Ultimatums In Relationships: Do They Actually Work Or Cause Harm?

ultimatums in relationships
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Make-or-break situations are bound to crop up in the course of a couple’s lifetime. After all, two people can’t possibly agree on everything. But when dealbreakers become the norm of the day, one or both partners begin delivering ultimatums in relationships. They usually appear at the peak of a conflict when the individual puts their foot down once and for all. Or so we usually think.

We need a nuanced understanding of this situation; one cannot categorize ultimatums in a marriage or a partnership as good or bad. So, we will discuss the intricacies of the subject with Utkarsh Khurana (MA Clinical Psychology, Ph.D. Scholar) who is a visiting faculty at the Amity University and specializes in anxiety issues, negative beliefs, and individualism in a relationship, to name a few

Our focus lies on the intent and frequency of such final warnings. These two factors will help us ascertain whether ultimatums are healthy or not. In addition to this, we talk about how you can respond to such high-tension situations with composure. Let’s answer all your questions step by step – here’s all you need to know about ultimatums in relationships.

What Are Ultimatums In Relationships?

Before we proceed to the dissection of ultimatums in relationships, it is essential to define them. Utkarsh explains, “People have very different definitions of what constitutes an ultimatum. The most widely accepted meaning is when Partner A takes a firm stand during a disagreement and explains the undesirable consequences that will follow if Partner B continues to persist in doing something. 

“There’s a spectrum in place here as well; the ultimatum can be minor (“We are going to have an argument at hand”) or major (“We’ll have to rethink the relationship”). A lot of factors are at play when an ultimatum is delivered – it varies with each couple and their dynamic.” Now that we’re on the same page, let’s understand the concept with a very simple example. 

The tale of Steve and Claire and ultimatums in relationships

Steve and Claire have been dating for two years. Theirs is a serious relationship and marriage is on the cards too. Both of them are very invested in their careers, often overworking themselves to the point of exhaustion. Steve is more of a workaholic and Claire worries about his well-being. For a month straight, he was unavailable due to professional commitments. This took a toll on his health as well as his relationship. 

During an argument, Claire explains that she’s had enough. It is taxing for her to date someone who cannot maintain a work-life balance. She says, “If you don’t find a way to reconcile your personal and professional priorities, we’re going to sit down and evaluate a few things about our relationship. Your current lifestyle will be detrimental to you in the long run. It’s high time you start taking care of yourself and focus on the other aspects of your life.” 

What do you think of Claire’s ultimatum? Is this an attempt at manipulation or not? We’re investigating the same with our next segment – how healthy are ultimatums in relationships? Should Steve consider this to be a red flag? Or is Claire really just trying to look out for him by making healthy demands in a relationship? Keep reading to find out.

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Are Ultimatums Healthy In Relationships?

Utkarsh offers an incisive insight, “While things are highly subjective, we can make a reasonable deduction about the nature of an ultimatum through two factors. The first is a person’s intention: With which intent was the warning delivered? Did it come from a place of concern and care? Or was the aim to control you? Needless to say, only the individual on the receiving end can decipher this. 

“The second factor is how often ultimatums are given. Does every difference of opinion escalate into a do-or-die fight? Ideally, ultimatums in relationships should sparsely occur. If they are very common, it suggests that the couple is having trouble with peaceful conflict resolution. On the other hand, if the ultimatum checks out on both parameters, i.e., it is spoken out of concern and given rarely, it can be classified as healthy. 

“Because warnings can act as an anchor too. If Partner B is falling into unhealthy patterns, Partner A can get them back on track with a reasonable ultimatum.” In light of this explanation, Claire is not trying to manipulate Steve. She only wants him and their relationship to be healthy and happy. Her ultimatum is healthy and Steve should certainly heed her advice. Things were very clear in their case. But we all know that the lines get blurry far too often. Are ultimatums manipulative sometimes? If yes, how can we tell? 

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Are ultimatums in relationships healthy?

‘We’ vs. ‘I’ – What lies behind making demands in a relationship

Here’s a life hack that’ll go a long way in helping you build a healthy relationship: listen to the phrasing of an ultimatum. Utkarsh says, “If the warning begins with an ‘I’ – “I will leave you” or “I am going to move out of the house” – it generally means that the ego has entered the picture. Your partner’s focus lies on themselves. A much more constructive way of stating things would be through ‘we’ – “We need to do something about this right now” or “We will have to part ways if this problem isn’t resolved.””

Of course, this is only a guiding tip to help you identify your partner’s intentions. The unfortunate reality is that a lot of people use ultimatums to win the power struggle in relationships. It makes the person on the receiving end feel insecure and unloved. Nobody likes feeling that their partner is a flight risk. And when ultimatums are used to induce compliance repeatedly, they start affecting the couple’s dynamic adversely. 

As America’s beloved Dr. Phil once said, “Relationships are negotiated and if you deal with ultimatums and authority all the time, then you’re not going to get anywhere.” It’s time to understand how ultimatums can negatively affect your emotional connection. There are many reasons to stop making demands in a relationship – let’s take a look.

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Why you shouldn’t issue ultimatums in relationships – 4 reasons

We can’t paint a holistic picture of the subject without listing the disadvantages of ultimatums too. And some of these drawbacks are undeniable. The next time you’re about to issue a warning to your partner, make it a point to recall these negative aspects. Chances are, you’ll take a pause and rethink your words. Ultimatums in relationships are not healthy because:

  • They cause insecurity: As we said before, receiving constant warnings and threats can erode the safety of a romantic bond. A relationship is a safe space for partners. When one of them keeps giving a cause for alarm, the space is compromised
  • They point toward emotional abuse: Are ultimatums manipulative? Yes, they are a gaslighting partner’s favorite tool. We wouldn’t be surprised if an examination revealed a few other signs of a toxic relationship. You’re looking at a red flag when an ultimatum is issued to establish control over your conduct
  • They result in the loss of identity: When a partner begins changing their behavior to comply with an ultimatum, loss of self-respect and self-image follow closely. Individuals are rendered unrecognizable due to constant censorship and instruction from a toxic significant other
  • They are toxic in the long run: Since ultimatums leave no room for choice, the change they bring about is only temporary. The relationship is bound to suffer in the future when old issues resurface. Moreover, the partners are likely to start resenting each other

You’ve learned the fundamentals of ultimatums well. We’re now going to present a few oft-used examples of ultimatums. This will make things crystal clear as you will realize where your relationship stands. 

6 Examples Of Ultimatums In Relationships

Context is a crucial part of any conversation. You can’t know whether an ultimatum is healthy or not without having a background of the couple’s relationship. We’ve tried to give you as much context as possible with this list of general examples. They include both healthy and unhealthy instances of making demands in the relationship. 

Utkarsh says, “It can always swing both ways. The most reasonable of ultimatums can become toxic in specific situations. There is no fixed format that can be blindly applied everywhere. We have to see each instance in its uniqueness.” Without further ado, here are the most frequently issued ultimatums in relationships.

Related Reading: 23 Signs Of An Unhealthy Relationship

1. “I’m going to break up with you if you don’t start listening to me” 

This is the most classic example we’ve got. So many people think it is okay to threaten their better half with a breakup casually. Unless a partner refuses to listen to you consistently and is usually dismissive toward your thoughts and opinions, very few situations warrant a breakup ultimatum. It is only when your partner is actively headed in the wrong direction that’s harmful for them and the future of your relationship, can you deliver such a warning. For instance, alcohol addiction, drug abuse, gambling, etc. Steer clear of such threats otherwise.

2. Ultimatums in relationships – “It’s either me or XYZ”

Either-or warnings are tricky business because there might come a day when your partner actually chooses the XYZ. (XYZ could be a person, an activity, an object, or a place.) These ultimatums can be effective if you want to put an end to a dilemma. Say, your boyfriend is seeing another woman behind your back and you want to get clarity one way or the other. In that case, either-or warnings will make your life less complicated. 

3. “I won’t be sleeping with you until you stop doing XYZ” 

It’s never a good idea to weaponize sex. Withdrawing affection from your partner to get your way is immature, to say the least. A decline in physical intimacy due to conflict is one thing, consciously refusing to have sex with your significant other as punishment is another. A better alternative would be to communicate with them in a straightforward manner.

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4. Are ultimatums manipulative? “If you really loved me, you would not do XYZ”

If this is used when a partner repeatedly violates an established emotional boundary, it makes sense. Otherwise, it sounds like a manipulative ‘love test’. We’re always skeptical of love tests that ask one to prove their feelings. While this doesn’t appear to be one of the regular ultimatums in relationships, it is just as harmful. It implies that if your partner’s actions don’t align with your perspective, they don’t care about you. You’re essentially compromising their individuality by trying to get them to acquiesce with your vision. 

5. “You have a year to propose or we’re done”

If your partner has been dragging you on for years and assuring you that they’ll propose every year, then you have a right to break up once your patience wears out. But if this is a case of pressuring your partner to rush commitment, then it really doesn’t work. The beauty of romance lies in its natural progression. Fast-forwarding through the stages of a relationship doesn’t give you and your partner enough time to trust each other. It’s best to keep ultimatums out of the love department. And honestly, if you have to coerce a proposal out of someone, is it even worth it?

6. “Leave your family for me or else…” – Giving a married man an ultimatum

A lot of people use such ultimatums when they are in extra-marital relationships. If you have to make a man choose between you and his family, something is definitely amiss. We mean, if he was going to leave them, he would’ve done it already. Giving a married man an ultimatum accomplishes little except heartbreak. But if that’s what it takes to get you out of an unhealthy relationship, so be it.

It’s time to address the final facet of ultimatums through a very important question: how to respond to ultimatums in a marriage or relationship? Most people are stunned in the face of final warnings by their partners. Fear and anxiety take over, leaving no room for a rational response. Well, that’s precisely what we’re striving to avoid. Here’s presenting the guidebook to dealing with ultimatums.

Related Reading: 11 Expert Ways To Cope With A Sudden Breakup In A Long-Term Relationship

How Do You Deal With An Ultimatum In A Relationship?

Utkarsh explains, “When a person is issued an ultimatum, their reason gets clouded by their emotional reaction. And it’s definitely not easy to keep it together. I think the first thing one should do is conduct a quick evaluation of the ultimatum. Check your partner’s intent, look back to your own behavior, and decide if their objection is valid or not. Have you truly erred from your end? Does your conduct warrant their warning?

“The second step is having a direct and honest conversation. Don’t hold back on anything and articulate your perspective well. Make sure you listen to your partner too; they are probably issuing ultimatums in the marriage or relationship because they don’t feel heard. Maybe the point of contention can be resolved through communication. And finally, if nothing seems to be working effectively, reach out to a counselor for professional guidance.”

Individual or couple’s therapy is a great option to consider as you navigate this rough patch in the relationship. If you’re considering seeking help, skilled and experienced counselors on Bonobology’s panel of experts are here for you. They can help you assess your situation better and provide you and your partner with the right means to heal.

We can broadly sum it up in one simple line: don’t let the fight overtake the relationship. Keep the bigger picture close to your heart. Set healthy boundaries rather than delivering ultimatums in relationships and all will be well. Keep coming back to us for more advice, we’re always happy to help. 


1. Are ultimatums controlling?

Depending upon the intent of the person giving the ultimatum, yes, they can be controlling. Manipulative partners often use them to establish dominance in the relationship. However, under special circumstances, ultimatums can be healthy too.

2. Are ultimatums manipulative?

Yes, sometimes ultimatums in relationships are used to manipulate a person. But it is important to remember that this isn’t always the case.

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