Why A Relationship Ultimatum Can Be A Great Idea

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Jenna Dewan Tatum and Channing Tatum hold top rank in the pantheon of celebrity couples with aspirational relationships. And yesterday, Jenna revealed that the reason why they ended up together is because she gave him an ultimatum.
"If you want to date other people and be free, that's fine, but we're not going to 'hang out' and 'watch movies' and all this other stuff," she said, retelling the story on The Ellen Degeneres Show. "You've got to figure out what you want, because I want to be in a relationship," she told Channing. A few days later, he came to her room and told her that he "had the chance to be free" but couldn't stop thinking about her. "Lets do it," he said, and the rest is history. So, if an ultimatum worked for them, could it work for us mortals?
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Ultimatums can be successful in the right situation, says Lena Aburdene Derhally, MS, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. She says there are good and bad ultimatums, and it depends how you use them. "If an ultimatum is being used as a tool of manipulation or is done as an empty threat, it's not a good thing," she says. A bad ultimatum would be something that's used to hold control or power over another person in a hurtful, manipulative, and disrespectful way, she says. For example, if you told your partner, "If you want to be with me, I don't want you hanging out with your friends," that would be unhealthy because you're asserting power over your partner in an unfair way. Ultimatums aren't always manipulative like this, though, and they can be a healthy way to solve a conflict, Derhally says.
"If an ultimatum is made as a boundary to protect yourself and do what's best for yourself, then it's a good thing," Derhally says. Ultimatums can be a way to stop a vicious cycle of behavior that causes you pain and anxiety, she says. If you and your partner have varying levels of commitment, for example, then you could say that you really need an answer or solid commitment (however you define that) by a certain point in time, Derhally says. "This is an example of honoring your own needs and asserting yourself, and that is always important to do," she says.

If an ultimatum is made as a boundary to protect yourself and do what's best for yourself, then it's a good thing.

Lena Aburdene Derhally
But, while there are appropriate circumstances for an ultimatum, you should really save them for serious deal-breaker issues that you can't live with, Derhally says. "All other asks of what you need should generally be communicated without an ultimatum," she says. It's easier to instead focus on setting several less dire boundaries throughout your relationship, rather than one big looming one, Derhally says.
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You can think of setting boundaries in a relationship as having "empathetic assertiveness," as Derhally puts it. The key for communicating what you want from your partner or relationship is to never criticize or blame the other person, but rather just calmly state what your terms are. Stating your demands as "I" statements instead of "you" statements can be very effective, she says. So rather than spitting out something like, "You never want to spend time with me alone," you could kindly say, "I really wish we got to spend more time alone together."
"You can also frame your request as a positive, rather than a negative," Derhally says. So, instead of saying, "You're never affectionate with me, and if you don't want to be, then what's the point of this relationship?" you could say, "I love it when you are affectionate with me on your own accord, so would you mind making a conscious effort to be more affectionate on a daily basis?" It doesn't make you needy or nagging to just ask for what you want, she says.
With all this in mind, it's important to recognize if there are destructive things happening in your relationship (like emotional or verbal abuse), since an ultimatum might not be the safest option for you, Derhally says. "The best thing you can do is consider leaving the relationship entirely, or being very clear that if the bad behavior doesn't end, you will leave," she says. If that sounds like your relationship, you might want to consider reaching out to a domestic abuse counselor or therapist who can help you figure out the safest plan for you (Safe Horizon has an anonymous hotline, if you're not sure where to start).
At the end of the day, being explicit about what you consider appropriate behavior in a relationship — from small issues like how much you hang out alone, to big ones like when you're going to get married — is almost always worthwhile if you want your relationship to thrive, and it doesn't make you high-maintenance, Derhally says.
If you're not sure if something is "worth it" to bring up to your partner, just remember: "Healthy relationships are ones where you can clearly express yourself and your partner will listen and respect you," she says. Whether that means setting an ultimatum or just communicating what your boundaries and needs are, know that open communication is something you 100% deserve. Hey, it worked for Channing and Jenna — and we'll have whatever they're having.
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