A Relationship Therapist Answers: Do Ultimatums Work?

So you’ve reached your boiling point. It seems like no matter how you try to resolve a situation, nothing works, and your partner is still upsetting you.

Then it hits you. What needs to be done. You’re going to have to give them an ultimatum: shape up – or else.

Time out. Think this through before you do it. What if your ultimatum doesn’t immediately lead to your partner changing their ways? What if, instead of “shaping up,” they instead become so offended that they take you up on your offer and say, “Fine, then I guess we’re over”?

Even if laying down the law with your ultimatum doesn’t actually end your relationship, there’s still a good chance that it will do some serious damage.

Here’s how.

What Makes Ultimatums Dangerous

Say you give an ultimatum: “Stop texting my best friend or we’re over.” For a while, the threat works and your partner stops.

But what happens if the unacceptable behavior resurfaces? What happens if your partner slips up and you’re not willing to leave? The ultimatum has already been issued. After your partner slips up, they will be looking to you and your response.

Even if you make a “one-time” exception for slipping up after you give an ultimatum, what your partner is going to remember is that you let the behavior continue despite your threat. This not only opens the door for future slip-ups, it also affects the way your partner will treat your reaction to any future “bad” behavior. While failing to keep an ultimatum doesn’t always lead to getting walked on, it certainly makes it easier for you to become a doormat.

Before issuing an ultimatum, ask yourself this: am I willing to follow through with my end of the bargain if my partner doesn’t shape up? If the answer is no, you should definitely avoid using an ultimatum.

Good news: there’s a far better way to get what you want.

Alternative to Ultimatums – Changing Your Behavior

Ultimatums are usually issued if one partner feels like there is nothing else they can do to improve their partner’s behavior. That may be true. But there’s something else you may not have even considered: changing your behavior.

Let us explain. Say you want to give an ultimatum that forces your partner to start taking better physical care of themselves. You want to tell them, “If you don’t start working out, our sex life is over!”

Perhaps not surprisingly, that’s not a good way to solve the problem. Instead, why don’t you encourage your partner to take a run with you?

For those of you already saying “I’ve tried that, it doesn’t work,” hear me out. Chances are, you did exactly what I just suggested. You asked. Then, when your partner refused, you either simply gave up or tried cajoling, which led to your partner pushing back more and you feeling frustrated.

Here’s what I’m suggesting you do instead. When they refuse, simply say “okay.” Then go do your thing. Without them. After a few weeks of watching you leave to get a workout and get fit, they’ll probably turn around.

If Nothing Works, Talk to a Relationship Therapist

Still having trouble? Take the issue to a third party. An experienced relationship therapist will use their years of expertise and experience to help find alternative solutions, or give you the tools to come to a better agreement with your partner.