Ultimatums can have big effects on your relationship. Here’s how they can happen — and what to do if you get one.
When you’re in a relationship, you may find yourself having the same disagreement or argument over and over again. And those arguments may escalate so much that you reach a boiling point where you think, “I can’t take it anymore.”
Sometimes these escalations build up over time regarding relatively minor things — the perpetually unwashed dishes in the sink, repeatedly running late — and sometimes they’re over bigger issues, such as infidelity.
But if you’ve gotten so upset over something that you’ve said, “That’s it! If you don’t do this, I’ll leave you,” you’ve issued an ultimatum — which can have some profound effects on your relationship.
An ultimatum is essentially a threat you make when you tell someone that if they don’t undertake a specific action, they’ll face a consequence.
To be clear, this is not the same thing as stating your boundaries.
“When you state your boundaries, you’re setting standards in order for the relationship to succeed,” explains Josiah Teng, a New York City–based therapist. “When you give an ultimatum, you’re effectively saying that those standards have been violated and something needs to change.”
Boundary setting can be important in relationships; you’re telling your partner what your needs and limitations are so you can both get along better and have clear expectations for the relationship. And you can communicate these boundaries without threatening to retaliate or do something in return.
“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,” says Michela Dalsing, a licensed mental health counselor.
Ultimatums don’t come out of thin air.
“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,” explains Dalsing.
In other words, ultimatums often come from desperation.
“People often give ultimatums as a last resort when there is an identified ‘deal breaker’ in the relationship that they feel trapped by,” explains Teng. “It could be a chronic habit, like drinking, or one-time event, like cheating.”
“The ultimatum is a way for them to exert control over something they feel they have no control over — namely, another’s behavior or traits,” he continues.
Examples of ultimatums in relationships
Ultimatums can arise for several reasons, but most often they “bubble up when one partner is involved in underground or high risk behaviors, or when the relationship is not fulfilling a core value or core belief of a partner in the relationship,” says Marhya Kelsch, a licensed social worker and owner of Middleway Psychotherapy.
For example, ultimatums could be given over disagreements regarding:
“A healthy way to think about ultimatums is that they are the communication of a ‘last chance’ to one’s partner before it’s too late,” says Adam Haynes-LaMotte, a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington. “An ultimatum, as its namesake implies, is meant only as a final effort to communicate your needs to your partner.”
For example, if your partner is dealing with an untreated substance use disorder that’s negatively affecting your relationship and your mental or physical health, it might be appropriate to tell them you need them to seek treatment if you’re going to stay in a relationship with them.
However, ultimatums can become unhealthy very quickly — which is why most therapists and marriage counselors advise against them.
“Ultimatums can be unhealthy if they are used frequently in a relationship to control the bounds of a partner’s behavior,” says Haynes-LaMotte. “This can drastically undermine a partner’s feeling of safety and security in a relationship, which leads to an unhealthy dynamic.”
For example, explains Dalsing, ultimatums “can frequently be used as a form of emotional manipulation by those with narcissistic tendencies.”
“The common ‘if you loved me, you would do this for me’ makes people feel like they have no choice. It can create a toxic, isolating environment really quickly [because] it can reduce the sense of autonomy someone feels in their own decision making, which can result in them feeling controlled by their partner,” Dalsing says.
Ultimatums also tend not to be the best way to bring about meaningful change in a relationship, simply because they often come from desperation.
“Extreme by nature, ultimatums are indicative of relational burnout,” says Teng. “They are made when all other attempts to mitigate or resolve the issue have been exhausted. With no room for compromise, it becomes an all-or-nothing situation that only further reduces the relationship’s survival chances.”
Sometimes, it’s too difficult to repair a relationship once that point is reached.
“Once an ultimatum has been thrown out in the midst of fights [or] arguments, it is very hard to ‘take it back,’” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of “A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage.”
It can be important to remember that if you get an ultimatum from your partner, it’s tantamount to a “penalty call.”
“Someone feels as if their standard is being violated, and it’s that fundamental betrayal that is driving the hurt behind the ultimatum,” explains Teng.
As a result, the first step when you receive an ultimatum is to take a step back and try to figure out where it is coming from.
“Recognizing it, where it comes from, and why it’s a rule, to begin with, opens the door for your relational rules to be explored from an individual need level,” says Teng.
From there, it might be time for you to do some thinking about the relationship, what it means to you, and whether you want to stay in it.
Consider reflecting on their demand and whether it is realistic, attainable, and reasonable.
Is this ultimatum coming from a place of concern for you and your health, as might be the case with substance use disorder, for example? What will change in your relationship if you follow their ultimatum?
Dalsing says that if a client came to her after receiving an ultimatum, she’d ask them to consider their relationship history and previous communication patterns that may have been unhealthy and led to the ultimatum.
“If the ultimatum is requesting they disrespect themselves, their wants, their needs, their boundaries, or their values, I would ask them to deeply consider if this is the right relationship for them,” she says.
“If they determined they wanted to preserve the relationship, I would work with them in enhancing validating communication and ways that they can ensure they understand their partner’s boundaries in the future,” Dalsing says.
If ultimatums have become commonplace in your relationship — or if you feel like you’ve been given an unfair ultimatum but want to preserve the relationship — it can help to seek advice from a couples therapist.
A relationship expert can act as a mediator and help you both state your boundaries more healthily and work toward a compromise that works for both of you.
If you need help finding one, you can check out Psych Central’s Find a Therapist resource page.