Do Ultimatums Really Work?

Bonnie Anchors recalls a painful lesson well learned from a past relationship: She can't change someone, no matter how hard she tries.

The Natrona resident says she fell hard for a charming man, although he later shattered her heart. Anchors says she gave her partner several ultimatums about fidelity and substance abuse, and although he sometimes briefly heeded them, she says he soon would go back to his old ways. Again and again, Anchors took him back, until she finally broke up with him permanently, after eight years together.

"It becomes a codependency," says Anchors, 51. "You think you can fix somebody, and they're going to change for you, but they won't.

"He told me he would never change," she says. "He wasn't the person that changed; I was."

Ah, the ultimatum -- a dirty word for many people. Nobody likes to receive one, and people who give ultimatums to others often feel desperate, experts say. A classic example is the woman who gives her boyfriend an ultimatum about committing to and marrying her within a certain time frame. Or, it might be a friend or family member who warns the out-of-control alcoholic to get help and stop drinking, or the relationship is over. Ultimatums also can come into play regarding small issues, like when a parent tells her daughter to clean her room, or she'll be grounded for a day.

But, is the hard-line "this or that" approach necessary to get someone to shape up and change their behavior? Do strict ultimatums -- "Do this or I'm out of here" -- work, or do they backfire? "It all depends on whether you're trying to change someone for their own good, or whether you're trying to get them to do something for your good," says Paul Friday, the chief of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside. "Neither work," he says. "That's the thing they have in common." Ultimatums create resentment with the receiver, Friday says, and can unconsciously motivate him or her to continue the behavior. Even if an ultimatum does work -- for instance, a guy finally marries his girlfriend -- it has lingering effects on the relationship, Friday says. The husband might not really have wanted to get married, and felt forced into it. "Change is the toughest thing you can do," Friday says. "You can't change other people." Ultimatums, which are thought of as negative, should not be confused with setting firm boundaries, which are positive, experts say; surely, no one should stay in a dead-end or harmful relationship, and tolerate bad behavior. Yet the line between boundaries and ultimatums can be a fine one.
Rebecca Harvey, director of the graduate program in marriage and family therapy at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, says the difference between ultimatums and boundaries lies in the mindset, the wording, and the actions versus threatening words. "For me, an ultimatum is a high-pressure technique," she says. "An ultimatum, to me, sort of simplifies everything. "Ultimatums ... do not work, as they are attempts to control another rather than confront your own needs and desires," Harvey says. "Usually, when someone gives an ultimatum, they are feeling out of control, and the urge is to use a high-pressure technique to force a partner to change." If the mindset of would-be ultimatum-givers, though, is that they are taking control of their own lives, and they phrase it that way, the statement has a different, softer effect, and it can be more effective, Harvey says. For instance, if a wife discovers that her husband is having an affair, she can say, "I can't work on this marriage until I know you're not seeing her anymore, and I need a guarantee that you're going to work on this marriage." That sounds different than, "Stop seeing your mistress now, and things will go back to normal; if you don't, I'll leave."
"Rather than saying, 'I'm trying to get you to change' ... I'm simply saying what I will do," Harvey says in explaining the difference between issuing ultimatums and boundaries. "One is about trying to control you, and the other is about saying what I will do." Likewise, when a woman has an honest, heart-to-heart talk with a partner about her desire for marriage someday, and asks him how he feels about it, she can decide whether to continue the relationship. That's not the same thing as cornering him and demanding a proposal within three months. Whether people choose to issue an ultimatum or set a clear boundary, they must back it with matching action, Friday and Harvey say. Otherwise, they lose all credibility. "If you give an ultimatum to somebody, you have to be prepared to follow through," Friday says. Betty Ranallo, 82, of Squirrel Hill, can attest to that. Years ago, she says a friend of her husband's did regular repairs for free on their house. When the man started acting in a way that gave Ranallo and her daughters the creeps, she told her husband several times to get rid of the guy, or else. When her husband's didn't respect her wishes, that was that. "I said, 'He goes or I go,'" Ranallo says. "So I left."
Guidelines for Ultimatums Think carefully and do some soul-searching, and maybe grieving, before issuing an ultimatum, or just setting a firm boundary. Do you really mean that you will leave the relationship, and are you prepared for the consequences?If you're not prepared to carry it out, don't issue an ultimatum, or state a consequence regarding boundaries.Focus more on your actions than your words. Rather than threatening to leave repeatedly, if a situation isn't improving and you've tried to change it, just leave.Try to avoid hyperbole and drama with an ultimatum or boundary. Speak it in a calm, clear and centered way.Realize that someone will change only if and when he or she is ready, and there may not be anything you can do to get them there. Sources: Psychologist Paul Friday; marriage/family therapist Rebecca Harvey
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