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Relationship Ultimatums: Helpful or Hurtful?

If you’ve ever desired more from your partner and became impatient while waiting for the relationship to progress, you may have considered giving them an ultimatum. Perhaps you crave the security of marriage, demanding an exchange of vows or a conclusion to the relationship. Sometimes proceeding from friendship to a more formal boyfriend/girlfriend relationship status represents the progression you seek. In these circumstances, your close friends and family may encourage you to offer an ultimatum or recommend you set a firm timeframe for your willingness to wait before issuing an ultimatum. Before accepting this advice, you should consider the consequences.

On a new Netflix show, “The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On”, contestants issue a choice to their partner: marry or move on. Many of these featured partners have expressed embarrassment and disappointment that their loved one felt compelled to offer an ultimatum to receive their desired relationship outcome. Ultimatums are not recommended for healthy relationships because they can be perceived as controlling behavior and are not equivalent to healthy boundary setting in which both partners participate in the establishment of boundaries together. Instead, they function as a take-it-or-leave-it approach, affording one partner control of the relationship terms which the other must fully accept or decline. Often, this results in a partner’s relinquishment of something of value or importance - regardless of their choice. In the case of “marry-me-or-lose-me” demands, you are asking someone to commit to forever or end the relationship.

Since an ultimatum acts as a one-sided demand, it involves ego and approaches the relationship as “me” rather than “we”. Therefore, ultimatums are unhealthy in long-term relationships. Demanding certain actions of your partner, such as ending a friendship or agreeing to marriage, is indicative of a controlling person. Even when a partner concedes to these demands to appease you, ultimatums are not a choice and can lead to resentment which may appear in the form of revenge cheating or vow betrayal later down the line.

If you feel trapped in a relationship, wanting more than your partner has been willing to offer, working on boundaries is always the preferred method for closing the gap between expectations and outcomes. As alternatives to the issuance of an ultimatum or demand, I have compiled four examples of approaches to setting healthy boundaries in everyday situations that arise between couples. Healthy boundaries start with an assertion of what you value through an “I statement” and willingness to show vulnerability by explaining why you feel the way you do with you partner.

  • Instead of, “end contact with this person or I am done with you.” Set a healthy boundary by first relaying your discomfort with the communication between your partner and the other person followed by your uncertainty of your ability to continue the relationship should their contact persist. To help shift their perspective, ask them to consider how they might feel if the situation were reversed. Ask for their help brainstorming ways to increase your feelings of security and safety and how they could limit their time with this individual.

  • Instead of, “marry me or I am leaving.” A healthy boundary would include a statement of your love for them and describing your insecurity without a commitment. What actions can we take together to help me feel more secure and illustrate our commitment to the relationship?

  • Instead of, “you must move closer, or I am done.” A healthy boundary would be to approach your partner by emphasizing your desire for y our relationship to grow and thrive. Describe the feelings of rejection and loneliness created by the distance. By asking your partner to work together to devise a plan close the geographical distance makes your intention clear. To help them feel less defensive, offer reassurance of your commitment to the relationship, affirming you don’t want another relationship because you love them and wish to be closer.

  • Instead of, “you need to get a job, or I am leaving.” Establish a healthy boundary by discussing the burden you feel and your desire for both of you to contribute financially in support of your family. Discuss the magnitude of stress when one partner carries the financial load for the entire family. When you both contribute to financing household expenses, more time can be allocated for both partners to care for children. Negotiating work hours and free time together improves communication and deepens emotional intimacy.

Ultimatums are usually pursued when partners feel unheard, fearful and/or resentful. While they may appear ideal, they are messy and rarely effective. Relationships are complicated enough without an ultimatum. Instead, work to establish healthy boundaries from the beginning to foster a relationship that will not only survive but thrive.


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