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Relationship Rules - Why Ultimatums Never Work

Updated on July 24, 2014


"If you walk out of that door, don't bother coming back!" How many times have those words been uttered in the heat of the moment? Almost immediately after they fall out of our mouths, we wish that we could take them back. The problem with ultimatums is that they're often uttered when we're at an emotional hot-spot - and once they're let out into the open, they're practically impossible to take back. Ultimatums do not have a place in real, healthy relationships, and they almost always backfire on the person who uttered them. Learning to avoid ultimatums and to focus on positive and productive communication ultimately leads to healthier relationships, while establishing a foundation of respect and open communication.

Ultimatums Don't Have the Impact You Think They Do

If you find yourself exasperated to the breaking point in an argument with your significant other, an ultimatum may seem like a last-ditch effort to get what you want. Unfortunately, however, ultimatums ultimately aren't about you owning your own power - it's about handing all of the power in your relationship over to your partner. The problem is that you're doing it unknowingly.

When you tell your partner exactly what you want and drop an ultimatum on their heads, you are giving them the power. You're giving them the option to give you what you want, and you've laid all of your cards on the table. You're not holding anything back, and they have you exactly where they want you.

The problem with ultimatums is ultimately that most people who utter them are unprepared for the potential consequences. No one thinks that their partner is really going to walk out on their relationship over a stupid fight - but many times they do. If you put an ultimatum on the table (or throw it in your partner's face) you have to be prepared for the fact that they may just take you up on it. When words come out before you have the time to think about them, you haven't had the time to really consider what it will mean if your partner takes you up on the threat. Then you'll be left with nothing, and you'll almost always regret the choice to put that ultimatum out into the open.


Your Turn

If you've ever used an ultimatum in a fight, have you regretted it?

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Before Dropping the Bomb:

If you and your partner are having an argument, there are a few things that you should consider before an ultimatum ever becomes a realistic option.

1. Focus on the facts:
Are you arguing about something that is worth the demise of your relationship? Many relationships experience difficulties over innocuous situations. If the fight began because your partner left their socks on the floor instead of putting them in the clothes hamper, it's probably not worth throwing your entire relationship out of the window. Consider the gravity of the situation at hand, and think about the potential havoc that the loss of your relationship over something relatively trivial will have on your mental and emotional well being in the future.

2. Attempt Communication, not Argumentation:
Communication is one of the essential aspects of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Things can get heated incredibly quickly, and tempers (and emotions) are often running high. If you feel things escalating unnecessarily, take a step back and examine what's really going on beneath the surface. Have you found yourself in a screaming match over socks? Is it really that important? Don't spend the moments that your partner is talking to think of a witty retort. Focus on what they're actually saying. Imagine how you would feel if the shoe was on the other foot. Repeat their points back to them if you're uncertain to make sure that you're really understanding what they're attempting to convey, and don't let your emotions run away with you.

3. Take a Break:
If things are escalating way too quickly, respectfully take a break from the fight and catch your breath. Allow your emotions to simmer temporarily, and try to get to the bottom of what's REALLY bothering you. If the argument is over something minor, ask yourself if you're holding onto resentments from previous disagreements. Be as honest with yourself as possible so that you can, in turn, be honest with your partner when you come back to the conversation. More than anything, however, make sure that you DO come back to the conversation. If you don't clear the air, negativity can build and gain a foothold in your relationship and lead to more problems later on. Don't leave the room in a huff, while muttering curses under your breath. Don't slam the door. Don't be disrespectful. Just explain calmly that you're feeling overwhelmed and that you need to take a moment's pause to catch your breath and think things through.

4. Don't Lose Sight of What Really Matters:
No matter what your argument is about or what's happening underneath it all, you need to stay focused on who you're arguing with. This is a person that you're emotionally invested in - someone that you've shared your life with. This is someone that you love. So treat them like a person that you love. Stay respectful, no matter how heated the conversation becomes. Try not to let your walls go up as defensive mechanisms. Be open to listening to what they have to say, and don't be too proud to admit when and if you've made a mistake. Owning up to our own shortcomings is never an easy process, but it is a necessary one if you and your partner are committed to making your relationship work. It's easy to say things that you don't mean at the spur of the moment, but you don't want to be forced to live with regret if you let your mouth run away with you.


In the Heat of the Moment

sincerely listen
interrupt or just wait for your turn to speak
ask for clarification
make unnecessary assumptions
ask questions
jump to conclusions
use "I" statements
use blame


Learning to communicate effectively within your relationships is often a life-long process. It's not a skill that is automatically developed once you grow up and become an adult. Some of us have to work on it throughout the entire course of our lives. But it's not an impossible goal. Conflict within relationships is never easy, but you can get past the rough patches and move on to the good ones with a lot of patience, a lot of love and a commitment to not repeat past mistakes, hold grudges or live in the past.

Once the conflict is over, make sure to have a conversation with your partner and reassure them of your feelings for them. Conflict makes all of us feel a bit insecure. It's a natural reaction to arguments. Recognizing that both of you are in it for the long haul and that you're committed to being better towards each other is the first step to making that goal a reality.


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