Ultimatums Aren't Just A Bad Idea, They're Also Toxic

Ultimatums have become a frequently-discussed method to move one's relationship to the next milestone. Just think of Netflix's "The Ultimatum: Marry or Move on," hosted by Nick and Vanessa Lachey. The show plays out ultimatums in real time, as viewers watch one partner apply pressure to the other. While we've been seeing ultimatums come up more frequently in our cultural conversations about dating, they shouldn't be normalized. This is because they can often be toxic and lead to undesired outcomes for both parties. 

What is an ultimatum? It's when one person in a relationship warns the other that they'll leave if something doesn't happen. The end goal can be different for each person, but it often has to do with getting married, having a baby, or moving in together. They can also deal with other changes though, such as getting sober or dealing with infidelity. 

Essentially, an ultimatum is applied when one partner is ready to reach the next milestone but the other isn't there. An ultimatum is often seen as an absolute last resort. However, many experts say that ultimatums are not the way to get what you want. They rarely work and instead can be manipulative and toxic. Setting boundaries is positive. An ultimatum? That's something else entirely. "The difference between an ultimatum and a boundary is similar to the difference between having someone force you to choose by gunpoint and someone asking you to follow a law," mental health counselor Michela Dalsing told PsychCentral. Here's why ultimatums can be a bad relationship move.

You can't take an ultimatum back

To use a sports analogy, an ultimatum is really the "Hail Mary" play in the relationship. Ultimatums typically come out of desperation. "Most of the time when individuals are getting to the point of creating an ultimatum, it's because they feel like they've expressed a need, want, or boundary repeatedly and their partner doesn't respect it," Dalsing told PsychCentral. 

Dr. Jenn Mann told InStyle readers that the desire to issue an ultimatum should prompt self-reflection. If you're facing an ultimatum, Dr. Mann notes, it's time to ask if this is the right relationship for you. Examine how clear your communication has been prior to issuing the ultimatum. Your partner should already completely understand why the issue is so important to you. Also, consider your own patience. Perhaps your partner just needs a little more time. Mann warns that ultimatums can reflect an unhealthy desire to control and manipulate another.

The other problem with ultimatums is that once they're out there, you've got to follow through. It's not the same as conversations around boundaries and priorities that leave both partners secure, engaging in continuous honest dialog. If you issue an ultimatum and your partner can't accept it, you should be prepared to leave. The worst thing would be to issue an ultimatum, have it go unmet by your partner, and then stay in the relationship as if nothing happened. 

Why ultimatums create toxicity

The individual on the receiving end of an ultimatum is usually in that position because they're not moving at the pace of the one issuing it. This in and of itself isn't a bad thing. It's perfectly normal for each partner to have different timelines for things. While one person might feel ready to get married, for example, the other might need more time to decide. And this is a legitimate need. Both parties should feel confident and sure before making a big decision. The problem is that tension and resentment often arise when the time gap becomes too long and this is when people turn to ultimatums. 

The problem with ultimatums is that they force action before it arises organically. They also run the risk of trivializing the emotions and needs of your partner. The experience of hearing, "Do this or I leave," can belittle their feelings and natural pacing. Ultimatums can often become manipulative and toxic in relationships. "Ultimatums can be unhealthy if they are used frequently in a relationship to control the bounds of a partner's behavior," psychologist Adam Haynes-LaMotte told PsychCentral. "This can drastically undermine a partner's feeling of safety and security in a relationship, which leads to an unhealthy dynamic." 

The excessive control and manipulation that often comes with ultimatums isn't the ideal way to get what you want out of a relationship. Instead, be clear about your future goals for the relationship. Then, through open and honest communication, set boundaries and expectations with your partner that are healthy and comfortable for you both.