Ultimatums don’t create happy relationships.
This idea of changing or controlling someone’s behaviour to start or stop doing something comes up in all the time. Whenever people are dissatisfied in their relationships, the first place they look is to the other person thinking “if they’d just to (or not do) this thing, everything would be better!”
Essentially the unconscious framework of that thought is: “They do X and it makes me feel like Y, and I don’t like it. If they’d only do Z instead then I’d feel the way I want to!”
So let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning:
You can’t control or change your partner.
If your partner makes a real or lasting change in their behaviour or attitude, it’s because they decided to do so.
There. That’s clear. End of article right?
Because people always get into this trap and it creates nothing but drama, animosity, resentment, and even fear./
“But my partner is always ________ and I hate it! It makes me so frustrated!”
For sure there are things your partner does that seem like no-brainer, common sense things for you, and they make you crazy. You try to reason with them, negotiate with them, and eventually feel like there’s no other option than to drop an ultimatum.
Let’s look at the example of being late:
- They’re late getting home from work, sometimes hours later than they said they would be
- They never pick up the kids on time
- They’re always late for dinner
- Anytime you’re heading out to meet friends or family, they’re always lagging behind and making you late too.
You hate it. You’re a very punctual person and it’s really upsetting to you that your partner doesn’t have the same appreciation for being on time that you do.
You’ve tried to talk to them about it. You’ve hinted, bargained, gotten angry, given them the silent treatment, and there’s still no change… What else can you do? Tell them that you’re not making dinner for them anymore? That you’re never going anywhere together with them anymore – that you’ll drive yourself?
Can you see how that’s you trying to control your partner into changing? Can you see the unconscious framework (from above) at play?
My partner is always late and it makes you crazy.
- They do X and it makes me feel like Y, and I don’t like it.
If they’d only be on time, I wouldn’t get so annoyed with them.
- If they’d only do Z instead then I’d feel the way I want to.
You’re doing things – fighting, getting angry, making them wrong, belittling, using an ultimatum – to try and get your partner to do something different than they way they’d do it on their own.
Ultimatums are just one tactic used to try and control or change a situation, person, or outcome.
- When you try to get someone to do/stop doing something by using shame, manipulation, covert attacks, etc.
Judgmental or condescending statements:
- This can be as simple as “you’re not wearing that to the dinner are you?” That’s you again trying to control/ change how your partner was going to show up.
- Using anger to try and move your partner into submission about something; you know they hate it when you get angry and will usually give in so you resort to being angry to get your way.
Interrupting and talking over your partner:
- When someone is interrupting or talking over another, the message being sent is “my thought/ message is more important than yours so you should listen to mine and get on side ”.
- (This makes me SO angry when it happens to me.)
Ignoring or giving the Silent Treatment:
- Anytime you are purposefully withholding communication or ignoring your partner in an effort to teach them a lesson, or get them to start/ stop doing something, you are trying to control/ change them.
- Yup, even crying can be a control/change tactic. If you know your partner gets really uncomfortable when you cry so you sometimes use it to change (control) their behaviour, that’s you trying to change or control your partner.
Anytime you’ve thought or said “if only my partner would…” that’s you looking to change your partner.
If only they would:
- Share more
- Talk to me about their feelings
- Not want to talk about feelings all the time
- Be on time
- Chill a little with the schedule
- Think about the bigger picture
- Save more
- Not be so cheap
- Plan more
- Be more spontaneous
- Let loose and relax a little
- Take things a little more seriously
Let me be clear, I don’t mean you can’t have healthy conversations with your partner about how their behaviour affects you and look for a compromise. That is a healthy part of a relationship and completely different than trying to control them through protest behaviour of your own.
Trying to control/change someone by what you say and do (or don’t) is a lose-lose strategy.
You will create mistrust between you.
They can’t count on or trust you to tell them how you feel or what you need, so they’ll be left trying to figure it out on their own. That creates a sense of emotional insecurity and a power dynamic that will eventually kill the relationship.
I recommend you stop doing that stuff and figure out how to have better conversations that work toward a compromise.
If you’ve already tried to talk to your partner and the behaviour isn’t changing, you might need to look at how effective the conversation actually was.
Simply telling your partner “I wish you’d stop doing that!” wont’ cut it.
Learn to create true compromise.
Working towards a compromise will require that you and your partner both get real and vulnerable with each other. You’ll have to talk about what works, what doesn’t, and why. Then together you create a solution that works for both of you.
- I will also mention, creating a solution that works for both of you may not mean they stop doing the thing that makes you crazy. In reality (according to Dr. John Gottman and his research) 69% of all marital problems are unsolvable.
These perpetual problems are related to fundamental differences between you and your partner. Depending on the health of your relationship, sometimes seemingly benign problems can become big sticking points.
Some examples include:
- Whether dishes go in the sink or dishwasher
- Putting clothes and shoes away or leaving them out
- Tidying the kitchen later on or right after a meal
- Being on time or being more flexible
- Planning in advance or being more spontaneous
- How you celebrate big holidays and special events
- Spending or saving money
- How you spend downtime
For some couples, with the right dialogue, those are totally solvable problems. For others they can create serious conflict. If you have topics in your relationship that keep causing tension and conflict, you may have an perpetual, unsolvable problem on your hands.
Trying to solve unsolvable problems with an ‘either-or’ solution rather than talking about how to work with or around them, will create ongoing frustration and eventually gridlock.
When a problem becomes gridlocked – you anchored firmly on one side of the problem and your partner just as firmly anchored on the other – it can be really challenging to figure out how to work together.
Recognizing perpetual problems for what they are and working towards a compromise vs trying to control and change your partner through your behaviours will prove way more effective in the long run.
Pick your battles.
Sometimes you have to accept that part of the price you pay to be in a relationship with your partner, is that they’ll do things that annoy you. If that’s the case, you’ll want to look at why you’re so annoyed and talk about that. In some cases, it’s better just to let it go.
Learning how to have better conversations in your relationship is really important if you want it to go the distance and be happy. It’s funny how most of us never really learn how to have some of these more difficult make-or-break conversations.
If happy relationships are a priority for you, it’s definitely worth investing some time and effort to learn how.