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.
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):
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?