Giving your partner ultimatums doesn't build intimacy. Instead, it can push them away.
- The Netflix series "The Ultimatum" shows couples presented with an ultimatum to stay together.
- Experts say communication clear boundaries works better.
If you're following reality TV or the aftermath of celebrity splits, you've probably heard about the potential harms of so-called "therapy speak." The criticism has to do with using or overusing terms like "gaslighting," "boundaries," or "emotional triggers" as a way of laying on a guilt trip or trying to control another person's behavior.
The Netflix series "The Ultimatum" deals with this aspect of relationships by showing what can happen when you present your significant other with an ultimatum. Season one of the reality show featured eight couples who were on the brink of getting engaged and had to decide whether to get married or move on.
While this proposition makes for interesting television viewing, do ultimatums have a place in real-life relationships? Mental health experts share the difference between boundaries and ultimatums and why this distinction matters.
Boundaries help you communicate your needs
Learning to create and maintain healthy boundaries includes the ones you set for yourself. If you're stressed about money, you can improve your spending habits by cutting out morning lattes or packing your own lunch.
You can also set personal boundaries related to your time, for example, by deciding not to respond to emails after work. In these instances, you're creating conditions to support your well-being or removing yourself from situations where you might be tempted to cross your boundaries.
Another reason for setting boundaries is establishing what makes you feel comfortable in a relationship. If your partner has a habit of canceling plans at the last minute, you might feel like they're prioritizing their friendships over your relationship, Daryl Appleton, a New York City therapist, and Fortune 500 executive coach, told Insider.
She suggested addressing your partner by saying: "I don't love it when you cancel our plans to go out with your friends. In my relationships I need us to have consistency that, if we agree to do something, we stick to our plan and not change it at the last second."
Communicating what you need in the relationship allows you to be fair to yourself. At the same time, you're being fair to your partner by not assuming that they know what you need. So, one way to think about boundaries is in terms of "shared fairness," Appleton said.
The only person you can control is yourself
Couples need to have clear expectations concerning how they treat each other to feel safe in a relationship. For example, if your partner vents to you nonstop about work, a reasonable expectation is that they will speak to you in a respectful manner and take time to ask about your day.
"Healthy boundaries are firm but flexible, meaning that they might shift based on the situation," Elizabeth Fedrick, a licensed counselor who owns Evolve Counseling & Behavioral Health Services in Phoenix, told Insider. If your partner was recently fired, discussing their job search might take up more of your dinner conversations than usual.
Unlike boundaries which allow you to negotiate a compromise, ultimatums present an either-or situation. An example is telling your significant other: If you don't stop going out with your friends, I will break up with you. "The only choice you have is one set for you by the other party," Appleton said.
As you can probably guess, most people don't respond well to ultimatums because they tend to come across as controlling or threatening. A partner might comply with an ultimatum out of fear but won't necessarily take steps to change in the way their partner is desiring.
"Whereas healthy boundaries are about keeping yourself safe by staying in control of yourself, an ultimatum is about trying to keep yourself safe by staying in control of someone else," Fedrick explained. "Because ultimatums are by nature demanding, they can backfire and create more harm than good in a relationship."
There are situations where an ultimatum might be necessary
If you're hoping for a long-term commitment from your partner, giving them an ultimatum might instead push them to break off the relationship. So, it can be helpful to have a conversation upfront about what you both need from the relationship.
Afterward, if your partner repeatedly violates your boundaries by lying, breaking promises, or calling or texting excessively, you can assert that if this behavior continues, you will not be able to stay in the relationship, Fedrick said. But this isn't a sustainable strategy "as most people would revert to their previous behavior if they only made a change in response to a threat," she added.
Ultimatums are meant for situations when a person's behavior is harmful to you or your relationship. Because people sometimes misuse this term, ultimatums get a bad reputation, Appleton said. In fact, "we need ultimatums," she said, explaining how we use these either-or scenarios to correct someone's behavior.
For instance, parents will often say, "If you hit your bother again, you'll have to go to your room." At work, you'll sign a handbook, agreeing that certain transgressions can put you at risk of disciplinary action. As Appleton explained, "We need to have a line in the sand for clarity, not control."
What your partner doesn't say — or do — is equally harmful
Aside from ultimatums, some people use subtle techniques to control their partner. They might give you the silent treatment or turn away when you try to give them a hug or hold their hand.
Fedrick explained that what makes something emotionally manipulative is the intent behind the behavior. It makes sense that you wouldn't feel warm and fuzzy toward your partner if you're upset with them or in the middle of an argument.
When you withhold love and affection as a way of dealing with conflict, this is considered a form of emotional manipulation, Fedrick said. "It sends a message that someone is only worthy of love and affection when they are behaving in ways you have dictated."
Even if your partner has no intention of ending the relationship, you might sacrifice your feelings to avoid conflict. "This constant state of walking on eggshells and never knowing if your partner is going to leave can damage your relationship and your psyche," Appleton said.
You can learn to express your needs in a healthy way
It's important to be open and honest when communicating your needs to a partner. "Make sure you are both in a calm headspace and an appropriate environment for having a serious conversation," Fedrick said. For example, you can say "There's something I'd like to talk about. Is now a good time?"
Once your partner agrees to speak, you can remind them about past occasions when you felt supported. Try to be specific about what you need from your partner, starting with "I" statements:
- "I feel hurt when you pull away when I try to give you a hug. Are you open to talking through this with me?"
- "I am struggling with how upset you seem about your job. If you're willing, I would like to work together to find a solution?"
Appleton said that, in addition to stating the problem, it helps if you can explain its effect on you and why it's essential to fix it. An example would be saying:
"I feel like an afterthought when you cancel our plans to go out with your friends. I never want to feel unseen in a relationship with some I care about."
Similarly, it's wise to avoid using "you" statements which can come across as blaming such as "you never listen to me" or "you always take his side." Being critical, demanding, or condescending can erode trust and safety, Fedrick said.
If you've contemplated going to couples therapy, keep in mind that "you do not need a problem to start going," Appleton said. "Communication is a skill that many of us need help cultivating." She recommended using workbooks, conversation cards, or prompts to help you and your partner practice communicating your needs and limits.
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