Ultimatums In Relationships: Do They Really Work?

Giving an ultimatum may feel right in the moment, but it can spell disaster for your relationship.

Reviewed by Michele Waldron, Psy.D, LADC-I, CSCT Michele Waldron Michele WaldronPsy.D, LADC-I, CSCT facebook_iconlinkedin_iconinsta_icon
Written by , Integrated MA, Certified Relationship Coach Sneha Tete Integrated MA, Certified Relationship Coach linkedin_icon Experience: 4 years
Edited by , MA (English) Asmita De MA (English) Experience: 3 years
Fact-checked by , MA Gracia Odile MA Experience: 3 years

Ultimatums are demands or terms put forward as a last resort, backed up by threats in the case of noncompliance towards it. It is different from setting healthy boundaries that build the structure of a healthy relationship.

Ultimatums in a relationship can be both negative and positive. But, how to distinguish between them? What effect do they have on a relationship? We are here to help you get to the bottom of things.

Negative ultimatums are unhealthy for a relationship. They disturb the peace of your partner by making them go through varied emotions. Instead, one should have an elaborate discussion with their partner to sort out issues. In this article, we have discussed if ultimatums could work and how they affect your relationship in the long run. Continue reading to know more.

Do Relationship Ultimatums Work?

Do relationship ultimatums work?
Image: Shutterstock

It depends on what type of ultimatums you are giving to your partner. Giving ultimatums immediately after a heated argument may seem the right option at that moment, but it may backfire and strain the relationship further. Does that mean you should avoid giving ultimatums? No. If your intentions are good, giving positive ultimatums when both of you are calm may reinforce a healthy bond. Here are some positive aspects of ultimatums that are healthy in a relationship.

Positive Aspects Of Ultimatums That Work In A Relationship

Ultimatums that work in a relationship
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1. Your Issues Are Addressed

Keeping issues aside for the sake of maintaining peace in your relationship does not always work. It may cause resentment and destroy the relationship. Be completely honest about your needs and expectations from the relationship. In such cases, an ultimatum might help in addressing your issue directly. It often forces things to be addressed and is hard to ignore. For instance, if you and your partner are working professionals and your partner always spend their weekend with their friends despite promising to spend time with you or help you with household chores, you may give an ultimatum. You may say, “If we do not have plans this weekend, I’m going over to my mother’s, and you can take care of the house and have takeout dinner.”

2. It Stops You From Wasting Your Time

When a couple is unwilling to find common ground about an issue, the relationship hits a dead end. A good thing about throwing an ultimatum is that you are more likely to get a quick response, and there is usually a deadline. If both are willing to maintain the relationship, you will work towards a resolution within the deadline. If not, you will not be shooting arrows in the dark and dragging the issue unnecessarily.

3. It Sets Clear Conditions

When an issue arises, and you try to communicate with your partner, they may walk away to avoid conflicts or arguments. They may even take it for granted. An ultimatum works as a deciding factor as it lays out what needs to be done to keep the relationship going for one partner. For instance, your partner may tend to avoid discussion on serious issues. Giving an ultimatum saying, “resolve the current issue before proceeding to any other conversation,” will send a clear message to your partner that you are not letting the issue simmer for long.

4. Ultimatums Can Promote Mutual Understanding

One of the most significant aspects of ultimatums is improving your relationship by promoting mutual understanding, an important pillar in any relationship. If your partner does something that may impact your relationship, the best way to solve this is to communicate, find common ground, and stick to it. This is not possible if there is no mutual understanding. You can give an ultimatum to your partner that you know they will accept if they genuinely want to work on the relationship.

protip_icon Trivia
The word ‘ultimatum’ originated from the Latin word ‘ultimus’, which means ‘extreme’ or ‘final’.

5. Ultimatums Improves Comfort Level In The Relationship

Ultimatums might not always be pressurizing or a deal-breaker in a relationship. It is an agreed-upon adjustment to maintain a healthy relationship. When you vent out your feelings to your partner, it makes you feel lighthearted and comfortable. Both of you get an idea of each other’s expectations from the relationship, which ultimately improves your comfort level.

6. They Help Define Healthy Boundaries

If you feel that things are going overboard in your relationship, setting healthy boundaries may help. In such cases, giving ultimatums play a crucial role. For instance, if your partner is super busy and barely manages time for the family, you can give him an ultimatum saying “I feel burnt out juggling with work, home, and the kids. If we can’t divide our duties, I’m going to pack my bags and take a trip to Hawaii.”

However, it is also important to understand when and how to convey the message without hurting them or being rude. Talk to your partner when they are calm and ready to listen to you. Try to be patient and calm yourself as ultimatums are a hard pill to swallow. This will help set healthy boundaries.

Give positive ultimatums when both the partners are willing to listen to each other. It helps to open up, speak your mind, set expectations, and work on the flaws to maintain a healthy balance in the relationship.

However, frequent use of ultimatums conveyed in the wrong way can strain a relationship with time. Let’s have a look at negative ultimatums that you should never use with your partner.

Relationship Ultimatums That Can Be Destructive

Destructive relationship ultimatums
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1. Asking Your Partner To Change Something Important To Them

Every individual has their personal preferences. Maybe your partner enjoys weekly night outs with their group, or perhaps a trip with friends without their partners. They have their way of unwinding from the daily schedules.

Whatever it is, never tell your partner that you will end the relationship if they don’t stop doing something they love. A crucial part of being in a healthy relationship is allowing space and let them enjoy their time. Meanwhile, you can also indulge in activities to keep yourself busy and enjoy your me-time.

2. Requesting Them To Prove Their Love For You

People have different ways of showing affection. If your partner is not vocal about their feelings for you, that does not mean they do not love you. And that also does not mean you can ask them to prove their love for you. Such unreasonable demands can make them feel pressured to do something unwillingly just for the sake of it. This may not change the love or care they have for you, but don’t put them in such a difficult situation.

3. Giving Your Partner A Choice Between You And Some Other Important Person In Their Life

Either it’s me, or it’s your family.


Either it’s me or your friends.

Such ultimatums can break your partner from inside. Understand that their family and friends, or whoever it may be, are important for them. They and you are not a choice for your partner, but a part of their life. You cannot expect them to give up on a critical relationship to keep you happy. This will eventually strain your relationship. However, if you have genuine issues with this other person your partner fails to prioritize you over, it may be helpful to express your thoughts and tell them you want to work it out.

4. Demanding Your Partner To Reject Professional Opportunities

Your partner just got the most coveted promotion for which they have to move cities. Or they just landed their dream opportunity, which means they have to stay out of home late. You are not okay with that and ask them to quit or let the opportunity go – this is an unreasonable demand.

Such ultimatums can create a loss of identity in them. They may accept unwillingly for the sake of the relationship, but will that make them happy? This might affect the relationship dynamics and may even strain the relationship.

protip_icon Pro Tip
An ultimatum for choosing their academic path might also not be good for the relationship. Ensure to not throttle them of pursuing higher studies for better career opportunities.

5. Forcing Your Partner To Do Something They Are Uncomfortable With

Be it a sexual fantasy that you have or want to try bungee jumping with them knowing they are afraid of heights – just because you want to do something does not mean you should force your partner into it. Everyone has their comfort zone, and they prefer to stay within that circle. Moving your partner to go out of that zone and asking them to do something for you that they are uncomfortable with will build resentment and make them feel unsafe.

An ultimatum leaves your partner with the belief that they have no other choice but to do what you are asking for. Here are a few reasons why giving such negative ultimatums will never work.

Reasons Why Ultimatums May Not Always Work

Reasons why ultimatums may not work in a relationship
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1. They Make Your Partner Unhappy

Ultimatums in a relationship always come with consequences. Giving an unreasonable ultimatum pressurizes them to give in unwillingly. This will ultimately make them unhappy.

2. Your Partner May Feel Threatened

Ultimatums, if not conveyed in the right way, may feel like a threat. Your partner may give in to your demands, but they will consider you a threat, which is detrimental to any healthy relationship.

3. They Might Retaliate

As soon as you start throwing ultimatums at your partner, they might retaliate. This will escalate the issue, and a healthy discussion may slip into a heated argument. Be careful with your choice of words, the situation, and whether your demands are reasonable or not.

4. Ultimatums Close Doors For Communication

Constant negative ultimatums can irritate your partner, and they may stop giving in to your demands and close all doors of communication. They may feel threatened and emotionally abused and may even refuse to stay in the relationship or find a middle ground.

5. They May Kill The Trust In Your Relationship

Ultimatums may make your partner feel pressured and manipulated. They might even think that you do not trust them on certain matters, so you resort to ultimatums. This feeling can be counterproductive for your relationship as your partner may develop self-doubt, ultimately affecting the bond.

Ultimatums can cause your partner to retaliate and even make them unhappy in the long run. But fret not. There are other ways to learn and understand each other’s perspective while addressing an issue in the section below.

What To Do Instead Of Issuing An Ultimatum

Ultimatums may not help you build a long-lasting relationship. So, here are some alternatives to issuing an ultimatum.

  • Foster open communication. Express your feelings and concerns calmly and encourage your partner to do the same.
  • Seek compromise by finding common ground and mutually agreeable solutions.
  • Prioritize active listening to understand each other’s perspectives with empathy.
  • Invest time in relationship-building activities and experiences to strengthen your bond.
  • If issues persist, go for couples counseling to facilitate constructive discussions.

Remember, encouraging a supportive and understanding environment is more likely to lead to positive outcomes than resorting to ultimatums, promoting growth and harmony in your relationship.

If you find yourself resorting to ultimatums in your relationship, it is an indication that there are unresolved issues that need to be tackled. Sometimes, ultimatums may seem necessary as a last, desperate resort, but you must deal with them delicately. This article on ultimatums in relationships covers everything you need to know about them. However, remember that approaching sensitive situations aggressively will only make things worse. If things in your relationship are bothering you, always choose to sit down with your partner and talk it out first. Healthy and open communication can provide better solutions than ultimatums.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do narcissists make ultimatums?

Yes. Narcissists issue ultimatums when they feel they have lost control over the other person.

What is the difference between a boundary and an ultimatum?

An ultimatum involves a demand or threat that you put on another person, while a boundary is a limit that you put for yourself and your partner to maintain a healthy relationship.

Key Takeaways

  • Relationship ultimatums can have both positive and negative effects. A lot depends on the type of ultimatums being issued.
  • Healthy ultimatums can help improve mutual understanding, set boundaries, address issues, and more.
  • Unhealthy ultimatums like asking your partner to choose between you and another person important to them can be destructive.
  • Ultimatums may not always work as they make your partner feel threatened and uncomfortable. This may force them to retaliate.

Ultimatums do more bad than good. Watch this eye-opening video to learn about the impact of ultimatums in relationships, and discover how these decisions can make or break connections, shaping the dynamics of love and long-lasting connections.

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Michele Waldron

Michele WaldronPsy.D, LADC-I, CSCT

Dr. Waldron is a licensed clinical psychologist, certified couples counselor, licensed alcohol and drug counselor, and sex therapist. with 16 years of experience. She received her Psy.D from Antioch University, New England. She has a group practice that supports adults’ relationships and sexual health. Dr. Waldron is passionate about reducing sexual shame, which causes significant mental health challenges. She helps...read full bio

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