I once did a survey, asking one hundred people if they liked it when they were given an ultimatum. Ninety-five people said no. The other five said some variation of ‘You must be kidding.’
Usually I start a post with my own summary of the topic for the week, but this quote from Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in Love, our source book for this blog, sums up this week’s topic so well that I decided to lead with it. Fact is, most people hate ultimatums, and for good reason. An ultimatum can feel like the ideal solution at times, especially in the heat of a tense situation, but it rarely is. Here are four reasons you should avoid ultimatums in your relationship whenever possible.
Reasons to Avoid Ultimatums
1. Ultimatums Exclude Possible Solutions
Because ultimatums create either/or choices, they keep you and your partner from looking at other options that might work better. One of the fundamental principles of conflict resolution is that it is essential to remain open to new ideas for solving an issue, as the best solution is often not the first one suggested. Avoiding ultimatums allows you and your partner to continue exploring new solutions that may work better than the ones you have considered so far.
2. Ultimatums Create Pressure
Even a relatively small issue can become a big one under the pressure of an ultimatum, and big issues can feel insurmountable. Ultimatums make your partner feel attacked, defensive, and resentful, and none of these emotions are helpful in resolving conflict. Generally speaking, keeping drama low is helpful in resolving conflict, and ultimatums inherently create drama.
3. Ultimatums Create Resentment
Imagine you give an ultimatum, and your partner does what you want. Given what we’ve said already, how do you think this would influence their perspective toward you and toward the issue? Often, even if you get what you want through an ultimatum, your partner will harbor resentment about being disrespected and forced to do what you want, which can lead them to retaliate or even to lose respect for you in general.
4. Ultimatums are Often Based on Fear and Control
If we were to make a list of healthy bases for behavior in relationships, fear and control would definitely not be on the list. Unfortunately, when we make ultimatums, we often do so because we are afraid that otherwise we will not get what we feel we want. Ironically, we act out of this fear by giving ultimatums, when in the long term other strategies could be much more helpful in getting our needs met.
Should We Issue an Ultimatum Against Ultimatums?
With all of that said, I want to note that ultimatums are useful in some situations in a relationship, so we shouldn’t take ultimatums out of our toolkit entirely. On Wednesday, we will discuss the positive uses of ultimatums. Until then, just know that when you consider giving an ultimatum, you should consider it very carefully because used incorrectly, ultimatums can be extremely destructive to your relationship. And if you tend to use them casually to get what you want, I suggest finding another way to express your displeasure, for your partner’s sake and for the sake of your relationship.