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October 21, 2009

Should You Give an Ultimatum?

He Said/She Said

couple fighting with each other

Photo Credit: iStock Images

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HE SAID: Earlier this month, I caught wind of a story of an online radio intervention between a man (Ryan) and a woman (Stacy) getting married. In a nutshell, Stacy did not want to take the last name of her fiancé, while Ryan clearly wanted her to. They spoke about this over the radio, and the conversation quickly degraded to Ryan saying “You have to make a choice Stacy. I feel strongly about this, and if you can’t change your mind, I have to call it off. Who cares about all the money we spent. It’s either me or your name.” Ouch. Now does that sound like the right way to kick off a marriage? I didn't think so.

At one point or another in their life, everyone has felt the urge to deliver an ultimatum. There are certain things in your life that are not negotiable. Trust. Commitment. Safety. Consideration. Love. So when these aspects of our life aren't being met, why not say “You know, this is so important to me that you need to do this—or else”? If an ultimatum speaks to a greater good, isn’t that enough to justify it?

No, it’s not.

No matter what the justification is, we deliver ultimatums out of anger, fear, and frustration. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting the different results”. Today, relationships are riddled with insanity, especially when we choose to be with people that, while interesting and attractive, may not satisfy the true needs that we have. Sometimes we settle for people, other times people do not live up to who we thought they were, and yet other times we are just plain wrong with the choices that we make. When we do not recognize this and reach a boiling point while ignoring the obvious—that our partners are who they are and no words are going to change them, we consider ultimatums.

If you find yourself on this edge, ask yourself: is this the relationship that you want to be in? If so, is this the type of work you are willing to do to maintain it? People can recognize the need, benefits, and reasons to change. They cannot be forced to act on this, though. Talk, in the end, is a very cheap commodity. Alison Willcocks said it best. If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it's yours. If it doesn't, it never was.

SHE SAID: Giving an ultimatum? Make sure you're prepared to walk. For an ultimatum to be successful, it must be delivered with sincerity. Empty threats are cruel and manipulative, and the girl who cries breakup eventually gets called on her bluff.

Acceptable: "If you don't drop that drug habit, it's over." Not acceptable: "If you wear that Star Wars t-shirt in public ever again, I'm out of here." (For the record, I've delivered both, and they were equally unsuccessful.)

Being on the receiving end of an ultimatum can be even worse than delivering one, and beware: the mere suggestion of one is enough to make some people tempted to end things themselves. If you love someone, set them free, sure—but don't push them out the door and change the locks. Whether they were "yours" to begin with or not, it's their bruised ego that might keep them from coming back.

All that said, delivering an ultimatum is also sometimes just a way to get out of making a decision about the relationship. If you’re unhappy and unsure about the future of your union, decide first whether it’s truly something you can’t live with and don’t see changing, or whether it’s worth trying to fix. If it’s worth it, then start working to fix things—but this is a process best approached as a team, not a challenge thrown at your partner with a condition “or else” attached.

On the Soapbox

Abraham Lloyd is a divorced dad, closet geek, and aspiring author dating in New York City. He believes all men should own at least five jackets, know how to dance, and pay on a first date. You can tweet him at twitter.com/abrahamlloyd.

Diana Vilibert is Marie Claire's associate Web editor, a chronic oversharer, closet romantic, and blind-date addict. You can e-stalk her at diana-vilibert.com.

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