Should You Ever Give Ultimatums in Relationships?

Ultimatums are not one size fits all.
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Jessica Estrada - The Knot Contributor.
Jessica Estrada
Jessica Estrada - The Knot Contributor.
Jessica Estrada
The Knot Contributor
  • Jessica contributes wedding planning, wedding etiquette and relationship content to The Knot.
  • She also covers lifestyle and wellness topics for print and digital publications such Refinery29, Bustle, Well + Good, Cosmopolitan, Byrdie, The Zoe Report, The Cut and more.
  • Jessica has a journalism degree from Cal State University, Northridge and is certified as a life and success coach.
Updated Jul 09, 2024
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Navigating issues and challenges in romantic relationships is not easy. One strategy for doing so is giving ultimatums in relationships. However, ultimatums are not one size fits all. Whether you're grappling with communication issues or trying to address more serious concerns, understanding the dynamics and nuances of ultimatums is crucial for the health of your relationship. In some instances, they can be a catalyst for positive change. In other cases, ultimatums may be a red flag signaling toxic, controlling behavior. To help clear things up, we chatted with Elizabeth Earnshaw, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Til Stress Do Us Part and I Want This to Work.

Keep reading to learn what an ultimatum in a relationship is, how to respond if your partner gives you an ultimatum, and what you need to know if you're considering giving your partner an ultimatum.

In this article:

What is an Ultimatum in a Relationship?

"An ultimatum is when you've decided you'll make a specific decision about the relationship if the other person doesn't do something you've requested," Earnshaw explains. Some examples include one partner giving the other an ultimatum by saying they will file for divorce if they don't stop drinking or they'll move out of the house if the abusive language continues. Whatever the specific scenario may be, when an ultimatum is given there is no room for negotiations, Earnshaw adds. There is just a harsh consequence.

Are Ultimatums in Relationships Good or Bad?

It depends on the situation. If a relationship is full of ultimatums, that may be a bad sign. Earnshaw notes that it can mean that one person is unfairly trying to control their partner unilaterally and not leaving space for open communication and negotiation.

That said, Earnshaw notes that if there is a significant issue in the relationship, an ultimatum may be the only thing that changes the relationship. For instance, if one parent doesn't listen to the other parent's request to not get drunk around their kids they may give the ultimatum that if they don't get help with their drinking they will no longer see the children.

However, to answer the question: Do ultimatums work in relationships? Earnshaw emphasizes that the choice to change is still on the other person. They may or may not be open to changing the behavior their partner is asking them to change.

How to Respond to an Ultimatum in a Relationship

If you're on the receiving end of an ultimatum, Earnshaw recommends first assessing whether or not it's a fair situation. Have you actually done something harmful and haven't changed the behavior that your partner felt an ultimatum was the only option? Or, is the ultimatum a pattern of inflexible and controlling behavior?

For the former scenario, Earnshaw suggests considering whether or not you're willing to make the change your partner is asking of you. If so, she advises sharing with them how you will work on changing the behavior. And if you're not willing to make the change, it's best to be honest with your partner about it so they can make the best decision for themselves.

On the flip side, if you haven't done anything that warrants an ultimatum, Earnshaw recommends letting your partner know that you are willing to discuss issues with them when they're willing to also include your perspective in decision making.

Feeling Like You Need to Give an Ultimatum?

All that said, should you give an ultimatum in a relationship? Again, it's not all black and white and every situation is different. First, Earnshaw recommends asking yourself what you want to get out of the ultimatum.

For instance, is it coming from a place of wanting to control your partner or force their hand to do something you want them to do? Or, is it coming from a place of wanting to let them know that they've done or are doing something harmful that you are no longer willing to tolerate? And if so, Earnshaw also advises considering whether or not you're actually willing to follow through on your promise if your partner doesn't change the behavior.

There are also some alternatives to giving your partner an ultimatum. One option is setting firm boundaries in the relationship which entails communicating with your partner how you'd like to be treated in the relationship and there is no consequence attached to it like an ultimatum. Earnshaw also recommends negotiating with your partner to come to a compromise where both of you are happy and feel heard and respected. This, of course, involves clearly communicating your feelings about how their behavior is affecting you. And if needed, couples therapy is always a great option for additional support in addressing issues, rebuilding trust in the relationship, and creating a plan for how you will move forward.

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