Do Ultimatums in Marriage Work?

Marriage Advice for those who are unhappy, married and miserable

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If I told you that setting an ultimatum in marriage can be one of the smartest things you can do for your relationship, would you believe me? In fact, [bctt tweet=”Ultimatums can be necessary and the only way to save a marriage.”] And yet I find that most people are either reluctant to use them, or don’t really know how to use them and end up making a big mess.

When Are Ultimatums in Marriage Necessary?

Ultimatums become necessary when your partner pushes against your bottom line and refuses to take whatever steps are necessary to make things right again.

Your bottom line is the place where you cannot continue to feel safe, secure and respected in a relationship as long as certain behavior goes unchanged. It’s the place where you feel you can’t continue in this relationship if something doesn’t change.

Sometimes, ultimatums are the only way we can protect ourselves and the relationship.  If your husband is an alcoholic who refuses treatment, how can you protect yourself?

You can’t make him do the right thing.

You can’t control how much he drinks.

But you can control what you will tolerate.

You can control how much misery you endure and how long you wait for him to see how his behavior is destroying the marriage.

Ultimatums in Marriage are Scary

We want the relationship to work.  We love our spouse even though they are hurting us. And we are scared that the ultimatum will force the relationship to end.

If we really are at our bottom line that means we know we can’t continue on if things don’t change.  Since we can’t control our spouse’s behavior, it is very possible we will be forced to follow through with the ultimatum.

This is terrifying, so we avoid using the only real power we have and instead we explode in anger or implode into hopelessness and depression. When we explode, we feel more powerful as we tell our partner we aren’t going to take this anymore and we threaten to leave if things don’t improve.

Because our actions never match our words, we are actually only becoming even more powerless.

We are teaching our partner that we don’t mean what we say.

It becomes easy for our partner to make nice for a while to appease us and then go back to the behavior that is destroying the relationship.

Or worse: for our spouse to disregard us entirely like the teacher on Peanuts…”wah wah wah” or the “nut job” who overreacts.

I am often telling my marriage counseling clients that getting so angry and making meaningless threats doesn’t mean they aren’t taking it anymore.

It means they are taking it, but taking it angrily.

All that anger will destroy the relationship even if the offending behavior does not.

Either way, they will continue to live in a miserable marriage until they are willing to set an ultimatum or the relationship continues to erode until there is nothing left.

What I like about ultimatums is that it shows your partner that you really do mean business, and it gives them the chance to clean up their act sooner rather than later.  (Later is oftentimes too late.)

The most common reason women leave a marriage is that, for women, the longer the resentment builds up, the greater the chance she will shut down.

When her partner does change, it no longer matters to her.

By the time he’s willing to change, she’s already given up.

Had the wife spoken up and given a meaningful ultimatum earlier in the conflict, it could have changed the outcome drastically.

Do Ultimatums In Marriage Work?

Yes! There are two possible outcomes in each ultimatum situation.

The first is the most desirable.  Your spouse gets it and has to come to terms with the possibility of losing you.  This forces him/her to confront their bad behavior and make changes and repair.  The relationship is on a fast track to healing.

The second outcome is the one we feared would happen.  Our spouse refuses to acknowledge their contribution to the destruction of the relationship or work to repair it.

But even this is a win because I promise you, this is the eventual end you would have come to anyway.  It’s a win because you haven’t spent years in misery and whittling yourself down to a nub in the process.

You know sooner rather than later that this marriage is destructive and doomed to fail.

The Difference Between Ultimatums and Boundaries

I think it is important to understand the difference between ultimatums and boundaries.  Every healthy relationship has boundaries.

I’m not going to be happy if my husband comes home from work grumpy and bites my head off.  If this happens frequently, I will set a boundary or limit.  I may stop greeting him at the door, or I may choose to eat dinner alone on those nights.

I will protect myself respectfully, but I don’t see this as worthy of putting the whole relationship on the line.

Boundaries are necessary to navigate daily stresses and annoyances. Ultimatums are the big guns.  You only use them for truly relationship-threatening behavior such as abuse (of any kind) or infidelity.

Using ultimatums for boundary issues is a huge mistake.  If you use them inappropriately, you will become the controlling, abusive partner in the relationship.

Using Ultimatums in Marriage: Real life examples

Joe and Emily: Life with an alcoholic

Emily believed that her husband Joe had a drinking problem.  She begged and pleaded and tried to change him, but nothing worked.  Because of his drinking habits, Joe lost his job, and Emily felt hopeless about the whole situation.

During our counseling session, I helped Emily work on an ultimatum.

Emily calmly told Joe that he had two weeks to find a 30-day treatment center at an inpatient clinic for alcoholics.  And after that, he would need to sign up with a sponsor for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Joe tested Emily’s resolve and didn’t seek treatment within the two week time frame, so Emily packed up the kids and went to stay with her mother.

Joe checked in to a  treatment center the next day.

Joe finished his treatment and enrolled in AA with a sponsor, and he is doing very well these days.

In this extreme case, Emily knew something had to change, and she put her marriage at risk.  In the end, they were able to work through their issues and make a profound difference in their marriage.

Matt & Lisa: A sexless marriage

Matt and Lisa came to see me because they weren’t having sex.

They had been married for 25 years and it had been 5 years since they last made love.

Lisa simply wasn’t interested.  In fact, she never really enjoyed sex.

She was happy to live as roommates, but Matt was becoming increasingly frustrated. He was tired of the endless rejection and felt Lisa was being selfish.

In my office, I established there was no physical or emotional reason Lisa was refusing sex. She wasn’t depressed.  She had a complete physical and all was normal.  There was no history of sexual abuse or trauma. She said she just had a lower sex drive than her husband.

I explained to Lisa there was a difference between a low sex drive and going 5 years without sex!

Matt was more than willing to explore different techniques that might increase pleasure and fun for both of them, but Lisa wasn’t interested.

In fact, she didn’t want to come to counseling with him either.

She clearly stated that he was the one who was unhappy so he could find a way to get happy or he could come to counseling alone.  She was fine.  So even without my prompting, Matt decided to make himself happy and told Lisa he refused to live in a sexless marriage.

If she wasn’t willing to work on this with him, he wanted a divorce.  Lisa actually did divorce Matt.

I found out later that  Lisa had been having multiple affairs over the years. Matt had no idea until after they divorced.

He was sorry his marriage ended, but he was so glad he finally stood up for himself and for his needs in the marriage.

If you are in a marriage that has hit your bottom line, it may be time to set an ultimatum.

It’s scary. But remember, it can be the best way to get your relationship moving in the right direction.  The Marriage Place can help you figure out if it is time for an ultimatum.  We can also teach you how to show up in your marriage in a way that makes it easier for your spouse to want to give you what you need.

Sometimes, pent up anger and resentment creates bottom line issues that can be resolved with counseling.  Either way, we are here to help  you!  Give us a call at 972-441-4432,  or contact us using our confidential online form.  We care about saving marriages!

Are You Shutting Out Your Spouse? Learn 4 Ways it Happens And How To Fix It

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On a scale of 1 to 10 (worst to best), how do you think the communication is in your marriage?  We see poor communication as one of the biggest issues we see in our offices.  The good news is that with effort, many times it can be remedied with small, intentional changes.  This week, we’re discussing ways that poor communication can sabotage a relationship of any kind, but specifically a marriage, and how to fix them.

[bctt tweet=”Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation – Oscar Wilde”]

To Undermine Your Marriage Connection:

1.  Communicate as little as possible, or give the silent treatment

When you don’t talk very often, there are so many opportunities for miscommunication errors.  Perhaps you only talk about the kids’ schedules, your schedules, and what household tasks need to be completed.  This is a surefire way to zap any intimacy in your marriage.

Also, when you shut down communication, you leave no room for resolution.  How is your spouse supposed to break through that wall of silence?  How can you find a solution if no one is talking?  Intimacy is for grownups and grownups do not give each other the silent treatment.  The verbal shutdown also happens to be my passive aggressive movement of choice and a hard habit to break.  But I did it and so can you!   🙂

2.  Communicate in anger or by bullying

Do you or your spouse raise your voice in anger when talking?  What about speaking in passive-aggressive statements? Like telling your spouse you are “FINE” when your actions say otherwise? Stop and think if you fall into this category. No one likes to be around an angry bully.  Even if you get what you want, you aren’t winning.  There will be payback somewhere along the road.  Most bullies in a marriage don’t think they are bullies.  So ask your spouse if they feel you get your way most of the time.  And be open to what they tell you even if you don’t like the answer.  If your spouse says he/she feels you are often angry or threatening in some way, believe them.  Then talk to us because we can help with this.

3.  Make your to do list more important than the people in your life

Our society glorifies being busy, and having a full calendar.  If you’re running from activity to meeting to sports practice, your to do list may be taking precedence over the people in your life.  Most everyone will list their families as the most important thing in their lives, but answer this question honestly for the real answer.

Where do you spend most of your time, energy and resources every day?  

Do you like the answer?  It may be time to make adjustments.  Not having enough time with your spouse means there isn’t much opportunity for communication or intimacy.  I once worked with a client who spent 15 hours a day working…six days a week.  He felt he was providing security and wealth for his family so it was a good trade off.  His wife left him because she was lonely.  She tried to tell him for years but he just couldn’t or wouldn’t get off the hamster wheel.  Now he would give anything to turn back the clock, but for his wife…it really was too late.

4.  Be inconsiderate about how someone feels

Feelings are never right or wrong…they just are.  Do you minimize your spouse’s feelings when they try talk to you about how they feel about a certain topic?  You may be minimizing and not even realize it.  Here are certain things people say to be “helpful” but their partner often feels they are being disregarded in some way.

  • “Don’t dwell on the negative.  Focus on the good things.”
  • “Just take my advice and this will all work out.”
  • “You stress and worry over everything.”
  • “What do you want me to do about it?”

Most of my clients aren’t trying to be dismissive.  They just don’t want their spouse to be sad or anxious.  But that’s about YOUR feelings and anxiety.  Sit with your partner in their feelings for a moment by simply acknowledging what they say they feel.  One simple sentence can change everything.  Are you ready for it?

“Honey, I’m so sorry you feel this way.  It must be awful. I love you.”

Ok..I lied.  I couldn’t stop when I got rolling.  Three sentences is a bonus!

Try These Actions Instead:

1.  Communicate often

Is there a time you can set aside to talk through the day with your spouse?  It doesn’t need to be long, but if you start with 15 to 20 minutes each day, you might be reminded at how much you enjoy talking with your spouse.  Happiness expert, Gretchen Rubin, recently published her latest book, Better Than Before, about the power of cultivating good habits. Gretchen’s husband, Jamie, suggested that they make a point of discussing their days each night after their daughters go to bed.  After putting this practice into place, they were both pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoyed this evening ritual.  Try it.  You might be surprised, too.  For me and my husband, our best times of intimacy come with our evening walk.  We get 30 minutes of uninterrupted time to just download the day. Priceless!  And…we burn calories at the same time.  An added bonus.

2.  Communicate patiently

If you find yourself escalating to anger during a conversation with your spouse, try and take a time out and let them know that you need a few minutes to cool down before continuing the conversation.  If you are hurt, angry, sick or tired, the probability of having a positive conversation is slim.  If you can, set aside a time where you know you will most likely both be in better moods to discuss the topic at hand.

3.  Prioritize People

It is easy to fall into the trap of checking things off your To Do list, rather than to spend time with people.  If you are a Type-A planner, perhaps you could set a time or activity that you and your spouse could do together.  This way, you’re carving out specific time for each other, and you get to mark it off your list.  If you are just a very busy person, are there things you could remove from your calendar, or volunteer positions that you could say no to?  Take a look at your schedule and see what could go, and then take the necessary steps to free yourself from those commitments.

4.  Acknowledge Emotions

When your spouse comes to you and says, “This makes me angry,” or “I feel really bummed about this,” take time to acknowledge what they’ve said.  By simply saying, “Yeah, I can see how that would make you angry,” Or, “Gosh, I’m bummed for you, too,” you’ve just empathized with them.  This can go a long way in breaking down communication and intimacy barriers.

Do these issues resonate with you?  See if you can make a concerted effort to identify one way you may be sabotaging your marriage, and make a point to react to your spouse differently this week.  If this is just one of many issues in your marriage, I would recommend getting some outside help for your marriage.  Make an appointment with Engage With Love today.