Ultimatums Are Weak – So What Else Can You Do?
We’ve all been in that place where we just want to scream at someone: “If you don’t stop doing that, I’ll _______!!!” (Insert: leave, stop talking to you, tell, break up with you, fire you, quit, ground you, etc…)
Doesn’t matter if you’re a mother, father, partner, friend, coworker, boss… relationships are not always smooth, things don’t always go the way you want, and sometime you can be at a loss for how to get your point across or get your needs met.
I’ll be the first to say that there is the odd occasion where laying out an ultimatum is the best way to go and the right thing to do. Other times however, making an ultimatum is a bad idea that will only get you further away from the results you’re looking for. The trouble is, most of us – especially in the heat of the moment – don’t know what else to do.
I don’t know about you but growing up I was never taught how to communicate my feelings very well. I learned by watching the people around me and watching TV – daytime soaps, primetime dramas (Young & The Restless and Knots Landing people!!) – taught me everything I needed to know about relationships and communication. Obviously not effective resources if I want a happy and drama free life…
But I digress. Please excuse the tangent…
Because we don’t learn how to effectively communicate our feelings, and instead we learn that openly sharing leaves us vulnerable to getting hurt, when tough situations come up our instinct is to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. And at first blush, the ultimatum seems to be a perfect ‘weapon’ to accomplish that, get us out of the uncomfortable hot-seat and put the pressure back on the other person.
The thing is, ultimatums are often used in situations where they’re doing more harm then good. So how do you determine if an ultimatum is warranted or not?
First you need to identify what’s driving the urge to lay the smackdown.
If you are in a situation where a clear boundary (that has previously been effectively communicated and agreed upon by both parties) is in the process of or has been broken, then an ultimatum certainly fits. You’re basically reminding the other person of the consequences you laid out when you established and agreed on the boundary in the first place. Some examples would be: curfew for kids, clearly identified performance standards for employees, agreements around commitment and monogamy in spousal relationships.
The trouble is most of the time, ultimatums are used as a easy-out way of drawing a boundary – you don’t know how to draw a boundary with a powerful conversation or you’re afraid to have that conversation so you resort to an ultimatum instead. That tactic won’t get you what you want, I promise.
Boundaries that are created this way feel like rules… and you know what they say about rules – they’re made to be broken. Besides that, in interpersonal relationships, you don’t have the right to simply impose your boundaries on others. You need to give people a chance to understand what your boundaries are and then choose to abide by them, negotiate a different agreement, or decline them and deal with the results.
When an ultimatum is put upon someone in the heat of the moment, essentially as a way to tell them what they’re doing isn’t OK, you automatically put them on the defense. We all know how well that works in creating harmonious and easy interactions….
The other thing that’s going on in the background when you’re using an ultimatum as a way of establishing boundaries, is you’re putting the other person in a position of having to choose between defending themselves (which is a natural human instinct) or picking you. From that point on, you’ll always be wondering if they’re ‘following the rules’ because they want to or because of the threat you made with your ultimatum.
Questioning whether someone is engaging with you in a particular way out of obligation instead of because of their own freewill and choice, is a crappy way to feel in a relationship. It’s a set up for dysfunction and discord.
Let me give you an example:
Joe is always late. With just about 100% reliability, if you make plans with Joe, you know you’re going to be waiting for him. Whether he’s coming to your house, or meeting you out somewhere, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll be spending some quality alone-time with yourself waiting for his arrival.
You’ve talked to him about it to a degree. You’ve casually mentioned it. You’ve made snide remarks. You’ve even tried to be later than him in an effort to show him what it feels like – and he was either unfazed or was later than usual and you ended up arriving at the same time or before him anyway, and your plan to teach him a lesson blew up in your face.
You’re reaching a breaking point with him and you want to give him an ultimatum like: “show up on time or I’ll just leave” or “if you’re late, I’m making other plans” or some version of that. The thing is you don’t actually want to leave or make other plans, you just want Joe to respect your time. If you give him an ultimatum, your hope is that the ‘or else’ will be threat or punishment enough to stop him from doing what pisses you off – in this case his chronic tardiness.
Since you haven’t set a clear boundary in the past, one that Joe has understood AND agreed to, giving him an ultimatum puts him in a place where he’ll have to pick between you and him. Human instinct is self-preservation so that will have a big impact on what he decides to do – clean up his act and stop being late or not… Unfortunately even if he agrees in the moment to stop being late, it’s unlikely that his commitment will last. He would likely be agreeing with your terms simply to avoid a conflict or to ‘shut you up’…
As you can see, an ultimatum in this case is not going to give you the results you want – at least not in the long run.
So what do you do instead? Well… this is a case where a boundary has to be set. You need to have a conversation with Joe about being on time, why that’s important to you, the impact on you when he’s late, and get clear on whether he’s willing to agree to the boundary or not. If he’s not willing to agree to being on time, delivering an ultimatum won’t change his mind or his behaviour. Having a conversation about what works and what doesn’t, and then coming to a mutual agreement that works for both of you is a much more effective option.
Maybe there is room to negotiate. Maybe Joe needs flexibility around timeliness for reasons you’re unaware of. Maybe he’ll meet you halfway and be on time when you’re meeting alone in a public place but he wants flexibility when you’re meeting in a group setting or at one of your homes. Maybe he thought you were just being righteous and having this conversation changes his perspective about the impact on you when he’s late.
You’ll never know unless you have the conversation, and along with building trust, connection, and intimacy in the relationship, a conversation like this will keep you out of soap-opera-style-melodramas!
Having boundary conversations are never easy and they can be the difference maker in relationships!! If you need to figure out how to have boundary conversations you might enjoy this article:
And if you want to know how to deal with a crossed boundary and get things back to good, you can check out this article for some ideas:
If you’ve read all the articles in the world and you’re still struggling to put boundaries in place, or maybe even figure out what boundaries you need to set, it’s time we talked! Send me a quick note and we can set up a free consultation call and set you up for making your life as kick-ass as you deserve!
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