Have you seen The Ultimatum, yet? If so, you’re well aware of what an absolute hot mess it is. The latest from Netflix seeks to give answer to the age-old relationship question: will giving an ultimatum to your partner work? (Hint: don’t count on it.)

So, with this show at the forefront of everyone’s mind, I’ll be sharing some hard truths about ultimatums AND what to do instead.

What Giving an Ultimatum Means

Relationships can be difficult. Especially if you have different wants, needs, or expectations than your partner. An ultimatum, then, is something people use to try and counter that imbalance.

Here are some examples of what an ultimatum might sound like:

“If you don’t propose by the end of the year, our relationship is over.”

“I want to move in together by the summer or I’m leaving.”

“You need to stop going out with your friends every Friday night. If you don’t, it’s over.”

Basically, giving an ultimatum means expressing your needs in terms of absolutes. It’s an either/or mentality. “You either do this, or I’m breaking up with you.”

While it’s perfectly reasonable to express your expectations, giving an ultimatum usually doesn’t work.

At the beginning of The Ultimatum, host Nick Lachey introduces the concept by saying, “Psychologists agree that an ultimatum is not a good way to get somebody else to do what you want.” And there’s a reason for that!

Why Ultimatums are Harmful

So, why exactly are ultimatums so harmful for a relationship?

1. There’s a Clear Threat

The biggest issue is that ultimatums have an underlying threat in them. Issuing an ultimatum is a forceful way of trying to get your partner to agree to your needs and your timetable. It’s an “either/or” tactic. There’s no room for conversation or compromise.

Related Read: How to Have More Effective Communication in Relationships

2. They’re Manipulative

By threatening to leave unless your partner does what you want, you’re manipulating them into making a decision.

Say you ask for commitment by giving an ultimatum. Your partner is then forced to commit to you if they want to stay in a relationship. So, they propose. But that proposal isn’t done because they love you and made a choice to marry you. It’s done because they’re afraid of losing you.

3. There’s a Risk to You Too

Ultimatums are often given when one person is frustrated by something in the relationship. But the problem, is that it can easily backfire.

Let’s use the above example again: you want commitment, so you issue an ultimatum. Your partner, however, knows that they’re not ready for that next step and decides not to propose.

You, then, are left with two choices and both are pretty shitty:

A) You leave them and thus lose the relationship you’re clearly intent on keeping, OR

B) Choose not to follow through and end up losing their respect.

Ultimatums vs Boundaries

While all of this might sound pretty clear-cut, it’s not always so simple. The truth is, people do have certain needs and wants in a relationship. So, what do you do if those needs aren’t being met?

Instead of giving an ultimatum, the better option is to set clear boundaries with your partner.

The difference between giving an ultimatum and setting a boundary

Boundaries are what you will and won’t tolerate in a relationship. Setting a boundary means communicating your wants and needs clearly and letting your partner know what will happen if those needs are not met.

Now, that certainly sounds like an ultimatum, but there’s a big difference.

With an ultimatum, it’s a threat: “You either propose, or I’m leaving.” A boundary, on the other hand, is an explanation: “Getting married is important to me. I can’t stay in a relationship that isn’t going anywhere. Can we talk about this?”

Let’s say you want commitment, so you tell your partner that. But they’re not sure they’re ready. You might be tempted to issue an ultimatum, but that’s not an effective strategy. Instead, talk with your partner about your needs and their hesitation. Ask them what they’re unsure about. Do they have needs that aren’t being met? Or is it something outside of your control?

Sometimes, it’s not possible to compromise. If you want a committed relationship and they don’t and aren’t sure when they’ll be ready, one of you will have to make a sacrifice. Again, this is where it’s important to have boundaries.

You can let your partner know in clear terms, “I’m not sure I can be in a relationship without commitment. I need to take some time and think about what I want to do.” Then do that!

But don’t give your partner the silent treatment as a way of forcing them to come around (that’s just another way of trying to manipulate them). Instead, take the time to genuinely think about your own needs. And if you decide that you can’t be in a relationship, end it. Not to get them to change their mind, but for your own well-being.

Have you ever given an ultimatum? Or been given one? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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  1. avatar

    Thanks for explaining the difference between ultimatums and boundaries.

    1. avatar

      Glad you enjoyed! thanks for reading

  2. avatar

    I’ve never given an ultimatum in a relationship although I had to do so in a work situation once. I agree, setting boundaries is usually much more effective, but sometimes you do have to be clear and that’s when a threat can work better. PS, it did in the work situation I referred to!

    1. avatar

      Oh, that’s super interesting! I can see how it would be different in a work setting – you’re not in an intimate relationship, so you have to be a little more forceful to get what you need. Thanks for sharing that!

  3. avatar
    Mind Beauty Simplcity says:

    I never liked ultimatums. I remember I was given one a few years ago from my now husband. But I quickly told him ultimatums are indeed threats and we just simply need to communicate better.

    1. avatar

      Ohhhh – Interesting! I’m glad it worked out for you and good for you for standing up for yourself!

  4. avatar

    I agree with everything you said, but I think there may be one situation when an ultimatum is warranted, and that’s if the person you’re in a relationship has addiction and you’re at your limit to supporting them. Because then you know where each other stands

    1. avatar

      I could see that, but I would still say that you could use boundaries instead of an ultimatum. For instance, telling them that you need them to take steps towards sobriety. If they’re unwilling, then it would be appropriate to say, “I can’t be in a relationship with you, then.” It sounds similar to an ultimatum, but there’s a distinction because you’re ultimately making a choice for YOU.

  5. avatar

    This is such an important post! I’ve never given an ultimatum before but I know how harmful they can be and I think boundaries are a much better and healthier way of communicating your needs. Thank you so much for sharing x

    1. avatar

      I totally agree – it puts the other person in a position that simultaneously elevates them (they get to make the decision) and downplays their experience. Thanks for reading!

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30ish Lifestyle blogger, relationship "expert," and modern-day agony aunt.
Sometimes humorous, always honest.