The number one rule about giving an ultimatum is to mean it.
A lot of people give ultimatums, but in their heads, they’re not sobered and settled. They’re trapped, for example, in the belief that they can’t do any better and that spending life alone would be worse than staying with a person who hurts them. When you say, “If you don’t stop drinking, I’m out of here!,” you’re really saying, “Please change so I don’t have to think about leaving. I can’t actually live alone.” That’s why I tell people they shouldn’t give an ultimatum until they actually have their bags packed and a game plan.
The reason most ultimatums don’t work is that the person making it is not ready to follow through. They hope and hope and hope the threat itself will be enough to make some magical change happen, but more often than not, it doesn’t turn out that way. You have to remember an ultimatum is final. It’s a demand that if not met, will result in a direct action. Basically speaking, the direct action is leaving. If you are telling your partner for the first time that his or her behavior is unsettling, that’s not an ultimatum. An ultimatum is a final shot across the bow. It’s a last resort after you’ve tried everything else.
The time to issue an ultimatum is when you have the courage and means to follow through on it, and not until then. If you don’t, stop whining and complaining, and just make the best of life. Seriously, I mean it. You can only give a truthful ultimatum if you’re indeed ready to leave.
One of the dumber ultimatums I hear people make is, “If you don’t marry me, I’m leaving.” It’s just ridiculous. Who wants to get married to someone they have to threaten into marrying?
The best thing you can do is avoid getting to the point where you have to issue an ultimatum in the first place. It’s much better to be up front in the beginning of a relationship and explain what’s acceptable and what’s not. Very few people do this because they don’t want to lose their boyfriend or girlfriend. They play games in their heads and figure everything will work out. However, if you don’t like someone’s behavior, you need to state your boundaries early on. If you really don’t want to marry a smoker and you’re dating a smoker, you have to tell them you have no intention of marrying a smoker. That’s stating a boundary (“I have no intention of __”), not giving an ultimatum.
So be sure to state your boundaries — “I have no intention of shacking up”; “I have no intention of having sex out of wedlock”; “I have no intention of using drugs or being with somebody who is abusing drugs.”
Finally, giving an ultimatum to a controller is just silly. They’re not going to give up control. There was a woman who recently called my show about her husband being a Scrooge. He made five to 10 times more than she did, but expected her to hand over all of her paycheck and split the grocery bills with him. I did not tell her to give him an ultimatum (she had already done that over and over again without success). I told her to inform him that he’s the man and by definition of a man, he is supposed to provide and protect. I said she was not to hand over her paycheck anymore, and direct deposit the money into an account he didn’t know about. He needed to face the reality that there would be no water, no lights, no heat, and no house unless he took care of things. An ultimatum wouldn’t work on him because there was just something wrong with him. I told her if he didn’t respond appropriately, she’d have to be ready to move home to Mother.
If you want to avoid these messes entirely, just talk about things before you get married: “How many kids will we have?”; “How will we deal with our prospective families?”; “What do we think about religion or sex?” About six months of premarital counseling should go into any marriage. I would say that a good 30 percent of people who go into premarital counseling don’t get married, and I think that’s fabulous. That’s a lot fewer divorces tearing up kids’ lives. It’s not necessarily that anybody is bad – they just find they’re not a good match after actually discussing the issues of marriage.
So remember: an ultimatum is a final declaration. Don’t issue one when you don’t have the courage and the means to follow through on it because you’ll only be looked at as even less than you already are. You’ll also think less of yourself. It’s hard to impress yourself when you see yourself not having any guts.