Gentlemen Speak: What You Need to Know Before You Give Your Man an Ultimatum

Are ultimatums helpful or harmful for a relationship?
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Are ultimatums helpful or harmful for a relationship?

I met a woman over the weekend who had been waiting for her man to get his shit together, buy a ring, get down on one knee, and pop the question. But it wasn’t happening fast enough for her taste, and she told him so—a classic dating ultimatum.

She told her guy that she wanted to be proposed to by the end of the year—or she would need to find someone else. She loved him and was ready to move on to the next phase of their relationship. As much as she tried to be patient, she explained that if he didn’t know he wanted to marry her yet, he might never know. He took all the time she gave him, but he did eventually deliver a proposal.

This is the kind of story that will make many women say "see... ultimatums work!" But to be honest, the whole idea of ultimatums seems like an unpleasant kind of power struggle to me.

It seems to me that the "my-way-or-the-highway" line of thinking characterized by an ultimatum isn’t ideal for male-female relationships. We usually hear of compromise being the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. The risk with ultimatums is that there’s an inherent one-sided coerciveness to them—"do this or else...." Your words take on more power. You're guaranteed to see an outcome, whether it's the one you want or not. It might be just the push your guy needs. Or you might convince a man to do something he wouldn’t (or maybe shouldn’t) do otherwise, and that might turn out to be a big mistake. After all, do you want a man to marry you because he wants to, or because you pressured him into it?

This isn't to say that women shouldn't be able to voice their opinion. Quite the contrary. As a man who generally prefers taking the initiative in a relationship, I appreciate it when a woman gives me clear expectations for a relationship upfront. Rather than having to hear about her unmet needs somewhere down the road, or worse, floundering to try and figure them out on my own, I like to know what she needs from the start.

Once upon a time I started going on dates with a woman who didn’t like the idea of me seeing other women at the same time. We were still very new, in my opinion, and I simply wasn’t ready to be exclusive with her. But that’s what she wanted, and we ended up going our separate ways as a result. I actually really appreciated her straightforwardness, and while it was a somewhat uncomfortable way to part, it was certainly for the better.

There’s actually reason to believe it’s better for a woman to challenge a man than not. Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman suggests that marriages in which the husband “accepts influence” from his wife are the marriages that last. That doesn’t mean that he’s a pushover or that she's pushy. It means that there’s a “balance of power” between the man and the woman.

Psychologists initially thought that simply changing the language used in disagreements was the most important factor in a happy marriage. An example of this change of language are “active listening” techniques, some of which you may have heard before. For example instead just sitting there listening, you wait until your partner is done speaking and respond with something like, “Ok, what I hear you saying is…” But Gottman says this kind of listening is not enough. It’s far more important that women simply make their concerns known and men heed them—with or without the psychobabble (and preferably without). Turns out, it’s not enough for a man to simply be better at letting a woman know that he’s listening. Instead, the relationships that worked in Gottman’s studies were those in which the men not only stated that they were listening but actually showed that they were listening by exhibiting a change in behavior.

The way I understand this is what my married friends call the rule of “Happy Wife, Happy Life.” These men have realized that when they put in the effort to do the things that they know will make their wives happy, they then get along better with their wives, which then means that they end up being happier. Sounds simple enough. What makes it difficult is when a woman isn’t clear about what exactly she wants. Perhaps you’ve noticed, ladies, but we men aren’t always too good at picking up on subtleties and non-verbals. My guess is that a lot of ultimatums happen because men are missing the “signs” that women are putting out there. She’s frustrated because he doesn’t seem to get it, and he’s frustrated because he doesn’t feel like he’s been given a fair chance. But when a woman is able to communicate expectations clearly and proactively, men are (typically) perfectly happy to oblige.

Again, this isn’t about who gets wear the proverbial "pants" in the relationship. In fact, the point is that there are actually plenty of pairs to go around. By far one of the most important traits I look for in a woman is that I can consider her my equal. I don’t want to be constantly having to prove myself to her and trying not to slip up any more than I want her to feel like she has to do that for me. She can’t be afraid to call me out on my b.s.—but not in such a way that she lords a superiority over me or threatens me with a breakup all the time.

Zach Brittle, Verily’s male relationship guru and Gottman-certified marriage counselor, suggests this approach: Instead of demanding change from a partner, express your feeling in the form of “I desire” statements—and not just I desire for me, but I desire for us. Think about it: Would you rather hear from your man that (a) he demands more alone time with his buddies or (b) that he wants to feel free to spend more time with his guy friends because that’s how he feels loved by you? Because he feels trusted when he can have a guys’ night? Because he feels refreshed and more able to love you?

Sure, it can be satisfying and even empowering to lay it all on the line in ultimatum to your significant other. But if it ever truly gets to a point where you feel the need to put your foot down and make an all-or-nothing demand, likely something went wrong long before you got there. Before we ever get to a point in a relationship when we must offer an ultimatum, there are opportunities to express our expectations, boundaries, and desires. By making your expectations clear from the beginning and sticking to them along the way, you'll give your significant other the chance to love you—with no demands required.

Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography