People love to toss around the word ultimatum. I hear it in regards to relationships all of the time. One person says, “if you don’t stop treating me this way then I’ll leave the relationship.” Often the response to that is, “that’s an ultimatum. I don’t like ultimatums!” I find that answer curious because who does? After all, the demand is only being made because the person wants you to behave in a way that you don’t seem to want to behave. Why would you like being forced to make a choice?
But are ultimatums really such a bad thing? I mean beyond the fact that they cause us to make difficult choices? I don’t think they are. In fact, I think ultimatums are incredibly important. One definition of the word ultimatum is “a final demand or statement of terms, the rejection of which will result in retaliation or a breakdown in relations.”
That definition is exactly what we tell people about setting boundaries. Articulate your expectations of how you want to be treated and if someone doesn’t treat you that way there should be consequences. If things are bad enough, that consequence should be ending the relationship (a breakdown in relations).
The world ultimatum has gotten a negative connotation. But the reality is we make, or should be making, ultimatums all of the time. Many of them go unspoken but they still exist. For example, if you become a serial killer I’ll leave the relationship. If you abuse me, I’ll leave the relationship. If you continue to intentionally humiliate me in front of friends and family, I’ll leave the relationship. Those are all ultimatums and most of us would agree that they are ones that should be made.
Sometimes ultimatums aren’t about right or wrong. They may just be about difference. If two people want something different in their relationship, sometimes something has to give. What if two people are in love and discussing marriage but for one having children is a must and for the other it is an absolute no? One person may finally have to make an ultimatum – If you insist on having children then I must leave the relationship. Neither person is inherently right or wrong…they are just different. But that is still an ultimatum by definition.
Don’t get me wrong. I think people can use ultimatums badly. Ultimatums imply that there is no room for negotiation. And on some issues there shouldn’t be. But in a good relationship and for the majority of issues, it is more productive to allow for negotiation and compromise…at least at first. Negotiation and compromise don’t always bring results. But they do make people feel like they are in a partnership. It can make an ultimatum easier to swallow if it is clear other options have been exhausted.
Ultimatums serve a purpose. Be smart about how you use them but use them. And the next time someone tries to make you feel bad by accusing you of making an ultimatum, just say, “Yes I did!”