If you’ve scrolled through Netflix recently (which, who hasn’t?), you’ve likely seen a little program called The Ultimatum. From the folks that brought you Love Is Blind—including Nick and Vanessa Lachey, who host the show—The Ultimatum is described by the streaming service as such: “Six different couples, on the verge of marriage. One partner is ready to get married, the other isn’t quite as sure. An ultimatum is issued—and in just over eight weeks, they must commit to marriage, or move on. In the meantime, each will choose a new potential partner from one of the other couples, in a life-changing opportunity to get a glimpse of two different possible futures.”
Curious about the psychology behind—and efficacy of—ultimatums, we checked in with clinical psychologist Dr. Beth Pausic, Director of Behavioral Health at the telehealth company Hims & Hers, for her expert opinion on the show specifically, and generally, whether or not ultimatums do more harm to relationships than good.
What are your thoughts on ‘The Ultimatum’?
“I have seen several of the episodes. There is a lot going on! The interesting aspect of the show is that the participants are going through a structured process that really forces them to be thinking about the ultimatum and their relationship throughout. In that sense, it can help them to fully process what they want and who they want to be with.”
In your opinion, do ultimatums do more harm than good?
“I do believe ultimatums do more harm than good. When we hear the word ‘ultimatum,’ it has a negative connotation and feels threatening. Essentially, you are telling someone they have to listen and oblige or something bad will happen. Most of us don’t react well to being threatened—it is a very uncomfortable position to be in. It also shifts the dynamic of the relationship.
In an ideal situation, you’d work on having as much equality in your relationship as possible, understanding that this can ebb and flow. When you shift to an ultimatum, you have one person demanding something and setting the consequence for not complying. At that point, one partner holds all the power. If the partner agrees to the ultimatum, you have to consider what kind of lingering impact it may have on the relationship moving forward.”
From the outside looking in, a person giving their partner an ultimatum seems kind of crazy. What's the thought process behind giving your partner an ultimatum?
“It can seem ‘crazy’ from an outside perspective, but I think we can all understand how it feels to want something so badly that you could resort to using an ultimatum. While each situation is unique and there can be nuances, resorting to an ultimatum can stem from a buildup of frustration, which often leads to desperation. There could have been previous attempts to get the desired outcome that were unsuccessful, for example. When it comes to using ultimatums for things like marriage proposals, there is also a sense of hopefulness that it will get the ultimatum-giver what they want, thus relieving any internal or external pressures about the status of a relationship.”
If you really want your partner to propose but don't want to give them an ultimatum, what's the best way to tell them what you're feeling about your relationship?
“The best way is to have an open and honest conversation with your partner. It can be helpful to set some guidelines prior to the discussion, emphasizing clear and calm communication that remains respectful at all times. The conversation should focus on your wants and getting a better understanding of the wants of your partner. It’s critical to be clear on the difference between wanting and needing.
Before having the conversation with your partner, be honest with yourself about how important the proposal is to you. Be prepared to discuss the significance to you and how not being engaged makes you feel. Talk to them about what exactly you want and need from them. Be open and actively listen to their reasons and feelings about why they haven’t proposed yet. Even in the best relationships, there can be points when the partners are on different timelines, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Understand that you are at different stages and come to terms with whether or not you can be happy with that.
After the conversation, both partners should have time to reflect on what was discussed and what new information they may now have. If nothing was resolved, you can continue to have future discussions, but before you make any major decisions, you need to know which is more important to you—being engaged or remaining in a relationship with this person. Ideally you can have both, but sometimes you can’t. Be thoughtful about whether you want to continue a relationship with this person or find someone else who is more aligned with your stage of life.”