How to give your partner an ultimatum

Frame your ultimatum as a decision, and you may learn what you need to in order to make the right choice.

Ultimatums in relationships get a bad rap. I get it: they’re often used as tactics of manipulation. “Do what I want or I’m leaving!” Coercion doesn’t sound pretty.

But the desire to hand out an ultimatum doesn’t always come from a toxic place. Sometimes ultimatums are necessary. Sometimes (and I’ve been there) we set boundaries with our partners that are important, necessary, and reasonable, but aren’t respected. What can I say? Some people take time to come around to respecting other peoples’ boundaries. Some people never come around. But we still see value in being with these people, because they have a lot to offer.

Enter the ultimatum. When your reasonable needs aren’t being met in your relationship, even after many attempts of expressing them, you may need to do more than just ask, or argue, or beg. You may need to put some teeth behind what you’re asking for.

Ultimatums, when used in a non-toxic way, can be an expression of boundaries with teeth attached. “Please give me what I need to survive in this relationship, or I will have to leave.” There’s a consequence, whether that consequence in your case would be leaving or doing something else.

The problem is that some of our partners may not hear it that way. They might hear coercion, toxic ultimatum. What can I say? They have human brains.

So, what do you do? How do you handle a situation where you absolutely have a legitimate and reasonable need that your partner is not responding to, and where the typical ultimatum isn’t being met well? You frame your ultimatum as a decision that your partner has the privilege to make. Why? Because people crave autonomy. They need to feel in control of their own lives and making decisions for themselves is one way to experience that control. Take that autonomy away from them and they could short circuit. In fact, I’d argue that people would rather choose the wrong decision than be forced into the right one. The need for autonomy is that important. So, give your partner a choice.

Here’s an example. M is dating someone who constantly flirts with other people. M has expressed discomfort over this, again and again, and has described how the flirting feels (which is terrible). But nothing happens. Nothing changes. M feels insecure in the relationship, full of doubt over whether the relationship will end at any moment – the moment when the flirting crosses a line.

This is a legitimately crappy place to be, not to mention that uncertainty is a relationship killer.

M could express the need for certainty again, but chances are it would go nowhere. So instead, M might try architecting her ultimatum as a choice. Instead of saying, “Stop flirting with these other people or I’ll leave!” M could try saying the following:

“You flirt with other people, and I get that this is what you prefer. You have a right to do what makes you happy. On the other hand, you could stop. That’s an option too.

If you think about it, there are pros and cons to each choice. If you stop flirting, our relationship will likely flourish. We’ll make it over the long haul. And that seems to me to be a good thing. If you continue to flirt, you risk losing me, because the uncertainty and insecurity I feel because of your flirting is a relationship killer.

I’m leaving this up to you. You decide which way you want to go. I’m just informing you of where my head is at, so you know the potential outcomes of each option and so you make the choice that’s best.”

Then, you let them make that choice.

This could be difficult, because you want so badly for them to choose you over choosing to flirt with other people. You want them to realize how terrible it would be to lose you, to lose the relationship.

But they may not realize this. Maybe you’re not the right fit for them and they can’t admit that to you or to themselves. Or maybe they’re humanly irrational and can’t make good decisions to save their life. Which means you have to be prepared to make good on the consequence. If you honestly can’t handle the flirting, then don’t force yourself to handle it, and let the relationship fall apart. Or end it. Giving your partner an option means having to accept their choice.

What’s the point, you might ask, if you can’t get them to see how hurtful and unreasonable they’re being? The point is this: you get access to new and very important information about your partner, information that you need to make the best decision for yourself. You have power in your partnership, power to own the decisions that you need to make to get to where you personally need to go in your life. Own that power – not for the sake of the relationship but for yourself.

Your relationship should give you as much as you give it. This is the sociological norm of reciprocity that undergirds successful relationships. If you’re not getting what you need, and your needs aren’t unreasonable, then it won’t matter how badly you want the relationship to work or what you’re willing to do to make that happen. Some things are too out of your control to control.

If your partner isn’t making the choice that will allow your relationship to thrive, then the next choice is up to you. Take it.