Relationship ultimatums are having a moment right now thanks to a regrettable new Netflix show literally titled The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On.
While the idea of giving a partner one last chance to commit might be appealing, it comes with a side of “be careful what you wish for”. Your push to get them to make a decision about your relationship could actually push them away, at which point it might be too late to realise you don’t actually want to be suddenly left on your own. Conversely, you might force them into a deeper commitment when they’re not actually ready for one.
Is it ever wise to push an ultimatum? There are a few instances where it is more advisable than others, but you need to keep a number of factors in mind.
Offer an ultimatum only if you’ve communicated about it in advance
A surprise ultimatum is not a great idea. Communicating about your wants and desires and setting a timeline aren’t the same thing.
“When you’re talking about marriage, I think this needs to be an ongoing conversation,” said Casandra Henriquez, a certified dating and relationship coach. From the outset of your relationship, she said, you should continually discuss what you want out of the relationship, and keep an open dialogue as your feelings change.
If you’re not clear about your interests and intentions early on, you can’t expect the other person to know what you want, let alone expect to spring an either-or decision on them down the line.
This isn’t to suggest you should start a relationship with an ultimatum; it takes time and ongoing conversations to build a certain level of trust first. As Henriquez cautioned, it’s just “not necessary” to kickstart a relationship with an ultimatum.
It’s not wise to ignore what your partner says in those ongoing conversations and assume you can change their mind or pull out the ultimatum down the line, Henriquez said. She pointed to a client she had whose boyfriend made it known from the beginning that he had no interest in marriage.
Instead of listening to the messages he was sending, she stuck with him for three years hoping he’d change his tune. In that context, an ultimatum might help bring the relationship to a close, but if you know from the jump that someone doesn’t want what you want, why let it get that far?
“Ultimatums [sometimes reflect] a lot of missed communication and missed conversations from the beginning of your relationship,” Henriquez said.
“This should be an ongoing conversation — one, ‘Do you want marriage?’ and two, ‘Do you want to marry me?’ Ultimatums come from a place of you not having these conversations and not listening.”
Rachel DeAlto, chief dating expert at Match, agreed.
“Ultimatums are drastic actions, and while they can sometimes lead to the desired outcome, they often don’t,” she said.
“Anyone issuing an ultimatum needs to be ok with their relationship ending if their demand is not met. A far healthier approach would be to have boundaries set and intentions and desires communicated openly and often.”
If you can’t have open conversations with your partner throughout the relationship, why are you trying to force the union into the next phase with an ultimatum?
Consider ultimatums when weighing a reconciliation with an ex
An ultimatum can be more helpful when you’re considering re-entering a relationship with someone you’ve already dated. In this case, you know which habits and traits of the other person don’t align with your goals and interests, so highlighting them as barriers to reconciliation can be useful. The ultimatum here is, “Commit to fixing the previous issue or we can’t get back together.”
This brand of ultimatum is better than the threat of a breakup when you’re already with someone because it prioritises a reunion instead of a dissolution. If they’ve been missing you and want to make it work after finding out how bad life was without you, they might follow through.
Employ ultimatums only when confronted with a deal-breaker
You shouldn’t tell someone a breakup is imminent if you can’t handle that breakup, so it stands to reason you shouldn’t leverage a possible separation as a solution to a minor problem. Don’t cry wolf here and threaten a breakup if you aren’t serious about going through with it.
If the minor issue is really a sign of a deeper resentment or ongoing issue in the relationship, focus on that instead of picking at small-scale grievances. Save an ultimatum for the really important stuff instead.
“I’d really think of ultimatums as setting boundaries. If your partner(s) is doing something that crosses a boundary for you or is a deal-breaker for you, an ultimatum may be appropriate,” said Julie Labanz, a certified sex therapist and licensed professional clinical counsellor.
Use ultimatums across designed timelines
An ultimatum shouldn’t be just sprung on a partner, but they should also operate on a longer timeline themselves. Henriquez used her own marriage as an example: a few years ago, she told her partner her goal for that year was to get engaged. She and her then-boyfriend had already been having conversations about their goals and he knew she was interested in marriage. Still, he waited 11 months after that January conversation to pop the question, only doing so in November.
“In my mind, I was counting down. I didn’t bring it up but I really had that in my mind to say, ‘Alright, if he doesn’t propose by January, we’re going to have a real conversation about what we’re doing,’” she said.
Making your intentions known while still giving the other person time to adjust is key. They could have their own reasons for not acting in accordance with what you see as an appropriate timeline, whether they’re working on themselves or their finances, and you have to consider their perspective in addition to your own.
Understand your partner’s personality first
Some people need that little push because they thrive better with deadlines or the threat of consequences. Others may do better when given the chance to operate at their own pace. To figure out whether it’s time to lay down an ultimatum for your partner, you really need to know their personality.
“There are some personality types that have analysis paralysis, and we see it all the time,” Henriquez said, offering the example of a friend who took a decade to propose to his girlfriend because he was concerned he wasn’t financially prepared for the undertaking.
Knowing your partner’s personality doesn’t just matter in this instance; it’s important all the time. Before you back them into a corner about getting married, having a kid, going to counselling, or whatever else it is that you want, consider first who they are — and whether you should be pursuing any of that with them at all, because those relationship issues won’t end even if the ultimatum works and you get your way.
If you’re going to give an ultimatum, do it like this
If, after reading all of that, you still think an ultimatum is appropriate in your relationship — whether you’re looking to get married or help your partner stop engaging in harmful behaviour — approach the conversation the right way.
First, consider why the subject at hand is a dealbreaker, Labanz said. Know your own thoughts and feelings about the issue inside and out. Consider the values driving your decision “and be ready to present those to your partner,” she said.
“Be aware of areas that you feel flexible around the topic.” It won’t surprise you to learn that even the presentation of an ultimatum involves a big conversation. The goal here is to move forward with a purpose.
“Approach [gently], using ‘I’ language,” Labanz said.
“For example, ‘I have taken the time to explore monogamy for myself and know that it’s a lifestyle that’s really important to me and is most in alignment with me. If you are interested in a [consensually non-monogamous] relationship, I want you to be able to honour that for yourself, but it’s not a relationship I can find myself in and would ultimately need us to part ways.’ You’re honouring yourself and your partner while speaking about your values.”
Be true to yourself, be open, be honest, and again, be prepared to end up single.