If you reach a crossroads in your relationship, you might feel like you have no other choice but to issue an ultimatum. But is this take-it-or-leave-it approach healthy, or even effective?
A relationship ultimatum is a demand that, if rejected or not met by your partner, will lead to a breakup. Ultimatums carry the threat that you will leave the relationship if you don’t get your way. They’re akin to when your parents would threaten you with an “or else” when you misbehaved as a child — hardly the dynamic you want in your romantic life!
“Ultimatums are often set as a reaction to a request that has been made continually and has
been undone or ignored,” explains Gilza Fort-Martinez, a marriage and family therapist. “There is often anger, frustration, and disappointment involved.”
Ultimatums are common when a couple shares different goals for their relationship — when to move in together or get engaged, for example — or have different expectations of one another.
“I've seen ultimatums around whether or not to get married, whether to have children, whether to move to another country, whether to stop drinking or taking drugs, and whether to follow a certain religion,” says psychotherapist Tonya Lester.
“In all these cases one person had to decide if it was worth changing for their partner, or if they were just too incompatible and needed to go their separate ways,” she adds. “In most of these cases, there is no right or wrong, just compatibility, and incompatibility.”
People who issue ultimatums in their relationships often do so because they feel like they have no other option. “People tend to make ultimatums when they feel powerless to influence or change the other person,” says Fort-Martinez. “It is often the last resort tool. In addition, if your sense of safety is violated, ultimatums can be about self-preservation.”
While ultimatums are often a way to hit a relationship milestone such as an engagement, they’re often used to change a partner’s behavior. For example, “If you keep watching porn, I’ll leave” or “If you stay in touch with your ex, this relationship is over.”
Ultimatums are sometimes issued in more serious cases where one partner is dealing with a chronic habit that is affecting your relationship, like gambling, substance abuse, or infidelity. You might issue an ultimatum if they refuse to stop or seek treatment and it’s damaging your relationship.
“In some cases, ultimatums can be wake-up calls,” explains Fort-Martinez. “For example, an affair is discovered or disclosed, and the cheating partner recognizes that they truly want to repair their relationship. It is challenging, yet doable! Another positive of ultimatums is that the partner making the demand may feel empowered and more able to use their voice effectively. This is often seen in partners who have been willing to be so accommodating in the relationship that they are now drained and ready to move on if change doesn’t occur.”
But Fort-Martinez cautions that ultimatums only work in very specific scenarios, and only if there is follow-through.
“They can serve a purpose if they are done mindfully and with the intention of following through if the behavior and/or request does not change,” she explains.
”Ultimatums that are not followed through with damage your credibility and potentially become another part of the negative dynamic between the couple. I only suggest them if the partner is truly ready to make changes on their own!”
Ultimatums are often given out of desperation, but they rarely bring about meaningful change or conflict resolution. So what should you do instead of issuing an ultimatum?
Although it could feel like issuing an ultimatum is the only way to make your relationship work or move forward, they rarely work.
There are healthier and more efficient alternatives to ultimatums — such as prioritizing communication, setting boundaries, and working toward mutual relationship goals.
There’s a clear distinction between setting boundaries in a relationship and issuing ultimatums.
Ultimatums are a way to coerce your partner into changing their behavior or committing, while boundaries communicate what you require to feel secure and happy in the relationship.
Boundaries are essentially the limits you set for a relationship to succeed, but without forcing your partner’s hand. “A common request veiled as an ultimatum is ‘if you love me you will do __’,” says Fort-Martinez. “This is more often about emotional manipulation than a sincere request for change.”
“The main difference with an ultimatum is how and what is said. What is the motivation for setting the limit? Boundaries are best set lovingly and firmly. Ultimatums tend to be done in anger and desperation. The content of the request needs to be realistic, attainable, and reasonable.”
For example, if you’re hurt that your partner is still in touch with their ex, you might be tempted to say something like: “If you speak to your ex again, we’re done”. A boundary sounds more like “I don’t feel comfortable knowing you’re still in contact with your ex.” This way, you’re communicating to your partner that being in touch with their ex is a no-go for you, and you’re inviting them to respect that boundary moving forward.
Communication is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship, but it’s especially important to navigate challenges.
Even in healthy relationships, it's perfectly normal to have different timelines for relationship milestones. It’s equally common for two people to expect different behaviors in the relationship, That doesn’t necessarily mean things can’t work out long-term, or that you should walk away from the relationship.
“Everyone should have a bottom line regarding what they want from a partner in a relationship,” says Lester. “If you communicate your wants and your partner ignores them or can’t meet them, you should leave. Honoring what’s non-negotiable for you is the cornerstone of healthy self-esteem. Relationships that end over an ultimatum simply weren't viable long-term in the first place.”
Try to be open and honest with your partner about what you want in your relationship. Communication is a skill that requires practice but discussing milestones or needs ensures you’re both on the same page.
And if you’re not on the same page, being able to communicate will at the very least help your partner understand your feelings. It will also help find common ground or reach a compromise you’re both comfortable with.
“Assertive communication skills, such as using ‘I’ statements, which let your partner know how their behavior is affecting you, and loving reminders can help smooth the transitions of blending two personalities,” recommends Fort-Martinez. “Creating the time and space to talk openly about what each of you wants and needs in the relationship is important.”
Relationships take work, but when life gets in the way it’s easy to stop prioritizing your relationship. One way around this is to make time every week, or every month, to have relationship check-ins.
Relationship check-ins give you a space to discuss how things are going, communicate any anxieties you may have, and address any relationship issues that need to be resolved. After all, your partner isn’t a mind reader.
By regularly checking in with one another, you can make sure you’re still on the same page and avoid finding yourself having to issue an ultimatum further down the line.
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