Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: You’ve advised in the past that sometimes you owe it to people to let them know what a certain behavior will cost them or what damage they are doing to the relationship. I recall you saying something like that to a woman whose husband was going on a two-week solo vacation. Where do you draw the distinction between that and an ultimatum?
I gave my partner an ultimatum about seeking professional help for his depression. We’d had numerous discussions, I had told him exactly how the issue was affecting me and the relationship, he agreed he needed help, I had found resources and phone numbers for him, he’d made promises to make the call, and nothing had happened. He had been putting off seeking help for over a year when I finally sat him down and said, “I love you and I know you’re hurting, but for my own good I cannot stay in a relationship with someone who won’t take care of his health. I want you to understand that if you don’t seek help for your depression, that is a deal-breaker for me.”
I knew I was delivering an ultimatum, and normally I’m not a fan of ultimatums, but in that circumstance it seemed necessary to be that plainspoken. For him, it was the wake-up call he needed. In the fog of depression, he needed that strong a message to make him finally take action.
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And yes, if he still had not sought treatment, our relationship would not have lasted much longer. It was a last-ditch effort.
I guess I’m asking: In your opinion, do you think an ultimatum is never justified?
I do think they can be justified; the classic example I’ve used is when there’s a substance abuse issue: “You get in treatment for the drinking or I will leave.”
There are two points that I look for before I recommend an ultimatum. The first is an element of safety or health. Getting someone into treatment for a serious health condition is life or death, if not in the near future then eventually. Getting someone to marry you or load the dishwasher properly is not.
The second point is in the motivation behind what you’re twisting someone’s arm to do. If you’re asking for a behavior or personality change just because you don’t like the person as-is, and you want to use the threat of your leaving as motivation for that change, then you’re asking for this for your own benefit. Even if you have that right (doubtful) and even if you succeed, the old behavior/personality trait is likely to creep back in as the threat of your departure diminishes.
When you’re trying to motivate someone to get help, it’s ultimately for the other person’s good. While a person has to want help for it to work, I think of treatment as a two-hurdle process, with seeking care as the first hurdle and investing in it as the second. The second hurdle is a non-issue if a person doesn’t clear the first, and so, OK, you use an ultimatum to pick someone up and heave them over the first one.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.