Are Ultimatums in Relationships Ever a Good Idea?

Created on 05/05/2022
Updated on 13/10/2022
Reality dating shows are probably not where we should extract love or relationship advice. One of the latest shows to unveil a nightmarish dating experiment is “The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On,” hosted by Nick and Vanessa Lachey. The show's premise is that one person in a relationship issues an ultimatum to their partner: get married or break up. To test the relationships, the partners separate, live with another participant on the show for three weeks, and then rejoin their original partner for another three weeks. At the end of the show, the participants decide to move forward with marrying their original partner, choosing to continue a relationship with their step-in partner, or head home single. The show kicks up a few questions about black and white relationship demands. Can ultimatums ever help relationships, or do they hurt them? Do ultimatums help partners make decisions or back them into a corner? I talked to two therapists and an intimacy coach to find out.
Boundaries maintain relationships within certain parameters; ultimatums take away the other person's autonomy.

The difference between ultimatums and boundaries

The difference between ultimatums and boundaries is an important distinction to make. Sara Stanizai, LMFT, founder and therapist at Prospect Therapy, a queer and trans-affirming therapy practice, explained, “An ultimatum is essentially an ‘or else’ statement. It never has a place in a balanced relationship; it reduces a complex issue to an either/or situation and doesn't take into account all the complexities that two people bring to a relationship.” But can boundaries fit into a healthier decision-making process? “A boundary, on the other hand, is an invitation. It is a limit that you are setting for yourself while inviting the other person to decide what they are willing to do,” said Stanizai. The distinction, Stanizai said, is that “Boundaries maintain relationships within certain parameters; ultimatums take away the other person's autonomy.”

Why people make ultimatums

Threatening to leave if marriage or a proposal doesn’t happen in a timely fashion, demanding your partner cut ties with a friend that brings up insecurities or risk losing you, or any other decision that has some black and white “you do this, and this is what happens,” are, unfortunately, common relationship ultimatums. But how do you get to the point of making an ultimatum? Stanizai explained, “People set ultimatums in relationships when they feel they have no other option.” For people who use ultimatums as a last resort, Stanizai said, “The more complex an issue (like marriage or having children), the less helpful an ultimatum is.” There are, however, more effective ways to find out if your needs are aligned.

Are there ever exceptions?

While ultimatums in relationships commonly pertain to wants over marriage, children, or more sex, they can also include issues like substance use, gambling, or infidelity. People might make an ultimatum if a behavior negatively affects the relationship, i.e., “if you don’t stop x, I’ll leave.” But are ultimatums in the context of substance abuse a good idea? Thomas J. Jameson, C-MHC, Clinical Director of The Ohana Luxury Drug Rehab, thinks not. Jameson said, “A person who abuses substances often wants to stop using alcohol or drugs. In fact, one of the criteria for diagnosis of a substance abuse disorder is that the person has repeated attempts at stopping but is unable to do so.” Jameson explained that ultimatums are not the best way to support a partner with a substance abuse disorder or stop the behavior. Instead of issuing an ultimatum, Jameson offered, “it’s important to focus on what you can control rather than your partner’s behavior. One thing that you can control is your own response. That does not mean ignoring things like infidelity and substance abuse. It means simply setting boundaries.” What about cheating? Jameson said, “in the case of an unfaithful partner, the faithful partner might decide to leave the relationship, or they could decide to work out the issues in therapy with their partner. Whatever the action, it’s really about setting your own boundaries and deciding rather than issuing ultimatums.”

Effective ways to communicate what you want in relationships

In “The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On,” many couples have trouble communicating or feel unheard by their partner. Working on communication is one way to effectively determine if partners have compatible goals for the future. You can be honest about your hopes and desires and hear your partner’s perspective, opening up the door for conversation rather than backing someone into a corner to make that choice. Ultimatums can immediately inspire a feeling of defensiveness from a partner because “it feels like an attack, and they’re being told that they’ve done something wrong,” explained Sex and Intimacy Coach Leah Carey. Partners can find out if needs are aligned by returning to boundaries. Carey said, phrasing desires as an invitation positions you differently than an ultimatum. Carey modeled the example, “Here are my needs to be the healthiest, happiest version of myself—would you like to join me in that?” There’s a significant difference between “It’s important to me to be in a committed relationship that’s moving toward marriage. Can you join me in that?” versus “You have to propose or I’m going to leave,” explained Carey. “It also puts you in a position of strength, rather than begging to get your needs met,” said Carey. Stanizai recommended that before people get to the point of setting an ultimatum, enlist the help of an unbiased third party. “This can be a couples therapist, a religious leader, or a coach. Regardless of the choice, I do recommend it is an outsider who won't be biased, AKA not parents, best friends, or even mutual friends,” said Stanizai. Ultimatums for serious decisions are most likely always a bad idea, however entertaining a show about them might be.

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