02 October 2009

Ultimatums... are they ever good?

This question came up on a poly email list that I am a member of recently, and I thought I'd share my own stories about it as well as general discussion about it. I posted a link from "Ask Richard" recently that also has some good comments regarding ultimatums, so have a read of that also.

Anyway, ultimatums...

Early on in my life, when I was starting relationships with other people, I ended up in a relationship with two different boys. One of them gave me the classic ultimatum, "choose". I didn't like it then, but felt obliged to because no one at all had multiple partners... I ended up choosing the guy who issued the ultimatum, which in the end wasn't the wisest decision I had made.

Many years, and in a different relationship, later I issued an ultimatum. I told my partner, who had been suffering clinical depression for 9 years, that he had to now get help/treatment or I'd leave. I was beyond my ability to cope with the depression any longer and couldn't do it on my own any more, as I had been. It was at this point where I knew that if my partner didn't get help I genuinely would leave the relationship for my own sanity and well being. I wasn't making an idle threat, I was being honest about the state of affairs as far as I was concerned, and I had made mental plans about what to do if my partner didn't seek treatment.

So my ultimatum was more a statement of facts about how I felt at that time. Thankfully he went and sought treatment and we're still together. He realised that I was telling him how the world was shaped for me at that time, and knew that his options were to seek treatment (which he knew he needed) or say goodbye to me.

I personally hate issuing ultimatums. I don't want to have to force people to choose one course of action over another or one person over another. They really are the last resort for me and I'll try everything else before I go close to an ultimatum, and sometimes I'll just walk away rather than make the ultimatum.

As AskRichard said, you have to really mean it when you issue an ultimatum. You have to be prepared to do the "or else" bit of it. You can't issue and ultimatum and then have the individual/s not do what you asked for and then fail to follow through with the "or else" part because that undermines your own credibility and could suggest that you issue threats to try to get your own way, not because of any genuine reason (such as being unable to cope with a certain situation).

Anyway, here are some other thoughts about ultimatums (identifying features from those who made the comments have been removed):

Person 1

Ultimatums. (e.g. "Do this or I won't do that.")

Generally I avoid them like the plague - likening them to bringing a knife into the relationship ("cut me or I'll cut you!"). I'm aware this is an exaggeration, but people tend to get into a habit of putting up with them until they get to that level of importance emotionally.

I'm also very careful to be aware of "couched" (aka "slippery") ultimatums. (e.g. "You can do this, but if something else happens, then I'll do that.")

I see them as a discussion-stopper; something to end a discussion without really understanding the other person's point of view or empathising with them. I may go so far as to say that ultimatums can be seen as dehumanising the person you're attempting to ultimatum. If
you give someone an ultimatum, then you're effectively lowering them to the level of someone who's only purpose is to do everything your way. The compromise has ended, then communication has ended.

Obviously, the importance of the issue in contention has a great effect. Usually people become acutely aware of them, tho, when they're used in a "final" or great sense, or when the cause and effect is greatly imbalanced. e.g. "Don't talk to him again or I'll dump you."

Whereas "Stop eating that ice cream or our baby will die" is obviously imbalanced in the other direction.

When people give ultimatums, it's usually a miscommunication. What they're really trying to say is "That would hurt me really badly." The next question I'd ask in that situation is "Why would that hurt you really badly?"

The problem I've always had with ultimatums is that most people don't really know. It's usually a response to something that happened a long time ago (e.g. childhood experiences, early relationship failure, etc.) combined with a strong insecurity that makes them want to control the
situation. But by the time they get to dishing out an ultimatum, they're usually too upset to consider that they themselves could be overreacting. "You're wrong, you're damn wrong, and you should be made to feel the pain I did!"

I know that alot of this is generalisations (as most of my discussions tend to be - I tend to think big all the time).

In my experience, the times I myself have issued ultimatums, I've regretted them very shortly afterwards, even going back to people and apologising and explaining myself - somewhat embarrassingly.

Most of the ultimatums I've experienced, however, have come from other people. I seem to be the person people want to control, even though I tend to be more committed to things than the average male.

What do people think?

How do you help (diffuse?) someone who's worked themselves up to an ultimatum?

Distinct categorisation tends to fuel this, I find. e.g. "You can't be in a poly relationship with someone who's mono." How do you convince someone that there's overlap when they don't see it, or don't believe it?

Do you walk away and hope the person realises they've made a terrible error of judgement?

What do you do if the person is totally and utterly convinced that there are only two options?

Person 2

Why would you want to convince somebody of something they have decided isn't there?

If somebody delivers an ultimatum, what I see them saying is "You have challenged what I currently see as an absolute value" or "I cannot budge from this value at this time"

Who are we to take away somebody's personal values? We can challenge values, offer alternative values, present a case for our own values - most importantly ensure they are seen as individual values and not enshrined in law.

Its sort of like trying to convince and atheist that deities exist, or convince a religious person that they don't. Why?

Taking it back to polyamory - the statement "You can't be in a poly perosn with someone who is mono" is perfectly legitimate - for the person who believes it. What they are saying is "I can't be in a relationship with somebody who is not the same as me." Doesn't mean the statement is true for everyone - but it is true for them, and should be honoured. It mightn't be true tomorrow, it mightn't have been true yesterday - but RIGHT NOW the statement is their personal truth.

I would accept an ultimatum as "Right now I won't be budging on this thought/idea/value/condition." Then, being the hard faced bugger that I am, I'd probably do what I like anyway, and take the rap.

Person 3

On a slightly different note on ultimatums:

One thing I've recently worked out is that an ultimatum does not force me to choose anything. Just because someone else has communicated what decision they currently intend to make at a future date does not mean that I have to do anything at all in the present.

Even if there is no (intended) bluff factor, ultimatums do limit the issuer's future possible action, but they don't limit mine in any way.

The issuer is in effect forcing themselves to decide a certain way while I am able to use this new information (including bluff weighting) and change my actions or continue on with default actions (ie, pretending the ultimatum was not issued at all).

I believe that a lot of the power in an ultimatum comes from: "A or B. YOU choose."

There can be a C (or many of them). Or a D: the ultimatum can be ignored.

What I've written hopefully works in theory. It's a shitty situation to be in in actuality.

Person 4

An ultimatum can be a threat, and that's probably a bad thing. But something that might be readable as an ultimatum could also be a straightforward statement of boundaries: "this situation/behaviour is not something I can live with". Which I'd say is information that it's
reasonable to want to convey.

For example: say you have a partner who gets abusive when they're drunk, but nevertheless keeps getting drunk. To say "I'm not prepared to keep putting myself in this situation" could be read as an ultimatum. But it's also a valid position to hold; and you might well want to say that
to your partner before upping sticks and leaving. (Whether saying it will/would change anything is of course another matter.) That's a fairly extreme example, but in general I think that one is entitled to decide what you can or can't live with, and that explaining that to people affected by it is legit. To say "ultimatums are bad!" can end up as another way to shut people down.

Person 5

To come at this from a sort of side angle:

I think that ultimatums are often (as you say) about expressions of pain.

It seems to me that they can also embody personal boundaries, and in fact often do.

Whether a person is saying in effect, "If you cross this line, you will cause me intolerable pain" or "If I remain in relationship with you after you cross this line, I am transgressing my personal integrity", there may still be a boundary there that has to be accepted. In my experience, if a matter of personal integrity is involved, the person giving the ultimatum is often calmer and more centered, and will be consistent with their boundary over a long period of time.

I think that, whether they are expressive of painful damage or of clearly defined personal boundaries, ultimatums should be treated with respect. (If a person habitually (and inconsistently) issues ultimatums on many issues, of course, it's probably an inappropriate means of controlling things, but in my experience that is uncommon.

I'm not meaning to say that once an ultimatum has been issued that it can't be explored. A request for explanation and understanding is reasonable, especially if you feel harshly constrained by the ultimatum.

Pain issues can be worked on, but only with mutual agreement about process. Personal boundaries of integrity can change over time, although they may not. But the control of that exploration needs to be in the hands of the issuer, and the ultimatum perhaps needs to be accepted as a valid expression before it can be explored.


So, there are lots of different ideas about ultimatums in relationships. My personal advice is that they are last resort things and that all other issues should have been explored with good communication techniques before it comes to issuing an ultimatum.

What do you think?

22 August 2009

A couple of interesting blog posts on polyamory

Both are from The Friendly Atheist.

The first post is about methods to deal with a religiously conservative family's reaction to news about polyamory. The second is about polyamory (mostly US focused but relevant elsewhere) and civil rights for poly people.


27 May 2009

So is polyamory scary?

Well I think it depends on what you are afraid of, and fear is not necessarily a bad thing, though it can be inhibiting.

Social conventions

Breaking with social conventions and expectations can be a terrifying thing for some people. The fear that you could be targeted by those who disagree with anyone breaking social mores is valid, however, with poly communities in much of the Western world, you'll not be alone in deciding to live differently to social convention.

What to do about such fear? Well I'd recommend finding a poly community and talking to them about identification issues and safety, and how they deal with it in their local area.

There are poly communities in Australia, the United States, the UK, Canada, South Africa, France, Portugal, Mexico, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, the Philippines, Spain, Switzerland and Sweden just to name a few (http://www.polyamorysociety.org/localgroups.html and http://www.polyamory.org/SF/groups.html).

Many of the poly people I know don't disclose their lifestyle choices beyond their immediate circle of intimates, some may extend that to family and friends, but not many people publicly identify as being poly. I suspect that this may be because of a lack of good poly role-models, and some of this being due to the whole poly concept being relatively new as far as social movements go.

So, apart from bigotry and in some very conservative communities the risk of losing your employment and children, what else have you to fear?


Some people, and I've been amongst them, are afraid that with the increased number of relationships is the increased potential for break ups and hurt occurs. To put it simply, yes that is true.

But what this simple explanation does not take into account is that with the increased number of relationships, there is an increased amount of support, and that for those who join a poly community, exist another support network, because most of them have been through it too at some point.

Remember, even monogamy is a world of hurt and break up, very few people marry the first person they dated. It is very different being involved in one break up and yet having another deeply happy and loving relationship existing to return to, and to be able to cry on your partner's shoulder about the partner that has left, died, etc.

So there are high highs and low lows, but I think that in this field, polyamory actually comes across better off than monogamy.

Personal Growth

This one can be quite scary. As I've suggested before, and certainly have experienced, a monogamous relationship challenges your personal growth to a certain point before comfort, other and self knowledge set in. Not being someone with a long history (or any real history) of multiple monogamous relationships, I suppose I'm not the best qualified to discuss how this works outside my own experience, however polyamory is a real challenge to personal growth.

Its harder to explain away to yourself and your partner quirks, blind spots and baggage when it is obvious to more than two of you. That can be rather scary and hard work. In the end though, it is worth it. I undertook 2 years of good counselling to deal with some of my baggage and blind spots, because I could see that they were getting in the way.

(Actually I recommend good counselling to everyone, monogamous or polyamorous or even asexual. Good counselling is good for you. Very few people have issue free childhoods after all.)

For many of the poly people I know, and for those I am in relationships with, polyamory has increased our self awareness and emotional intelligence and certainly has held up big signs pointing to issues that need to be resolved. Its not all smooth sailing, but the rewards are awesome in the end.

I've certainly found, despite the need to work hard on my own shit, that I'm now a much more secure, confident and powerful individual than when I first entered the world of polyamory. This is my experience and the experience of others I know.

Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

I'm specifically referring to fear here, and really this is something that I can't tell you and you have to judge for yourself. However, if the fear of personal growth and potential hurt is something you are prepared to accept, the next step is dealing with society.

You don't have to tell the world that you are poly, you can live a quiet and unassuming life. You can choose also, to stand up to the world and tell those who disagree with you to go away and leave you alone. In the end, its your choice.

12 April 2009

Love - part 2

In thinking about love and forms of love, and in a conversation I had with James recently, I came upon a realisation that there are some people who I think (and this is more of an observation than a certainty) who fall in love with the idea of someone more than the reality of that person.

I'll explain.

But first I'll start with how I've observed this, and where my ideas come from (and hope that this all makes sense).

  • People in relationships with someone who discover that their partner is bisexual, and then feel threatened, disgusted, upset that their partner is bisexual (wonder why people don't always disclose everything, particularly sexuality?).
  • People who discover that their partner has an interest or desire that is an unexpected surprise, such as football allegiances opposite to their own, sexual desire that their partner finds perverse, etc
  • People who discover that the person that they are in a relationship with is not the person they thought they were initially
Ok, so... people tend to focus on their own reality, essentially there is nothing wrong with this, but what if you force your own reality onto someone else? Is that right?

Really, what I'm asking is whether you love someone for who they really are, giving them the freedom to be truly themselves, or whether you love an idea or aspect of that person, trying to conform them into your vision of who they are?

I know it is a frightening thing to discover that your partner/friend/sibling/parent is someone with their own goals, images of who they are and desires for their life, but in the end, I honestly believe that it makes for a stronger relationship to love everything positive about that person, even if it doesn't fit in with your preconceived ideas of who that person was before you discovered something new and different.

So, if you are monogamous and you entered a relationship with a polyamorous person, knowing full well that they are poly, is it right for you to expect that your partner remain monogamous with you just with you? Do you have a responsibility to love and respect all of that person and therefore give them the freedom to be themselves completely? Now, the poly person may have promised to be monogamous in that relationship, but I don't like to expect people to keep promises that are against their nature, which is my own personal view of the world.

I'd much prefer to allow my partners to love and live how they will provided they are doing no harm to me or others. I want my partners to have the freedom to be their complete selves and know that they have that freedom. I love them with that freedom and am secure enough in my relationships with them to know that despite what they end up doing, who they love, who they have sex with and who they spend time with, that they will love me, spend time with me, and continue to be in relationships with me unless the relationship ends naturally.

I'm a big believer in freedom, I don't want to be fettered and so won't fetter others. It isn't easy, I've been insecure at times, frightened at others, but long-term it has worked out the best way for me and my partners. They know I give them the freedom to be themselves and consequently they give me the freedom to be myself. At no time do I have to worry that my partner/s are jealous that I've flirted or talked to another person, that I might be interested in someone else and have to tread softly around the subject with them. I do not feel that I am a possession, but an individual in my own right.

I would like to challenge people to find security in their relationships and within themselves to weather any storm. I challenge people to then give their partner/friends/siblings/parents/family the complete freedom to be themselves. Don't be scared, it could be the start to a magical journey.

09 March 2009


There are some sad things that I have come across in my life about love and some misconceptions as well. First the sad things.

On a work trip recently a colleague and I were talking about relationships, love, polyamory, lesbianism, family and the like. She asked me what I meant when I said I "fell in love with" or that I "loved" my partners.

I replied that I loved them, but she asked me to define that. So I struggled to find words that fit into her own personal dictionary - which was difficult since we come from such different spaces in the world.

In the end, she told me that she doesn't love people like I do, and in fact that she doesn't love her current partner. She loves her children, but she grew out of falling in love with people and so is very fond of her partner and cares for her, but does not love her.

I found this sad, mostly because of the idea that you could "grow out of falling in love" and that people over the world enter relationships without love, and I know there are many cultures in the world where that happens and has been happening for years, and that in those cultures love can be found... it still makes me sad though.

Right, so if you have grown up and yet still find yourself in love or falling in love with people, don't ever let that go.

So, the second thing is about love as a renewable resource. One thing many poly people say is that "love is not a starvation economy". I'm going to explain that here in writing so that it makes as much sense as I can make it, so that there might be more understanding about love and how it works for us poly people at least.

A starvation economy suggests that if I love A, and then love B, the total love I have for A diminishes as I'm now sharing it with B also. Its probably easier to talk in terms of food, which is a finite/starvation economy.

If I have a loaf of bread that I intend to share with A, then we're going to get around 50% of the bread each. If B comes along and asks for some bread, then we'll all get around 33% of the bread. With each person asking for some bread, the amount of bread available to each person lessens.

Love is not like this. If a mother loves her first child, then if she has another, then the first child does not have less love. If a person loves their friend, then making a new friend does not mean that the love for the first friend diminishes.

Time is a finite resource, but time and love are two different things.

So I love James, and I love him very very much. When I fell in love with Scott, I didn't start loving James less. If anything I loved him more. When I fell in love with Nadia, I didn't love James or Scott less, I love them all.

Love is actually infinite. There is no upper limit to the capacity of love people have inside them, though there may be limitations on whether people can access that or not - looking at my example above.

I have had people ask me why I fell in love with someone else if I loved my husband. Its because I could, because I can, because that's the way I'm wired. I tend to fall in love easily and out of love slowly. This does not make me wrong, this just makes me different.

Being able to love multiple people is not immoral, is not unethical, is not illegal. Acting upon it might be if it is not discussed or disclosed - see my earlier post.

So, I hope that explains my position about love not being finite.