could have been an opportunity to nurture mutual understanding and trust, is no longer the case. Sooner or later your partner may no longer be invested in the relationship and may start to withdraw emotionally and sexually.
Negativity can begin to show up in the relationship
 

When we enter a relationship we aspire for it to be positive and fulfilling. We give our all and quickly compromise. We try our best to refrain from letting any negative energy enter the relationship. But if ultimatums are given, you are opening up the door for negativity to enter. “knock knock, it’s me negativity. I am here.” When this happens, your partner may not want to be around you a lot. You may even notice that they are going out more with friends and are more preoccupied with other things.
​The flow of communication becomes interrupted
Having open communication is one key that is important in establishing and maintaining a healthy romantic relationship. If an ultimatum is given it starts to close

the door on communication because when you demand something from someone, they either shut down or become defensive.

No matter how frustrated you feel about a disagreement or situation, relationships are never successful with the ‘my way or highway’ theory. I know it will feel great if our partners do what we want when we want, but that is not how human connections work. Ultimatums cut off negotiations and any further dialogue.

It may result in a forced break-up

 

Giving an ultimatum because you want to see a change, can result in a breakup instead of a change occurring. Change is a process that doesn’t happen overnight.  It is something that takes time. When an ultimatum is given, you take away from your partner time to process anything. The trust and growth that was developing have been cut short with a premature breakup.

Equal power becomes unbalanced

Creating a relationship where there is an equal balance of power is the epitome of a healthy relationship. Balance in a relationship will be different for everyone because we all have different values, beliefs, and opinions on what relationships should look like and how it should work.

What’s important is making sure that both partners are feeling comfortable and supported while maintaining individual independence. Ultimatums are all about control, and if your partner starts to gain more power/control than you, there is no longer an equal balance. There is now a shift, and both of you are prone to getting into disagreements more frequently. Also, it places your partner in a diminished position for too long.

IS THERE A BETTER ALTERNATIVE TO ULTIMATUMS?

BUT OF COURSE!!

Communicate beyond the surface level

Ultimatums are often seen as a good thing because we confuse them with being assertive and standing up for our needs and wants. But an ultimatum is not the same as a request for your needs to be met. It is the opposite. You are demanding your partner to do something or else something will happen. With ultimatums, you lose your negotiating power and there is no longer any room for compromise – which is something that is needed for healthy relationships.

The difference between making a request and demand lies in how you express it. So instead of giving ultimatums, it is important to have open, transparent, vulnerable, respectful, and calm conversations with a focus on not just listening to each other but truly making an effort to understand each other. You are both sharing your perspective and explaining where they are coming from and why. Being on the same page requires more than surface-level conversations. It requires honesty and vulnerability.

​When my husband and I were dating, he said to me early on in the relationship that he is going to propose to me in our 2nd year. Boy was I excited! Well, guess what, year 2 came and pass with no propose, and year 3 came and pass with no proposal either.

What was I going to do? Should I bring it up to him and see what he says? Should I just be patient with him? These were some of the thoughts that came into my head. Even the thought of an ultimatum quickly popped in my head but I knew if I were to take that route, the consequences may end up being something I didn’t expect or want.

We had a very open and vulnerable conversation. We talked about our short term and long term goals for ourselves, and each other. We talked about our views on commitment and marriage. We talked about our expectations. We also discuss if we were truly ready for marriage after 2 years and saw that we weren’t. We concluded that there were things we that we both needed and wanted to accomplish before marriage.

The conversation brought a clearer understanding of the direction that our relationship was going to go. We knew where we both stand on important issues and ultimatums were something that never entered our relationship. Yay for us!

​Work Towards a compromise
 

Being able to compromise with each other plays a significant role as well.  Now, this depends on the particular situation as a hand. But if the problem is irritating be open and honest and work together on coming to a compromise. When in a relationship, two people are coming together with their different views, opinions, and beliefs. You have to take into account your considerations as well as your partner.   As your relationship grows and changes, a level of flexibility has to occur where you both can talk and negotiate expectations. Set boundaries and determine if you can bend some when situations arise.

Limit outside influencers 

When dating we are sometimes quick to call and seek advice from our friends because we trust and value their opinions. Sometimes this can be a bad thing because not all advice given is good. Getting too many opinions about what you should or should not do in your relationship can create confusion and make it harder for you to make a sound decision. You start to compare your relationship with others and no longer trust or listen to your instinct.

Friends have no place in your relationship, they are two separate entities and should be handled that way. However, there is nothing wrong with going to your closest friend to talk about your feelings. Your friend should not be dictating to you how you should act and what decisions you should be making. You should be able to make your decision without outside influences, and when a situation arises in your relationship, it should be handled between you and your partner.

What are your thoughts on ultimatums? Have you ever given one in a relationship? How did it work out? Share your thoughts and experience!
Rebekah Charles

Rebekah Charles

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HEY! I’m Rebekah, but everyone calls me Bekah or Becky.

I work for adults who suffer from Mental Illnesses and/or have Intellectual Disabilities. I provide Behavioral Therapeutic Services, among other services to this population.

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