Ultimatum

Is more about you than about him

When is it okay to give an ultimatum, Healthy Living Magazine, Dr Jane Greer, Psychology

When is it okay to give an ultimatum, Healthy Living Magazine, Dr Jane Greer, Psychology

An ultimatum is really more about you than it is about your partner. It has to do with what you can and will accept, what you are able to live with and what actions you alone are going to take if things don’t work out the way you hoped.

Everybody wants something. That doesn’t change when two people become a couple. In fact, quite often those individual desires clash—he wants one thing, she wants the other. So what happens when that thing he or she wants becomes all-important, something that you can’t live without? Well, that’s when someone might consider offering an ultimatum. For example, the press has reported that Eva Mendes recently issued an ultimatum to boyfriend Ryan Gosling that she wants a proposal by the time their two-year anniversary rolls around soon. Only time will tell if her tactics work, or in the end have the opposite effect, as some others are reporting. As with all ultimatums, they raise the question, if the person being pressured doesn’t agree, what happens then? Are ultimatums good things to declare in the first place, and if so, how should they be used?

As is the case with Eva and Ryan, it isn’t unusual for one half of the couple to want to move faster than the other half, or sometimes even in a different direction. She wants to move in together, but he thinks things are great the way they are. She wants him to go for professional help for his excessive drinking, but he thinks he can handle it himself. He wants to have a baby now, but she feels that her career is just taking off—can’t they wait a few years? She wants to seek couples counseling, he thinks they are doing fine despite their daily fights.

These couples are at an impasse; they each want what they want. After repeated requests and appeals, the answer is still no. Enter the ultimatum: You have to do this for me; if you loved me you would. And when the other person doesn’t want to, or refuses to agree, things can go from good to bad to worse pretty quickly.

The trouble with an ultimatum is that it can be experienced as not only a demand but also an “or else” because it is packed with the threat, “if you don’t, then this will happen.” Whatever it is, it can come across as controlling and your partner might feel he or she has no real choice in the matter. That could lead to their refusing to consider your needs at all, or their giving in resentfully. It can create a power struggle, having the reverse effect of what was hoped to be achieved. An ultimatum almost always seems like a negative warning, and often serves only to put the other person on the defensive.

The reality is that the only ultimatum you ever want to be giving to your partner is your own bottom line. In other words, instead of saying you have to do this for me, make it a declaration of what you will do if things remain the same. So, for example, rather than saying if you don’t come to counseling this relationship is over, say that if your partner refuses to join you in counseling you may decide to leave the marriage. Or if your boyfriend seems uninterested in proposing with no change in sight, say you will give it a few more months but then you will have to start to consider your other options. That way, the focus is on what you are going to do, not on what they have to do.

Also, at least as important, when you are really pushed to your limit and are tempted to give an ultimatum to get your partner to change or give you what you want, be absolutely sure you are ready to carry out whatever actions you have in mind. Try to resist making a declaration of intent until you know you would be able to take action if it comes to that. In other words, try not to make empty threats with the hope your partner will respond before you are called on it, because your words will lose credibility if your partner doesn’t do his or her part and you don’t follow through. Then what happens the next time you’re at an impasse?

An ultimatum is really more about you than it is about your partner. It has to do with what you can and will accept, what you are able to live with, and what actions you alone are going to take if things don’t work out the way you hoped.

Jane Greer, PhD, is a nationally renowned relationship expert, marriage and family therapist, author, blogger, and radio host. She is creator of “Shrink Wrap with Dr Jane Greer,” a media commentary on what we can learn from the trials and triumphs of celebrity relationships. Dr Greer’s live weekly radio hour Doctor on Call airs every Tuesday from 2-3 p.m. ET (11 a.m.-12 p.m. PT) at HealthyLife.net. Dr Greer’s newest book, What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship, is available nationwide.
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