Do Ultimatums Work?

“It’s my way or the highway,” you fiercely announce. You’re fed up with your lover and so you decide to give them an ultimatum. But think about it — what if the tables were turned — would you appreciate receiving a “do this or else” declaration?

Exasperated, many people resort to this form of manipulation to try to get what they want. But in the end, ultimatums often backfire in your face. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t instances when you have virtually no option but to demand a “do or die.” Your doctor, for instance, proclaims, “you must show up on time or else you’re going to lose your appointment.” But that’s a different story. We’re talking about lovers who use ulimatums as a form of communication. And when it comes to lovers, ultimatums are rarely well received.

There are several good reasons to stay away from ultimatums. First, ultimatums box people into a corner. Furthermore, it distorts and limits their choices; an aggressive and obnoxious sense of pressure is added to an already difficult decision.

Second, even if you demand something and end up getting what you want, resentment factors in as part of the deal. Your lover may even retaliate. For instance, Ryan tells his girl Mimi, “If you don’t come with me to see this rock band at the Whiskey you can forget about me taking you to the dinner next week!” Mimi hates rock but she may end up packing ear plugs and going out of necessity. She’ll grit her teeth the entire time and may likely keep a grudge. Any way you slice it, she’ll probably lose respect for him for painting her into a corner.

At the end of the day, a more effective way to ask would have been for Ryan to simply say, “Hey, I’d really love for you be there with me. I know you hate rock but please give this band a chance. I really like them and besides, I have to admit that I’ll be very disappointed if you don’t come.” Delivery is key. The medium really is the message.

“If you absolutely feel like an ultimatum is the only way to go, keep a couple of things in mind,” says psychologist Karen Sherman, author of Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, Make It Last. “Ultimatums only work if the person to whom it is being given really has an investment in the relationship. And the person has to believe that the one giving the ultimatum will follow through.”

It also doesn’t hurt if you acknowledge that you understand the distasteful nature of ultimatums.

A lot of times, an ultimatum stems from fear. Out of desperation you attach a serious consequence. “If we don’t get married now, it’s over,” for example. You hope that your announcement will do the trick but in reality you only push the person away. Why would you want someone to fulfill your wishes if it doesn’t come straight from their heart? Perhaps that other person is simply not ready. If you exercised patience and loving, that person may come around. And perhaps if you look within, you’ll realize that this person is not on the same page or wavelength as you. You want a commitment and kids while they want to live in the now and they’ve told you before that they’ll never wear a ring. In this case, you want different things and if you are honest with yourself, it really is over anyway.

Ultimatums are more ‘nasty conditional’ love than selfless ‘I accept you for who you are’ kind-of love. To put it simply, it’s best to avoid ultimatums whenever possible. You’ll probably end up getting more of what you want that way, and in the process you’ll build a more solid foundation. So stop giving ultimatums – or else!

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