We Asked a Licensed Marriage Therapist: Should You Set a Relationship Ultimatum?

Here’s how they can be beneficial.

Couple sitting on couch in their new home, using digital tablet


Couple sitting on couch in their new home, using digital tablet

Photo by: Westend61


Look, we’ve all wondered if someone else is on the same page in a relationship; it’s a huge struggle that nearly every couple has faced at one point or another. These feelings, along with questions about big life choices or the relationship’s future, can often lead to one partner imposing an ultimatum. While that’s usually frowned upon, there are plenty of logical reasons why this could be the move. I spoke with Anita Chlipala, a licensed marriage and family therapist, to find out why people impose relationship ultimatums and if they’re ever the right choice.

First and foremost, Chlipala has heard all sorts of reasons why ultimatums are imposed—from biological clocks to general self-preservation—but I also wanted to know if there are tell-tale signs that the relationship is heading toward an ultimatum.

“I’ve worked with clients, or with clients who have dated people, who have a strict timeline of how a relationship should run: you date, become exclusive, you are in a relationship for a year or two, get engaged for a year and then get married,” Chlipala said. “So, it’s not uncommon to hear of an ultimatum around the one or two-year mark. I am not an advocate of this timeline.”

It’s completely understandable, especially as people head into their 30s and start to worry about their biological clocks. According to Chlipala, it’s common for her to see ultimatums imposed as the conversation of children comes up.

“They want to know whether it’s worth sticking around or if they should find someone who wants to be with them and shares their dream of having children, too,” Chlipala said.

While no one wants to be the person to impose an ultimatum, there are plenty of reasons why it can be reasonable. Chlipala even agrees that they can be beneficial. But, if you’re hoping to set an ultimatum in place, be careful about how you deliver the news.

“Tone is everything,” Chlipala said. “Don’t say, ‘You need to do X, otherwise I am breaking up with you.’ Don’t threaten. No one wants to feel controlled or like they lack power in a situation.”

This can be a fine line, especially when the entire conversation can feel like a threat. But it doesn’t have to go down that way. “Instead, be very gentle and talk about what is important to you and why,” Chlipala suggested. “You have every right to express your needs and wants, but how you do it will affect how the conversation will go and perhaps whether you will still have a relationship at the end of it.”

Finally, ultimatums can bring successful outcomes and Chlipala believes that there are instances wherein they can be helpful. “An ultimatum can give a person the incentive to take action,” she said. “People can be complacent in a relationship and take their partner for granted.”

Chlipala remembers a male client who came to her after his girlfriend gave him an ultimatum. He didn’t want to get married and it was about to cost him his relationship, but it had nothing to do with his girlfriend. “He feared not having a life, never seeing his friends and being boring,” Chlipala said. “Working through his fears gave him a sense of control and peace, and not only is he happily married, but he’s also a father now.”

While relationships can occasionally benefit from ultimatums, Chlipala wants couples to know that the way they communicate could keep them from ever having to turn to that route.

You want to make sure that you are voicing your needs in a positive way versus as negative remarks or accusations,” Chlipala said. “Your partner may not “get it” the first couple of times, so it’s O.K. if you have to make a few attempts at what you’re looking for or want. Be vulnerable.”

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