Thirty-three year-old Gabriel and his boyfriend Kevin had been together for six years when they had the fight that ended their relationship. Kevin was an introvert who liked to live on his own, so he’d never moved into Gabriel’s accommodating Denver duplex. Meanwhile, Gabriel wanted nothing more than to share his home with the man he loved, so he’d spent the better part of their relationship trying to convince Kevin to move in. “You can have your own room,” he’d tease. “You can even have your own bed!” When Kevin refused, Gabriel gave him a choice: move in or move on.
You’ve heard of ultimatums like these before — marry me or we’re done. Get a job or you’re out. It’s me, or the dog. Or your mother. Or the booze. Or your beloved Amazon Prime, from which you cannot stop ordering Korean face masks (wait, is that just me?). However, regardless of what the stakes are, the implication is always the same: if you don’t meet my demands, the relationship is over.
Unfortunately for Gabriel and the millions of other people who have walked in his shoes, ultimatums are the absolute worst way to get your partner to change. Relationship and communication experts agree: not only do they come across as a manipulative tactic used to control your partner’s behavior, but they place the onus on saving your relationship entirely on them, a move that takes away your own agency in creating the outcome you desire. Worse yet, they almost never work. According to Jane Greer, a relationship expert and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship, people almost always pick the “or else” option, usually in retaliation over being pressured to make an impossible choice.
“People who are given an ultimatum usually do the opposite of what you want,” Greer says. “Other people feel like they’re being treated like kids. They may become distant, openly angry, hostile or even amp up the behavior.” It’s easy to understand why, too — an ultimatum is nothing more than a demand in disguise; a threat with consequences that implies you’re unwilling to compromise, but expect your partner to do whatever it takes to bend to your will. This creates a sort of “my way or the highway” mentality that may appear decisive or principled to the naked eye, but actually destroys your relationship by taking away your partner’s free will.
So, how do you get someone to make a change without giving them an ultimatum? What’s the protocol for laying down the law and showing someone you mean business without coming across as controlling, uncompromising or even desperate?
According to psychologist, relationship expert and author Margaret Paul, there are plenty of ways to get someone to do what you want without forcing them to make the choice between all and nothing. She, Greer and a few other relationship experts share their best advice for doing so below.
Put Your Own Needs First
If you’ve reached a crisis point where you’re about to force your partner to make a decision that changes the trajectory of your relationship, chances are you already know which decision is best for you. Why not cut out the middleman — and the need for ultimatums — and make the choice yourself? As Paul advises, the best way to get what you want isn’t to convince anybody to do anything; it’s to decide for yourself what’s best for you and run with that option. Be honest with yourself and “take the action that’s best for your needs,” she says.
What exactly would that look like? As opposed to saying something like “marry me or forget I exist,” to someone who’s shown little interest in holy matrimony, you’d lead with your own needs and boundaries, and go from there. More specifically, using the marriage ultimatum example, you’d say something akin to, “I respect and acknowledge that you’re not ready to commit in the same way I am, but I’m no longer comfortable in this relationship at that level. I wish you the best, but this isn’t right for me anymore.”
And yeah, sure, maybe you break up. But isn’t it better in the long run to put your own needs first than it is to coerce someone into marrying you just because they feel they have no other option?
I’ll answer that for you: yes, it is.
Change Your Own Behavior Before You Go Asking Them to Change Theirs
“You may not realize how you can contribute to your partner’s behavior,” Greer says. “Before you convince someone to do something then, it’s important to take a hard look at yourself.”
For example, if you’re fed up with your partner because their drinking has gotten out of control and it’s taking a toll on your relationship, take stock of your own behavior around alcohol before you go demanding they dry up. Are you taking 14 shots and sucking molly off your friend’s fingers at the bar, but then chewing your partner out for getting sloppy? Is your liquor cabinet stocked like it’s Y2K. Are you insisting they cut back while mixing a martini?
Another example would be threatening to withhold sex if your partner doesn’t get in shape. If you’re not out there running at 6 a.m. like you expect your partner to be, how can you expect them to chow down a PowerBar and jog off 40 pounds while you hit the snooze button?
As marriage and family therapist Lori Dougherty explains, modeling the behavior you wish your partner to adopt — and sticking with it — makes them more likely to change, too. Basically, the more you practice what you preach, the more likely they are to hop onboard.
Give Them A (Well-Communicated) Warning
While it’s almost never cool to give someone an ultimatum, it is okay to give them a warning that tells them they’re pushing it. This gives you an opportunity to communicate how their actions are affecting you, lets you reassert your boundaries and makes it clear you’re serious about them changing their behavior.
According to Greer, the more specific about what you’re going to do if they don’t comply, the more of a wake-up call your warning is likely to be. “Tell the other person exactly what you’re going to do if they continue their behavior,” she says. “For example, saying something like, ‘If you continue to smoke pot, I won’t be able to live with you any longer. I will move out by the end of next month,’ can work because you’re letting them know you have plans for changing the situation yourself.”
And while that statement could easily be misconstrued as an ultimatum, it’s not quite the same thing — you’re not threatening to explode the relationship or forcing them to make a choice, you’re just giving them a heads up about your own plans to act. Essentially, a warning is meant to communicate your limits; an ultimatum, as Paul reminds us, is meant to manipulate or goad someone into doing something they may not want to.
However, she warns, this really only works if you follow up on those plans. If your warning is all empty threats, your partner gets the message that you don’t actually mean it, which can give them permission to keep pissing you off. Thus, a warning about warnings: only make them when you know you can follow through.
Compromise With Options and Alternatives for Their Behavior
Ultimatums are hairy because they usually offer only two options: all or nothing. As Greer explains, offering your partner a range of more diverse, nuanced options is a much better strategy because it heightens the chance you’ll get the result you want while giving your partner more agency to make a decision that works better for both of you. To that end, if you can, throw some things out there that involve you compromising as well, so the onus isn’t entirely on the other person to make or break the relationship.
Let’s use an age-old ultimatum as an example: “It’s me or the dog.” Think about the myriad options in between. Maybe they take the dog to a professional trainer. Maybe they build it an outdoor enclosure so it’s not always shitting on your hardwood. Maybe they pay for a weekly cleaning service to clean up the scientifically inexplicable amount of hair it leaves behind. Maybe they agree to take it to work with them, take it on more regular walks so it’s not always trying to hump you, or shit, maybe you get your own dog to balance the scales. If you’re willing to compromise, the possibilities are limitless.
Reach Out for Help
Making big decisions like whether to get married, have children or stop using Amazon Prime is rarely as simple as flipping a coin or making the choice between Option A or Option B. That’s why Paul recommends you reach out to a professional counselor or therapist who can help you identify alternative options and reach a compromise that works best for everyone. Examining yourself and your partner with the help of a neutral third party can help you uncover what you really want out of the situation and make sure everyone is seeking change for the right reasons.