If you’re unhappy with some aspect of your marriage, you may be tempted to give an ultimatum.
For instance, if your partner refuses to help with household chores or continues to spend too much time out with friends, you may threaten to leave the relationship if the behavior doesn’t change.
This is an example of how ultimatums in relationships look.
On the one hand, ultimatums in relationships can sometimes be a wakeup call that drives a person to make positive changes for the relationship’s sake. In other cases, ultimatums can actually be harmful to the relationship, leaving you with even more damage in the long-run.
When are ultimatums in marriage necessary?
While ultimatums can damage a relationship, a marriage ultimatum may be necessary if a couple hits “rock bottom.”
Ultimatums in relationships should occur only when you truly cannot continue the relationship if nothing changes. They should not be used as idle threats or as a tool to manipulate your partner.
Instead, you should only be giving an ultimatum to your spouse if you have decided you cannot stay in the marriage under the current conditions, and you are prepared to leave if your partner does not change his or her behavior.
Besides, ultimatums in relationships are necessary if your spouse is abusive. If you have been subjected to ongoing physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, and marriage ultimatum is warranted, as no one has the right to abuse you.
Issuing an ultimatum to put an end to abusive behaviors may be your only option. If you use an ultimatum, in this case, you should stick to your choice to leave if the behavior doesn’t improve.
Dangers of ultimatums in relationships
There are situations where ultimatums may be necessary, but a marriage ultimatum should truly be saved for those rare occasions when you cannot continue the relationship as it is. In other cases, ultimatums can be dangerous for your relationship.
When you give an ultimatum, you run the risk of creating resentment in your relationship. Your partner may not want to make the change you are requesting, but he or she will make changes simply because of feeling trapped.
An ultimatum leaves your partner feeling as if they have no choice but to do what you are asking.
Essentially, an ultimatum is a demand. It can also be seen as a threat, which forces someone into action. Someone who feels forced to change their behavior isn’t behaving genuinely, which will only lead to problems down the road.
You may find that after you give an ultimatum, even if your partner changes his or her behavior, there is more conflict and anger than before because of the resentment that the ultimatum creates.
Another key issue that arises with ultimatums is that your partner may learn not to take you seriously if you cannot stick to the ultimatum.
For instance, if you tell your partner you will end the relationship if he does not stop going out with friends every weekend, but you stay in the relationship despite no changes from him, he will have learned that you are only making idle threats.
This means that your partner will realize that when you give an ultimatum or make a request, you do not plan to follow through.
Your partner may lose respect for you and determine that it is okay not to listen to your requests because there will be no consequences for disrespecting you. This is not a pattern you want to establish in your relationship.
A marriage ultimatum may seem like the right choice when you are feeling frustrated with your partner’s behaviors, but in the long-run, it can create anger and resentment and even lead your partner to believe that your requests aren’t serious.
5 ultimatums that are unfair to give your partner
Ultimatums can be damaging for your relationship, and sometimes they are just plain unfair.
Requesting your partner to make one of the following five changes can be seen as a way to manipulate them into giving you your way, which is not a healthy way to use ultimatums in relationships:
Requesting that they do something to show you they really love you
Telling your partner that failing to give in to your ultimatum will show that they do not really love you is not ever fair. We all show love in different ways, and your partner can love you without giving in to a demand that he or she feels is unreasonable.
This is a difficult position to put your partner in, and it really is just a manipulation tool.
Asking your partner to change what is important to them
Maybe your partner enjoys a weekly girls’ night, or perhaps he gets together with friends twice a week to play basketball. Whatever the case, you should never tell your partner that you will end the relationship if they do not give up something that is important to them.
You may feel left out, but part of being in a healthy relationship is maintaining separate interests and enjoying our own activities from time-to-time.
Suppose your partner’s decision to pursue their activities is upsetting to you. In that case, it is probably time to evaluate your own feelings, such as jealousy, instead of giving a relationship ultimatum.
Demanding that your partner quit a job
You may think you have a good reason, such as concern that a coworker is a little too close to your partner, but it is never okay to ask your partner to give up a job for you. Your partner’s career is one of the most important pieces of his or her identity.
So, if you feel the need to give a relationship ultimatum surrounding giving up a job, it is important to look into the underlying issues that have led you to this point
Requiring your partner to choose between you and another important person in their life
Isolating your spouse from friends or family members is not a healthy habit. Asking your partner to give up a key relationship to make you happy is indeed a form of control and social isolation.
An important piece of having a healthy relationship is maintaining social ties with other important people. It is one thing to ask your spouse to give up an affair partner, but demanding that your partner simply cut off a lifelong friend or a sibling is never acceptable.
You may have to accept that you will not always like all of your spouse’s friends or family members, but this is a situation that calls for compromise and honest conversation, not a relationship ultimatum.
Forcing your partner to try something in the bedroom when they are not comfortable with it
Whether it involves trying out a sexual fantasy or opening up the marriage to other sexual partners, it is never acceptable to demand that your partner participate in or allow sexual activities that make them uncomfortable.
Sexual intimacy should be a pleasurable form of interaction between two people in a relationship and should never involve forced activities. This can build resentment and lead to one party feeling unsafe or disrespected.
A healthy relationship should never involve one partner threatening to leave or have their needs met elsewhere if the other does not comply with all sexual requests.
Alternatives to ultimatums in relationships
Relationship ultimatums can often be damaging and should be used only as a last resort when there are no other options. Before giving a marriage ultimatum, it is important to try out some alternatives to ultimatums in relationships.
The most reasonable alternative to giving a relationship ultimatum is to sit down and have an honest, open conversation with your partner. For this conversation to be effective, it is important to remain calm and respectful and to ensure that you and your partner both have a chance to talk.
For example, you may be unhappy with the amount of time your partner is spending with friends because it is taking away from household duties.
If this is the case, instead of telling your partner, you will leave if they do not stop hanging out with friends, you can have an honest conversation about household duties.
You might sit down with your partner and say,
“I understand you enjoy spending time with friends, but I have noticed that since you have been going out more often, you haven’t been helping as much around the house, which is making things difficult for me. What would you be willing to do to help around the house?”
The above option is much more effective than simply giving a marriage ultimatum. It allows your partner to weigh in on the situation and is less likely to build feelings of resentment or seem like a demand.
For conversations of this nature to be effective, you and your partner must be willing to listen to each other.
One method that relationship psychology expert John Gottman recommends is the “dreamcatcher” exercise.
The partner who plays the role of “dreamer” openly shares any thoughts, opinions, or feelings about the topic of concern. In contrast, the other plays the role of “dreamcatcher,” which requires listening without arguing, disagreeing, or responding. Next, the roles are reversed.
The above exercise gives each partner a chance to talk and listen. Both are able to share their feelings without interruption, so each member of the relationship feels heard. Ultimately, this exercise aims to arrive at a compromise that is satisfying to both parties.
Instead of being dramatic and requiring that one partner give in completely, such a compromise is fair and results in each partner wanting to make changes for the other, rather than building resentment after being forced into changes.
What is an ultimatum vs. a boundary?
When thinking about alternatives to ultimatums in relationships, it is also important to consider the difference between an ultimatum vs. a boundary. Boundaries are healthy, and they allow you to protect yourself and your needs.
In the video below, Sarri Gilman talks about how boundaries keep relationships healthy because everyone needs their personal space:
For example, if your partner always calls and interrupts your time at the gym, you may need to set a boundary and tell your partner that you will not be taking phone calls while you are at the gym because this is your time.
In this scenario, you are not giving an ultimatum because you are not threatening to end the relationship if your partner does not change their behavior. Instead, you are setting a clear boundary around what you will do in response to your partner’s unwanted behavior.
Sometimes, you can resolve relationship conflict by setting a healthy boundary. Setting boundaries is assertive, whereas threatening to end a relationship over upsetting behavior can be seen as manipulative and threatening.
Do ultimatums in marriage work?
It has been pretty well-established that ultimatums can be damaging and that alternative options like setting boundaries or having an open conversation are preferred. This can lead to the question, “Do ultimatums ever work?”
The answer is that ultimatums in relationships work if and only if you have decided that you cannot continue in the relationship if your partner’s behavior does not change.
This should occur only in the face of deal-breaking behaviors, like abuse, infidelity, or a severe lack of fulfilling marital duties, such as those that occur when one partner is abusing drugs or alcohol.
If you give an ultimatum in such a scenario, it can be effective, but only if you are prepared to stick to your ultimatum.
On the one hand, if your partner’s unhealthy behavior changes, your ultimatum will have worked. On the other hand, if you stick to the ultimatum and end the relationship, you will have escaped an unhealthy situation if the behavior doesn’t change. Both should be considered a win.
Aside from these rare situations, ultimatums generally do not work for everyday relationship problems. If you use an ultimatum to try to get your way, you are likely to experience resentment from your partner, which can just lead to ongoing anger and conflict.
How to stop giving ultimatums?
If you have found that you have conflict in your relationship and ultimatums just aren’t working, it is time to stop using this method.
This is when you are using an ultimatum as a manipulative tool to get your way, force your partner to give up passions that make you feel jealous, or as a method to get your partner to choose you over a job or other important relationship.
Instead of using ultimatums, explore the underlying issues regarding your desire to give an ultimatum.
Are you feeling disconnected from your partner?
Is your partner not meeting your emotional needs?
Sit down and have an open conversation, making sure to give your partner a chance to express their thoughts. With this method, you can arrive at a compromise or set a boundary without making your partner feel threatened or manipulated.
Suppose you are having trouble refraining from using ultimatums in a relationship, or you are struggling with resentment as the result of marriage ultimatums. In that case, it may be time to work with a couple’s counselor.
This person is a trained professional who serves as a neutral party and can help you to develop healthier ways of interacting with your partner and expressing your needs within the relationship.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Sylvia Smith loves to share insights on how couples can revitalize their love lives in and out of the bedroom. As a writer at Marriage.com, she is a big believer in living consciously and encourages couples to adopt this principle in their lives too. Sylvia believes that every couple can transform their relationship into a happier, healthier one by taking purposeful and wholehearted action.