Ultimatums in relationships are hardly uncommon. In fact, in some partnerships, ultimatums get thrown around a lot. “If you don’t put that toilet seat down after you use it, I’m leaving you.” It’s safe to assume this one comes up in many relationships. But while there are petty ultimatums, there are also times when one partner just can’t stand around waiting for the other partner to get it together. So, naturally, an ultimatum — which is also a threat in many ways — is dropped (via Insider). Whether that means taking the relationship to the next level, having kiddos, and similar life-changing decisions that, at some point, need to be made.
“The difference between an ultimatum and a boundary is similar to the difference between having someone force you to choose by gunpoint and someone asking you to follow a law,” licensed mental health counselor Michela Dalsing tells Psych Central. “Most of the time when individuals are getting to the point of creating an ultimatum, it’s because they feel like they’ve expressed a need, want, or boundary repeatedly and their partner doesn’t respect it.”
But before you give your partner an ultimatum, about anything, think long and hard as to whether you want to go there. Some ultimatums you can’t return from, and you don’t want to lose someone just because their timeline on major life milestones is slightly different from yours.
Reasons why you might be thinking about an ultimatum
Although there can be a whole bevy of reasons as to why someone might give their partner an ultimatum, there’s more behind it than the matter at hand.
“Sometimes resistance to taking the next step is a sign that it is not the right match,” licensed marriage and family therapist and relationship expert Dr. Jenn Mann writes for InStyle. “Two people can love each other but if they are not ready to take the next steps, the relationship cannot grow and will ultimately not work. Sometimes people are resistant to taking the next step because there’s a compatibility issue, they are not ready for more emotional intimacy, or they just don’t want the same things.”
According to Dr. Mann, other reasons why you might be leaning toward an ultimatum include bad communication in the relationship, your inability to be patient with your partner, and a need to have things your way — or you’ve simply just reached your limit. You’re done waiting for whatever it is you’ve asked of your partner and now negative results will follow, which, in a lot of cases, is the end of the relationship (via Prospect Therapy).
How to give an effective ultimatum
While ultimatums usually don’t have the best reputation, they can be delivered in an effective and productive way. For example, if your partner has unhealthy behavior, like issues with addiction, that type of ultimatum is coming from a place of love and concern (via Verywell Mind). What you’re asking of your partner isn’t about you getting your way but about them getting healthy for themselves and for you.
If your ultimatum is steeped in something else, like moving in together, marriage, or having children — you know, the big stuff — you can still make it in a way that won’t have drastic consequences. Framing your conversation using “I” language can make an ultimatum feel less threatening and open up a dialogue (via Well + Good). For example, if the issue is about taking the relationship into a serious and committed territory, try asking your partner if it’s possible to have plans for the future. If not, it might be time to find someone else.
“This type of statement can effectively call the relationship into question and encourage your partner to figure out what they truly desire,” relationship expert Jess Carbino, Ph.D., tells Well + Good. And it does so without a threat, but with you expressing your thoughts for your future together — or your future apart.
When it comes to ultimatums, it’s about navigating how you want to phrase things, knowing what’s most important to you, and having at least some idea of how such a thing will affect your partner. It’s also about understanding the difference between being aggressive and being assertive. Ultimatums can work in the right situations, but you should also be prepared for them to possibly backfire instead.