As soon as I saw the promo for Nick and Vanessa Lachey’s newest Netflix show The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On, I immediately thought “uh oh, this is not going to end well for anyone.” So when the show was released, I did what any curious and nosy person would do, and I binge-watched the entire series with certainty that every relationship would crash and burn. To my surprise, ultimatums actually did work for some of the couples, and it made me wonder, what made ultimatums in relationships work for some couples and not work for others? I reached out to a few relationship therapists for their expert opinion (read: the juicy details of what usually happens and why), and this is what they said:
Is it OK to issue an ultimatum in a relationship?
As expected, the resounding answer I got from the relationship therapists I talked to was “it depends.” Ultimatums in relationships can be helpful or harmful depending on the intention of them and how they are communicated. For example, “some people issue ultimatums in an effort to control and manipulate a partner or prospective partner into doing something against their will, against their better judgment, or against their needed timeline for appropriately processing a development in a relationship. Alternatively, some people find themselves staring down what feels like a last resort by issuing an ultimatum” said Erin McMaugh Tierno, LCSW-R, founder of The Keely Group, as ultimatums in relationships can be self-preservational if a partner is continuously leaving the other unfulfilled.
TL;DR: It depends on the intent behind the ultimatum. If a partner issues an ultimatum to gain control or manipulate their S.O., it’s not OK. But if they issue an ultimatum to set a healthy boundary and gain self-worth, it is OK.
If necessary, when is it the right time to issue ultimatums in relationships and when is it the wrong time?
Have you spoken to your partner about your needs before, or have you been expecting your partner to just know what you need and assume they are neglecting those needs on purpose? If it’s the latter, it’s time to have a conversation about needs, not issue an ultimatum. “If you’ve stated your need clearly and it’s met with a negative response or not taken into consideration, it may be time to state that you will be leaving the relationship if this need continues to go unmet,” said Julie Williamson, LPC, NCC, RPT, certified Premarital Interpersonal Choices & Knowledge (PICK) instructor.
It is also important to consider timing. For example, “if you’re angry and arguing with your partner, it’s not the right time because emotions are running high; however, if you’re both feeling well-rested, centered, grounded, etc, this would be a better time,” said Heidi McBain, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C. “Make sure you mean what you say when you say it—this can be hard to do in the heat of an argument!” Williamson added.
What is the best way to handle being issued an ultimatum?
It’s not uncommon to feel slightly threatened when you are given an ultimatum even if it is a fair one, so your natural reaction will probably stem from protecting yourself rather than understanding your partner. With that said, try not to react out of anger or frustration. Instead, “ask for clarification, time frames, and anything else you think is important for you to know,” said Fran Greene, LCSW, author of Dating Again with Courage and Confidence. It is OK to tell your partner that you need some time to reflect. This will allow you the time and space to decide if their needs match yours or if you want to continue on without them.
“If an ultimatum is fair, the recipient should absolutely do the honorable thing of making a decision one way or the other as quickly as possible and, hopefully, well in advance of the expiration date of the ultimatum,” McMaugh Tierno said. Otherwise, try to understand what made your partner issue an ultimatum in the first place and have a conversation about setting healthy boundaries instead of hard and fast “or else” expectations.
How can a partner express that their needs are not being met without issuing an ultimatum?
As with any serious and emotional conversation you have with your partner, it is important to communicate in a calm, loving, and honest way and in an environment that is safe and comfortable for both of you. The best way to do this is to schedule a time to have a conversation with your partner. McBain recommended that you “clearly state what you’re needing from them” and also to “look for actionable things that they are doing to try to meet these needs.” Odds are, your partner will feel more comfortable expressing their needs as well and then you can work on how you can both take each other’s needs and wants into consideration more often to ultimately improve your relationship. Making this effort together will help prevent issuing an ultimatum as a last resort.
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