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Guest Thinkers

Of Course Ultimatums Are Okay

Morning Gloria of Jezebel asks, “Is It Ever Okay To Make a Relationship Ultimatum?”

My answer: You’d better believe it.

Seriously, though. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the question. Why wouldn’t it be okay, at least sometimes?

We issue ultimatums all the time:

-Either you give me a raise, or I quit.

-Either you show up on time, or you’re fired.

-Either you knock 10% off the sticker price and throw in the tinted windows, or I’m going across town.

What’s wrong with:

-Either you quit drinking, or I will leave you and take the kids.

MG writes:

As a seasoned veteran of many a failed relationship, I’ve been thinking back lately to the times that one person has demanded something of the other- explicitly demanded- and am trying to decide whether or not that’s ever acceptable. On one hand, people can’t expect to control the person with whom they’re romantically involved, but, on the other, sometimes a breakdown in communication occurs and the only way to express your disdain for a behavior is to call for it to cease if the relationship will continue. Sometimes you don’t know that those behaviors exist until you’re already neck deep in things.

Maybe she’s asking whether it’s ever okay to issue an insincere or frivolous ultimatum as a negotiating tactic in a relationship. “Never” is a very strong word, but generally not.

It’s not a good idea to approach an intimate partner as you would with a used car salesman on the lot.

Insincere threats to leave someone can be a form of emotional terrorism. Idly threatening to leave is a cruel attempt to exploit the other person’s fear of abandonment.

Besides which, nothing undercuts your credibility like idle threats.

However, if we’re talking about sincere ultimatums issued for valid reasons, then of course it’s okay to lay out your non-negotiable demands.

You probably don’t want to break out the ultimatum as your opening move, but an ultimatum may be what’s needed to break a stalemate after a long and fruitless negotiation.

I am perplexed by the commenters at Jezebel who insist that it’s never okay to issue ultimatums because that would be “controlling” or “manipulating” your partner.

I would argue that a sincere ultimatum is the exact opposite. You’re laying out your non-negotiable demand and giving them the choice. If you’re really prepared to leave someone over something, you owe it to them to let them know.

Sadly, women are socialized to soft pedal their needs and wants. Some commenters were arguing that it’s okay to say that something is a “dealbreaker for me,” or that some change is “necessary for me to be happy in this relationship, and I won’t stay if I’m not happy” but not to issue an ultimatum. Hello? Those are indirect ultimatums. They’re okay.

[Photo credit: Darcy James Argue.]


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