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How to Issue an Ultimatum

During heated arguments, couples spew out all sorts of ineffective communication. Desperation, frustration and irritation explode into yelling, insults and threat. And then, there is the ultimatum. “It’s my way or the highway.”

An ultimatum is defined as a “final, uncompromising set of terms issued by one party in a dispute.” The difference between a threat and an ultimatum is that a threat intends to intimidate the other person into compliance whereas an ultimatum is strictly a declaration of terms. Threats may involve all sorts of menacing remarks, including ultimatum-like statements: “If you don’t do this, then I will do that.” But while threats often are empty, with no follow-through, a true ultimatum is the end of the road.


Ultimatums can be viewed as being manipulative, especially if they are thrown out on a frequent and casual basis. They pressure people into uncomfortable zones. This type of coercion is never good for establishing trusting bonds in a marriage. The goal of a true ultimatum is not to gain your mate’s compliance or to get him to change his behavior. You never want to take away power and free will from another person. But the ultimatum states the terms that you agree to live by. He can take it or leave it as he chooses. You have the right to be clear about the standards you want to live by. This is your life, too.

The Effective Ultimatum

The underlying motive in issuing an ultimatum is not so much demanding behavior change but standing firm in your convictions to live the life you choose. “I love you and want to share a life with you but I cannot go down that path with you when I have children to raise.” “I want to help you but if you don’t want to help yourself, I can’t go down with you like that.” “I love you but I will not stand by you if you…knowingly commit crimes, take drugs, hurt me or the kids, become unfaithful, etc.”

The effective ultimatum…

* offers reasonable choices. Reflect to see if your terms are reasonable and achievable. It is unreasonable to ask him to cut his family out of his life. To ask him to change his life’s deepest ambitions or a key personality trait that makes him who he is.
* is unwavering. An ultimatum becomes an idle threat if you waffle on your terms so be sure you can accept your own terms. You have to live with the decision, too. Don’t threaten divorce if you don’t want a divorce.
* provides win-win solutions for both involved parties. Terms must have desirable benefits each person. Giving up something has to be for the giver’s good.
*is reserved for serious matters. Not over leaving dirty socks on the floor, forgetting to pay the bills, irritating friends or the dog’s bad behavior. Serious moral or ethical infractions or differences, and only you can decide what your terms are.

Try your best not to use ultimatums to force him to choose between loving you and whatever you are rejecting in his life. “It’s me or the dog, your family, your job, your addictions.” Struggling with our weaknesses and imperfections isn’t about not loving or respecting you or your marriage. Addicts, for example, are powerless over their compulsions and are wracked with guilt and misery when told they “must not” love their families very much if they can’t give up their addictions. It is unfair and inaccurate to compare love for their family with a physical and psychological disorder.

Instead take a different approach: “I get that you love me and that is must be hard because you feel like you have to choose between me and ___. I’m not asking you to change or telling you what to choose. I am only telling you that I respect myself enough to know what I can or can’t live with that in my life. I can’t live with ____. I’m sorry and I hope you can decide if you need to find a partner who can live with that or if there is a way we can work this out.” Then, allow the other person to decide if he can fit into your world or not.

Ultimatums do have a place in relationship negotiation. If there are clear and certain lines you never will want crossed, it is important to state that. In my life, however, I have found that love blurs those hard lines all the time. So I caution you to employ an ultimatum strictly as a last resort, when you know that giving up your marriage is an option you are willing to risk.

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