Early on in “The Ultimatum,” Netflix’s latest dumpster fire of a dating show, host Nick Lachey warns contestants about the central conceit of the show.
“Psychologists agree that an ultimatum is not a good way to get somebody else to do what you want,” he tells the couples, all of whom are there because one partner wants to get married or the other is not so sure.
But since this is ultimately a TV show about ultimatums, Lachey follows up with a caveat: Ultimatums, he tells the couples, are “the best way to get you the answers you need on a timetable you can live with.”
With all due respect to the iconic ’00s boy-bander, psychologists and mental health practitioners we spoke to weren’t as anti-ultimatum as he claims.
“While I agree that using the word ‘ultimatum’ is a bad idea, I don’t agree that setting limits or boundaries in a relationship is bad. In fact, it’s crucial ― and I believe nearly all psychologists agree with that,” Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, told HuffPost
Smith specializes in the treatment of men ― many of them in long-term relationships ― and says he hears the word “ultimatum” with some frequency in his office.
“It’s often used to motivate guys to get help, like, ‘I gave him an ultimatum, go to counseling or I’m filing for divorce,’” Smith said. “Unfortunately, ultimatums are a trigger for almost everybody, not just the men I treat.”
A successful ultimatum hinges on being brought up with tact and sensitivity. Below, Smith and other couples therapists share how to diplomatically give one to your partner.
Try to look at it as setting boundaries, not giving an ultimatum.
Perception is everything and the perception of the word “ultimatum” is pretty grim. No one wants to be on the receiving end of an ultimatum, so don’t actually use the word ultimatum when you talk to your partner. Reframe it as a choice and something that will ultimately be healthy for the both of you, said Britt Goh, an associate clinical social worker at Wellspace SF.
“When I think about an ultimatum…it strikes me as just an acute boundary,” she told HuffPost. “We’re always practicing, setting, and negotiating smaller boundaries in healthy relationships: After a long week, you might tell your partner on a Friday night, ’I would prefer to do something more low-key tonight instead of a fancy restaurant because I feel tired.”
With an ultimatum, the boundary is just more weighty. It’s coming out of a deep and urgent desire for change in a relational dynamic that isn’t working for you any longer, Goh said, and there’s nothing wrong with needing answers.
Make sure you’re both in the right headspace to have the conversation.
If you’re feeling uneasy and are impatient for an answer like the couples on the Netflix show are, you may want to broach this conversation as soon as possible. Hold off until you’re calm and you and your partner are both in the right headspace to talk, said Kristin Davin, a psychologist in New York City.
“Much of the time with conversations like this our emotions take over,” she said. “Decide on a good time to talk about things that’s good for each person, a time when each partner has the emotional bandwidth. And know that this conversation is not a one and done! It will likely be a series of conversations.”
Use “I” language, not “you” statements.
Try to avoid placing blame when you talk to your partner about your impatience with where things stand. To achieve that, use “I” statements, instead of “you” statements.
For instance, say something like, “I feel like I need a promise like marriage, because it makes me feel more stable. Like I can build a life with you without feeling afraid that it will end the next time we get in a disagreement.”
That will likely go down much easier than saying, “I want a ring. Why haven’t you proposed yet?” (A “you” statement.”)
That first statement could kick off a conversation not just about marriage, but about what it means to feel secure and safe in a partnership, which, in short, builds trust, Goh explained.
“Much of what we work on in couples therapy is phrasing individual experiences of each partner in a way that feels true and the other person can hear and integrate,” she said. “That’s how understanding and healing happen.”
Don’t make it a threat. Make it a choice.
Smith, the therapist who works mostly with men, said to assure your partner you’re giving them a choice, not telling them what to do.
“It’s a ‘this or that’ proposition — you can choose this or choose that,” he said. “It’s not a threat, just a choice. And you’re not telling them what they have to choose either.”
Be prepared for your partner to say, “No, I can’t agree to that.”
Before issuing your boundary (remember, that’s what we’re calling your ultimatum now), you need to accept that your S.O. may not be able to meet your demand, said Samantha Rodman, a clinical psychologist and the host of the “The Dr. Psych Mom Show” podcast.
“You need to be able to follow through, meaning that you have done the internal work, possibly with your own therapist or a close friend, to be at peace with leaving if your partner doesn’t do what you want or need,” she said.
Don’t issue an ultimatum for just anything.
Is it annoying that your partner leaves hair in the shower drain and could use a lot of improvement in their dishwashing technique? Yes, but you wouldn’t issue an ultimatum over that.
“You can’t issue an ultimatum in order to manipulate someone over small things,
Rodman said. “If something is truly a dealbreaker, and you have deeply introspected about why it is a dealbreaker for you, then proceed.”
Listen deeply to your partner after you issue the ultimatum and ask questions to learn about their experience.
It may be tempting after setting a strong, purposeful boundary like an ultimatum to argue about it, keep your defenses up or steamroll your partner ― all of which happens among the couples on the Netflix show. Try to stay clear of that in your own life, Goh said.
“If the purpose of your boundary is to, again, change a relational dynamic that isn’t working, why would you do your same old sh*t, right?” she said. “Don’t just think of the ultimatum as ‘for them,’ think of it as an opportunity to reflect on how you’ve been relating, caring for, and loving your partner. You’ll likely have to change as well.”
It takes all parties in a relationship to create something healthy and thriving, Goh said, not just one person to “do” what the other “says.”
“That would be codependent and power-and-control which we like to avoid at all costs,” she said.
Stating things without being defensive or overly critical can open the door to a deeper and more meaningful conversation: Relationship-defining discussions that allow each person to share where they stand with the relationship, what’s holding them back and what their unspoken fears are, Davin said.
“You want each person to gain a different or greater perspective on where their partner is or isn’t and then decide for themselves what this means for them,” the psychologist said. “Honesty here ― for both people ― is absolutely critical.”
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