As a culture, we tend to look at ultimatums as a cut and dry relationship foul, and often report damningly to our friends when a partner has issued one. “She gave me an ultimatum,” you might say to your friend as they gasp and shake their head, “How could she?”
We want to look at this phenomenon a little more closely and explore how ultimatums come to be, when they might actually be needed and when they are squarely manipulative and counterproductive. In order to do this, we must have a shared definition of boundaries and needs and why they are important to relationships. Some folks think boundaries are roadblocks that should to be busted through and needs are obstacles to get over for the greater good of the relationship. Whether we always successfully respect others boundaries or not, most of us can agree that knowing, taking responsibility for, and communicating our needs and boundaries as well as accepting and supporting your partner’s needs and boundaries is essential to relationship longevity.
So, let’s talk about foul-play ultimatums. It is foul-play to use an ultimatum as a first attempt at expressing a need or a boundary. At the same time, we understand that expressing needs and boundaries is extremely vulnerable and scary. In other words, if you need to have an extended intimate connection time (let’s say a couple of hours) at least two times week, and the first time you ask for it, you say, “I just can’t be in this relationship any longer unless we have extended connection time at least two times per week,” your partner will likely feel blindsided and afraid that you are going to leave them before you’ve even given them a chance to absorb what you want and see if they are up for it. People often use ultimatums in this way in order to avoid the terrifying feeling of being told “no” and feeling uncared for or like they aren’t worth it to their partner. It’s like saying, “You don’t get to leave me, if you can’t do this, I’m leaving you first!” This is definitely choosing protection over connection and will likely create defensiveness and alienation in your partner.
A much more vulnerable and gentle way to start asking for what you need is to say, “I need extended connection time at least two times per week,” and then to let your partner have whatever reaction they do without any threat attached. If you’ve never even brought it up before, they might just say, “Yeah, me too, let’s get it on the calendar!” They might also say, “I’d love to do that, but it makes me feel a little anxious and trapped to jump into two hours right away, do you think we can work our way up to it?” or they might just say, “No, sorry, I can’t do it.” The same scenario is true for boundaries. A gentle way to state a boundary is, “It pushes my boundaries when you flirt a lot in front of me and give other guys the impression that you are willing to sleep with them.” Your partner might say, “Wow, I didn’t realize I was doing that, can you let me know what I do that makes you feel that way and I’ll stop!” or “Ok, but I do like flirting, can you tell me what would be comfortable?” or they might say, “That makes me feel unfree, I’m not willing to change my behavior.”
These are obviously somewhat idealistic examples in terms of how people communicate, but hey, shoot for the moon, right? People don’t often talk to each other like this, they yell or cry or logic each other to death and never actually vulnerably share their needs, feelings and fears. However, we have helped many couples begin to communicate with more clarity and honesty even if it may feel contrived at first. This can allow for needs and boundaries to be communicated without throwing in an ultimatum for emphasis.
However, sometimes, even after tons of really great talking full of mutual empathy and support for boundaries, there still comes a time when one person in the relationship has a need that they other person does not meet and one or both of them isn’t ok with outsourcing that need. Let’s take our clients Allan and Sam for a moment. Oral sex is essential to Allen’s turn-on and sex is completely arousing for him. Without it, he cannot get and erection yet Sam hates giving or receiving oral sex. Allen has felt guilty to leave the relationship due to this difference – because sex is so trivialized in our society, he feels he shouldn’t value it so highly. At the same time, he is very sexual and feels it is central to his sense of self and well-being. They’ve spent years talking and trying to find a way around it, and neither of them wants for the need to be met outside of their monogamous agreement.
Because of this, Allen finally realized he had to have a final conversation, an ultimatum as it were. We helped him find the most compassionate way to share this with his partner: “We have talked about this for many years now and done a good deal of therapy and I think we both understand each other. I need to tell you that I am no longer willing to live without the kind of sex that turns me on. I don’t want you to do anything that doesn’t feel right to you or cross your boundaries. At the same time, if we don’t work out a way for me to have sex in the context of this relationship, I am going to leave.” This, we believe, is an appropriate ultimatum. It is appropriate because all avenues have been explored and his partner deserves to know that he is going to leave if the situation doesn’t change. Sometimes, when it gets to this point, a couple does find ways to change things and still stay together and sometimes they part.
We understand why ultimatums have gotten a bad rap. They are an often overused and disingenuous. In these cases, it can feel like you have the partner that cried ultimatum and therefore you do not take their needs seriously. But we believe that ultimatums are not inherently manipulative and generally do reflect a real need or desire. If you want to build lasting trust and open communication avoid ultimatums as a general tactic, and reserve them for times when you have truly exhausted other options.