advice

Should I give my boyfriend an ultimatum?

My boyfriend makes new female friends all the time, and he spends a lot more time texting them than he does his guy friends. I don’t think he’s cheating. I just feel uncomfortable with all the women he has in his life. I want to give him an ultimatum: it’s either them or me. But my girlfriends tell me ultimatums are never a good idea. I don’t know what to do. He doesn’t seem to stop even though I say it bothers me. Is it really that bad to give an ultimatum?


I get ultimatums. They don't need to be so terrible if we slowed down and thought about what they really are. An ultimatum is basically an expressed boundary with consequences attached. What good are boundaries with your boyfriend if you don’t tell them what they are? What use are they if you don’t respond with action when they’re violated?


Ultimatums are also a source of information. They inform others of possible consequences to their decisions, allowing them to objectively weigh the pros and cons. Your boyfriend has a choice: text other women or stop. If he doesn’t know what will happen if he continues violating your boundaries, how can he make an informed, rational decision about what to do? In a way, giving him an ultimatum is like helping him out.


Ultimatums get a bad rap. They help with rational decision-making. And that's a good thing.


Except most people aren’t rational most of the time. They react to ultimatums as threats because ultimatums involve one option and one negative outcome: “Stop texting or I’ll leave.” This kind of scenario deprives the irrational brain of its sense of agency even though, in reality, that agency is there (he has the option to break up with you). Limited agency means a lack of control - which causes anxiety and resentment.


So, give him control.


Frame the ultimatum as a set of options, each with positive outcomes. His first option could be to continue texting anyone he likes. The positive outcome would be total freedom. His second option would be to choose putting his time and energy into you rather than into texting other women. The positive outcome would be not losing you.


Positive trade-offs make decision making easier: between freedom and having you, neither option looks terrible. Comparing two negative possible outcomes can feel crappy and is likely to make him put the decision off.


Putting a time limit on the decision can also be helpful. It can ensure that you won’t be sitting in anxious uncertainty for too long, but also, time limits force people’s brains to shift from weighing pros and cons to focusing only on dealbreakers. Once dealbreakers are revealed, decision-making can go more quickly.


Ultimately, you have to be prepared for his choice. An ultimatum doesn’t really work as a scare or pressure tactic; eventually there’s blowback, in the form of an outburst or even a toxic relationship (if he chooses to stay). You’ve given him a choice, which has given him a sense of control over his future. But you’ve framed the choice so your boundaries won’t be violated. It's an ultimatum but nicely put.


Now all you have to do is be willing to walk away if he chooses to continue texting other women.


If you don’t walk away, you’ll reinforce his behavior. You’ll signal to him that you’re actually ok with him doing whatever he’s doing, despite what you say. Over time, as your boundaries continue to be violated, you could grow more anxious and miserable. Your doubt over what these other women mean to him will likely exacerbate. Who knows... he may even cross the line (I mean... why is he talking to all these women?). If you don't stick to your boundaries, the relationship will likely end anyway, and under worse circumstances. Or, you'll be in a toxic relationship.


Which is why at the heart of any “ultimatum” is a conviction. So, make sure you have that conviction first. Then give him the options. The rest is up to him.