It’s easy to fight dirty. When we’re stressed, when we’re frustrated, when we’re just at the end of our rope, it’s easy to stop communicating in a constructive way and reach to whatever you can in order to get your point across. And, all too often, that’s where ultimatums come in. Relationship ultimatums are dangerous. If you start to say, “I want X or we’re done” or “I need this to happen in the next six months or I’m leaving you,” it can create a huge impact; suddenly the disagreement turns into something else completely.
But often when we’re making an ultimatum, we don’t think of them as unreasonable—and this issue comes up a lot around marriage and engagements. Saying, “I want to be married in the next two years, so you have to propose in the next six months” may sound like you're just putting your wants and needs out there—but the reality is, as soon as you put it in the context of an ultimatum (even an implied one), it's a lot more complicated.
And it happens more often than you think. “Making engagement ultimatums is, unfortunately, very common and very unproductive,” relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein tells Brides. Here’s what you need to know about ultimatums and engagements—and more productive ways to start the conversation.
Even When They Work, They’re Hugely Problematic
To understand why ultimatums sometimes happen, it’s important to remember the huge societal pressure placed on women to get married. It shouldn't be there, but it is. If they’re getting pressure from a conservative family, friends who put too much emphasis on marriage, and society at large, it can all add up to a ton of pressure. “Often the women in a long-term couple are ready to take the next step towards engagement before their male partners,” Hartstein says. “This can sometimes end up in a standoff where one partner feels like their only option is to issue an ultimatum. Unfortunately, this can really wreak havoc on the relationship. It makes the partners adversarial and can really suck the love and joy out of the relationship, at least for the time being.”
It turns the relationship into a total pressure cooker. And yes, sometimes ultimatums work. Sometimes, if you say you need something or the relationship is over, the person will do whatever it is you say—even if it’s something as life-changing as an engagement. But just because ultimatums can work, it doesn’t mean they’re healthy. Starting your married life off with an ultimatum means that one person felt hostage to the other, that they felt that they had to do something. Do you really want your relationship—or your marriage—to start out with a sense of fear or obligation?
If you feel pressure to issue an ultimatum or to get engaged, try to take a step back and focus on your reasons—is this about the relationship between the two of you or are you feeling pressured by outside forces?
A Compromise Is Always Healthier
If an engagement is really crucial for you, try to take time with your partner in an active conversation rather than issuing an ultimatum. “Many couples seek out therapy at this time because it really turns into a standoff,” Hartstein says. “Aside from therapy, the best course of action is to figure out a way to meet in the middle. Clearly, the engagement isn’t going to happen as soon as one person would like, but the other partner needs to figure out a way to get there in a reasonable amount of time, or let their partner know if they don’t think that they are ever going to get there.”
If you really feel like it’s important that an engagement comes soon, then try to explain why. Talk to your partner about how it makes you feel, what it means to you, and what their resistance says to you. If they understand where you’re coming from, rather than feeling trapped, you’ll be on your way to a healthier conversation.
And Remember: A Relationship Is Bigger Than a Marriage License
Finally, even if marriage is a priority to you, try not to obsess over it. Instead remember everything else that is great about your relationship.“The other helpful piece of advice is to try not to have marriage be the focal point of every conversation,” Hartstein says. “Try to focus on the good parts of the relationship and the reasons you came together in the first place!” If you feel happy, healthy, excited, and supported in your relationship, then you have a lot to be thankful for. Keep that in mind when you’re stressing about putting a ring on it. If marriage is one of your top priorities then that is totally fair, but you have to think about whether it’s worth damaging a wonderful relationship with an ultimatum. Marriage will always be there.
Choosing if and when to engaged is an emotional subject for a lot of people—and it’s totally normal to have strong feelings. But make sure that rather than giving in to the pressure, you’re focusing on what’s best for your relationship. Rather than ultimatums, conversations are always the way forward. Because if the engagement does come, you want to have started your married life out on the right foot.