Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Danger of Ultimatums

"An ultimatum is generally the final demand in a series of requests. As such, the time allotted is usually short, and the request is understood not to be open to further negotiation."

When you find yourself ending with '...or else' you can be pretty sure you've slipped into the trap of issuing an ultimatum. In relationship terms we call this 'pushing the nuclear button', as one of you says 'if that's the way it is, then I have no option but to leave' or ' unless you change, then we're finished'. 

Whichever way you look at it there are problems with ultimatums:
  • An ultimatum is a threat. Even if the condition is accepted, it will feel like it has been imposed  and therefore never really owned as the best way forward.  
  • The person issuing the ultimatum must be prepared to follow through with their 'threat'. This means they could easily end up doing something they don't really want to do, or not doing something they do want to do! 
  • The person receiving the ultimatum may tolerate it for a while, knowing it is not really meant, that it's just part of an argument that's got out of hand but repeated threats wear you down and there will come a time when they call your bluff. 
Why do we issue ultimatums?
One of the downsides of escalating arguments is the loss of your ability to think rationally about what you're saying. If you don't feel heard, then you're likely either to walk away or to shout louder. If your pattern is to ramp up the volume or increase the stakes, then you may be vulnerable to issuing ultimatums. The trouble is once you've started, this easily becomes a habit.

What's happened is you've lost sight of the real reason you are so upset: your need to be listened to and understood . You may be able to change your habit of issuing ultimatums and find better ways to communicate. What is more important is that you and your partner look at the pattern of your arguments and understand what triggers the escalation of your discussions into full blown rows. 

What can you do?
It's hard to look at how you row, when you're caught up in what you're rowing about but it can be done. This is best done at a time when you are not angry or upset with each other.

  • Take a virtual step back and ask yourselves: What is the most important thing you need from your relationship? It may be something like deep connection; mutual understanding, unconditional love; someone to be there for me whatever happens.... 
    The aim of this is to motivate yourselves to achieving a positive change because issuing ultimatums is unlikely to achieve any of the above!
  • Identify what triggers your rows. It could be a specific word or phrase that always causes a problem; it could be 'when you complain', or 'when you tell me what to do', or 'when you repeat something', or 'when you raise your voice' ...
  • And then what happens....?
  • And then what happens ...?
  • And then what happens ...? until you have the sequence
  • Agree what you could call this particular pattern: 'our argument dance' or 'that loop we get into'...
The next step is to ask yourselves what you could have done differently to achieve a better outcome.
If all this seems a bit difficult please get in touch.

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