Why Giving an Ultimatum Can Hurt Your Relationship

They just can't seem to face their problems anymore

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Ultimatums can be a hit or miss. On the one hand, giving your boss that deadline may have helped with landing a promotion, but attempting the same in a relationship may not always have a good outcome.

As human beings, one of the least fun things we can experience is being forced into a corner. This is why demands that hinge on the continuity of a shared relationship can often bring about its end. However, in special cases, ultimatums can lead to a stronger relationship.

This article examines ultimatums, their impact on relationships, and offers more effective alternatives to get your desires across to your partner.

What Is an Ultimatum?

When you give an ultimatum to your partner, you are warning or demanding that they act in a specified way and within a specified period of time or they risk losing you and the relationship.

According to relationship therapist and host of E! Network’s "Famously Single," Darcy Sterling (aka Dr. Darcy), LCSW, “setting an ultimatum is the relationship equivalent of nuclear warfare.”

Andrea Dindinger, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist, agrees with this. To her, ultimatums are never a good idea. But, she adds that “people make ultimatums when they feel powerless to change the other person.”

An ultimatum can rear its head in many different ways in a relationship. Some examples include:

  • Giving your partner until the end of the month to decide if your relationship will have labels
  • Threatening to walk away at the end of the year if you don’t receive a marriage proposal
  • Demanding that your partner cut off a person you’re uncomfortable with or risk losing you

When you find that you are constantly urging your partner to walk the tight rope or risk losing your relationship, you may be guilty of issuing ultimatums to your loved one.

Why Ultimatums Are Dangerous for Your Relationship

Depending on who you ask, ultimatums are either bad or really bad for your relationship.

To Dr. Darcy, “overusing an ultimatum is emotionally abusive because it undermines the security within the relationship.” 

Marriage and family therapist Megan Harrison, LMFT, goes into more detail about the dangers of ultimatums, saying, “They are particularly damaging because they are threats that force changes in behavior. [This] often leads to resentment and insecurity in the relationship since your partners felt pressured into doing something they didn’t want to do.”

But aside from the damage that deadlines can pose for your relationship, this behavior may also be harmful to your interest, especially if you cannot follow through on your ultimatum.

According to Dindinger, a likely risk of issuing ultimatums by one partner is that the person giving the ultimatum “loses the respect and credibility of their partner, and the even more severe consequence is the loss of self-respect. When you lose trust in yourself, that’s a whole lot harder to regain than letting someone go who is not listening to you or [not] taking your wants and needs seriously.”

Instances Where an Ultimatum Might Be Effective

With all the negatives surrounding ultimatums in full view, it may seem hard to imagine any good coming from this practice. But, in some instances, an ultimatum might be necessary. These scenarios are discussed below.

Your Partner's Behavior Is Harmful or Potentially Dangerous

Dr. Darcy notes that an ultimatum may be effective if your partner is exhibiting some kind of dangerous or potentially harmful behavior. Examples include:

These behaviors can take a serious toll on you and your partner's relationship. Addiction, in severe cases, can be fatal. So, ultimatums may be necessary in these cases.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Your Partner Crosses the Line

If you have dealbreakers and you find that your partner is crossing one, an ultimatum may be a good idea. If you've communicated your dealbreakers to your partner clearly and they have not made an effort to correct their behavior, an ultimatum can help effect change. Some dealbreakers may look like:

If your dealbreaker is something more trivial (e.g., whether or not the toilet seat should be kept up), an ultimatum will likely fall on deaf ears. Instead, more severe issues (like those listed above) may require you to put your foot down in the relationship.

If you choose to give your partner an ultimatum, it should be done with tact and only as a last resort.

Harrison explains, “Ultimatums also create insecurities. If you give your partner an ultimatum and they decide to abide by it, you’ll always be wondering if they accepted your terms because they really love you and want things to work, or because they felt like they [were] forced to do so.”

Other Strategies to Try Instead of an Ultimatum

So you’re at an impasse in your relationship. Maybe your partner is miserly with their affections, or perhaps they’re carrying on with a habit that is pulling you apart. On the other hand, ultimatums may not produce the desired effects, so what alternatives are there?

Open and Clear Communication

Harrison says, “One of the best ways to work through your relationship problems without using an ultimatum is through clear and open communication."

If there's anyone that gets the privilege to witness you at your most vulnerable, it's your partner. Stating clearly, how their actions and behavior affect you, and your hopes for the relationship is a trusted way to get all cards on the table.

Being open will allow your partner to understand exactly how you feel. It will also permit them to open up in the same way. 

Setting Boundaries

Another excellent alternative to making ultimatums in relationships is creating boundaries. Whereas ultimatums focus on behavioral changes you want your partner to make, boundaries focus on you and the things that you require to be happy and feel secure in your relationship.”

In particular, communicating your worries or displeasures to your partner can do wonders for your grievances in the relationship, as well as for your growth as a couple.

According to Dr. Darcy, “Couples who communicate regularly tend to feel heard and taken seriously by their partners and when that happens, they’re less likely to resort to threats.”

She recommends that couples indulge in weekly relationship meetings to stay on top of things that are working and address issues that may need to be resolved in the relationship.

Put simply, prioritizing communication and healthy boundaries when there are disputes can help you cultivate a healthier relationship—without ultimatums.

A Word From Verywell

As far as relationships are concerned, ultimatums should be a very last option for achieving the results you would like. This is because cornering your partner to behave in a way and within a time of your choosing can strip free will and comfort from your relationship.

Instead, focus on healthy communication and clear boundaries so that you don’t have to resort to ultimatums. If you and your partner are having trouble with communication, consider speaking with a couple's therapist.

By Elizabeth Plumptre
Elizabeth is a freelance health and wellness writer. She helps brands craft factual, yet relatable content that resonates with diverse audiences.