Do Ultimatums in Marriage Work

Marriage Advice for those who are unhappy, married and miserable

July 30, 2015

If I told you that setting an ultimatums in marriage can be one of the smartest things you can do for your relationship, would you believe me? In fact, Ultimatums can be necessary and the only way to save a marriage. Click To Tweet And yet I find that most people are either reluctant to use them, or don’t really know how to use them and end up making a big mess.


When Are Ultimatums in Marriage Necessary?

Ultimatums become necessary when your partner pushes against your bottom line and refuses to take whatever steps are necessary to make things right again.

Your bottom line is the place where you cannot continue to feel safe, secure and respected in a relationship as long as certain behavior goes unchanged. It’s the place where you feel you can’t continue in this relationship if something doesn’t change.

Sometimes, ultimatums are the only way we can protect ourselves and the relationship.  If your husband is an alcoholic who refuses treatment, how can you protect yourself?

You can’t make him do the right thing.

You can’t control how much he drinks.

But you can control what you will tolerate.

You can control how much misery you endure and how long you wait for him to see how his behavior is destroying the marriage.

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Ultimatums in Marriage are Scary

We want the relationship to work.  We love our spouse even though they are hurting us. And we are scared that the ultimatum will force the relationship to end.

If we really are at our bottom line that means we know we can’t continue on if things don’t change.  Since we can’t control our spouse’s behavior, it is very possible we will be forced to follow through with the ultimatum.

This is terrifying, so we avoid using the only real power we have and instead we explode in anger or implode into hopelessness and depression. When we explode, we feel more powerful as we tell our partner we aren’t going to take this anymore and we threaten to leave if things don’t improve.

Because our actions never match our words, we are actually only becoming even more powerless.

We are teaching our partner that we don’t mean what we say.

It becomes easy for our partner to make nice for a while to appease us and then go back to the behavior that is destroying the relationship.

Or worse: for our spouse to disregard us entirely like the teacher on Peanuts…”wah wah wah” or the “nut job” who overreacts.

I am often telling my marriage counseling clients that getting so angry and making meaningless threats doesn’t mean they aren’t taking it anymore.

It means they are taking it, but taking it angrily.

All that anger will destroy the relationship even if the offending behavior does not.

Either way, they will continue to live in a miserable marriage until they are willing to set an ultimatum or the relationship continues to erode until there is nothing left.

What I like about ultimatums is that it shows your partner that you really do mean business, and it gives them the chance to clean up their act sooner rather than later.  (Later is oftentimes too late.)

The most common reason women leave a marriage is that, for women, the longer the resentment builds up, the greater the chance she will shut down.

When her partner does change, it no longer matters to her.

By the time he’s willing to change, she’s already given up.

Had the wife spoken up and given a meaningful ultimatum earlier in the conflict, it could have changed the outcome drastically.

Do Ultimatums In Marriage Work?

Yes! There are two possible outcomes in each ultimatum situation.

The first is the most desirable.  Your spouse gets it and has to come to terms with the possibility of losing you.  This forces him/her to confront their bad behavior and make changes and repair.  The relationship is on a fast track to healing.

The second outcome is the one we feared would happen.  Our spouse refuses to acknowledge their contribution to the destruction of the relationship or work to repair it.

But even this is a win because I promise you, this is the eventual end you would have come to anyway.  It’s a win because you haven’t spent years in misery and whittling yourself down to a nub in the process.

You know sooner rather than later that this marriage is destructive and doomed to fail.

The Difference Between Ultimatums and Boundaries

I think it is important to understand the difference between ultimatums and boundaries.  Every healthy relationship has boundaries.

I’m not going to be happy if my husband comes home from work grumpy and bites my head off.  If this happens frequently, I will set a boundary or limit.  I may stop greeting him at the door, or I may choose to eat dinner alone on those nights.

I will protect myself respectfully, but I don’t see this as worthy of putting the whole relationship on the line.

Boundaries are necessary to navigate daily stresses and annoyances. Click To Tweet Ultimatums are the big guns.  You only use them for truly relationship-threatening behavior such as abuse (of any kind) or infidelity.

Using ultimatums for boundary issues is a huge mistake.  If you use them inappropriately, you will become the controlling, abusive partner in the relationship.

Using Ultimatums in Marriage: Real life examples

Joe and Emily: Life with an alcoholic

Emily believed that her husband Joe had a drinking problem.  She begged and pleaded and tried to change him, but nothing worked.  Because of his drinking habits, Joe lost his job, and Emily felt hopeless about the whole situation.

During our counseling session, I helped Emily work on an ultimatum.

Emily calmly told Joe that he had two weeks to find a 30-day treatment center at an inpatient clinic for alcoholics.  And after that, he would need to sign up with a sponsor for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Joe tested Emily’s resolve and didn’t seek treatment within the two week time frame, so Emily packed up the kids and went to stay with her mother.

Joe checked in to a  treatment center the next day.

Joe finished his treatment and enrolled in AA with a sponsor, and he is doing very well these days.

In this extreme case, Emily knew something had to change, and she put her marriage at risk.  In the end, they were able to work through their issues and make a profound difference in their marriage.

Matt & Lisa: A sexless marriage

Matt and Lisa came to see me because they weren’t having sex.

They had been married for 25 years and it had been 5 years since they last made love.

Lisa simply wasn’t interested.  In fact, she never really enjoyed sex.

She was happy to live as roommates, but Matt was becoming increasingly frustrated. He was tired of the endless rejection and felt Lisa was being selfish.

In my office, I established there was no physical or emotional reason Lisa was refusing sex. She wasn’t depressed.  She had a complete physical and all was normal.  There was no history of sexual abuse or trauma. She said she just had a lower sex drive than her husband.

I explained to Lisa there was a difference between a low sex drive and going 5 years without sex!

Matt was more than willing to explore different techniques that might increase pleasure and fun for both of them, but Lisa wasn’t interested.

In fact, she didn’t want to come to counseling with him either.

She clearly stated that he was the one who was unhappy so he could find a way to get happy or he could come to counseling alone.  She was fine.  So even without my prompting, Matt decided to make himself happy and told Lisa he refused to live in a sexless marriage.

If she wasn’t willing to work on this with him, he wanted a divorce.  Lisa actually did divorce Matt.

I found out later that  Lisa had been having multiple affairs over the years. Matt had no idea until after they divorced.

He was sorry his marriage ended, but he was so glad he finally stood up for himself and for his needs in the marriage.

If you are in a marriage that has hit your bottom line, it may be time to set an ultimatum.

It’s scary. But remember, it can be the best way to get your relationship moving in the right direction.  The Marriage Place can help you figure out if it is time for an ultimatum.  We can also teach you how to show up in your marriage in a way that makes it easier for your spouse to want to give you what you need.

Sometimes, pent up anger and resentment creates bottom line issues that can be resolved with counseling.  Either way, we are here to help  you!  Give us a call at 972-441-4432,  or contact us using our confidential online form.  We care about saving marriages!

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  1. Paula Lizotte

    my husband gave me a ultimatum. because i get really, really jealous and have no confidence in myself. i was going to ask a on line physic if the ultimatum ment the marriage was over. but my husband says the marriage is not over he wants me not to be overly jealous all the time. he can’t talk to a women without me getting really upset. and i mean really upset. now i feel like i’m living on pins and needles because i have one more chance.
    I even had very bad pains in my stomach yesterday and had to take two tylenol. Serious.

    • Dorothy D.

      To Paula Lizotte,
      I had always been in relationships where I went into jealous rages as well. However, the men I had been with did absolutely nothing to make me feel secure about our relationships. I am finally with a man and have been for 4 years and I have not been jealous once. I know how he feels about me! Other women do not have a chance. Just thought I’d share this with you. Does your husband give you reasons to be insecure? The man I am with taught me to love myself first as he loves himself and we take care of each other’s needs, so no jealousy is necessary.

    • LostAndFound

      Have you been to therapy about this? If not, you really should.

  2. sidwell

    We been staying apart for a period of 7 years and im tired of this. I want a devirce

    • Kim Bowen

      Sidwell, it sounds like you’ve invested a good number of years into this relationship. Before you give up completely, I encourage you to make sure you’ve everything you can – the right things – to see if the relationship can be rescued. Sometimes the divorce options sounds like the easiest route to go, but I can assure your that is rarely the case in the end.

  3. Laura

    Is getting a better job a good enough reason for an ultimatum? He has been working part time retail for 2 years- it was supposed to be a stop gap while he looked for another job (he was a teacher but quit because he hated it.) He has made no effort to look for another job though and we are struggling financially. I just don’t know how to put it?

    • Kim Bowen

      Hi Laura, knowing when to use an ultimatum can be tricky…and terrifying. Only YOU can decide what your “bottom line” is and whether his current job situation is something you can or can’t live with and still feel safe & respected. The key to an ultimatum is you have to be willing to follow through with the consequences if your demand isn’t met. If you’d like to talk this through with someone who has experience in navigating this path with couples, I’d encourage you to reach out to us. One of our coaches can work with you via Zoom or by phone. Feel free to call at 972-441-4432 or schedule a free Discovery Call to learn more or get started. Warmly,

  4. Anne

    I am also in a sexless marriage but it’s my husband who doesn’t want to have sex. I have played a role but have owned up to it. We have gone to counseling. I have done what the therapist asked of me, but he has not done what was asked of him. I want to give my husband an ultimatum but I don’t know what language to use. Can you help?

    • Kim Bowen

      Hi Anne. We can help. In fact my lead coach, Eric Tooley, specializes in these types of situations. I’ve asked him to reach out to you directly at the email you provided here. You should hear from him today. Wishing you the best. Warmly, Kim

      • John

        I think I need to talk to Eric also. Similar situation here: my wife simply doesn’t want to do anything with me as far as sex/romance/intimacy. It’s been like this for years. I’m oscillate between anger and hopeless. I feel stuck because we have 3 minor children. I’ve accepted some serious losses and compromises to maintain the marriage in many areas but this one is an area I don’t feel I can accept. It really feels like being stuck between 2 impossible options: stay in angry celibacy, or face the biased “family” courts. Yikes!

        • Kim Bowen

          Hi, John, I’ll give your information to Eric. He will contact you in the next day or two at the email address you provided. Wishing you well.
          TL for Kim

    • kellianne

      We haven’t had sex in 10 years!!! No emotional/mental support from him. He has anxiety issues and won’t participant in any therapy.. I know this is not normal. Kids are getting older and thinking about moving on with my life.

      • Kim Bowen

        You are right…this isn’t normal. It may very well be time to move on with your life, but I would raise the alarm with him before I made that decision. If he won’t participate in therapy….GO ALONE! Find a therapist who is pro marriage. You may still end up having to leave your marriage, but at least you will certainly know you did, in fact, try everything.

  5. Lorrie

    Hello. My husband moved to another state to start a new business near his family and also started building a new house. I have a daughter from a previous marriage who just started college this year. My husband made the unilateral decision to move away, sell our house, and build a new one. He wants me to move there but has put conditions on the move and I was recently told that if I don’t move when the house is finished then he is done (early April). I have a full time job where I live now and my daughter goes to school 90 min away. I am not totally discarding the idea of moving but want to do it on my timeline. I currently live with my parents so there is no rent or mortgage having to be paid on my end. However, given the recent ultimatum I feel less and less like moving and my husband is now not speaking to me I am assuming because I told him I would not be moving until the fall.

  6. Janet

    My husband left for work 3 years ago and just never came home. He doesn’t talk to me but he makes sure I have everything I need by depositing money in my bank account. I have asked him to give the marriage another chance. We never fought, nobody cheated, we just grew apart because he always worked out of town and only came home on weekends. Anyway it has been 3 years and I still love and miss him and want to reconcile. I write him emails and he very seldom responds, I call him and he never answers. He hasn’t filed for divorce and doesn’t want to reconcile so I think it is time for an ultimatum that either he reconcile or file. I am tired of being in limbo and wanting him back.

  7. Kim Bowen

    Sure we can help! Call us at 972-441-4432.

  8. Ashley

    My husband is trying to force me to wait at least 10 more years before we have children…we have been married for almost 2 years. I have an extremely strong desire to have children of my own. My husband however hates children with a passion. We have been fighting about this same subject for about 6 months now, and I’m at the point to where I can’t take this anymore. Should I give him an ultimatum on this matter? I don’t want to wait until I’m in my 30’s to have children. Our parents will be in their 60’s by then, and it seems like most of my family is dying in their 60’s or earlier. Plus it’s going to take me a long time to even get pregnant if not at all due to issues. I can’t stand being so depressed and resentful toward my husband. I love him a lot and don’t want to lose him, but at the same time I don’t want to regret having children so late or risk not having any at all. I’m not even sure if he will keep his promise of giving me children 10 years down the road. Please help me!

    • Kim Bowen

      I’m not sure it is going to be a good idea to have children with a man who “hates children with a passion”. Even if he gives in and agrees to this, your children will suffer tremendously for having this kind of influence as a parental figure. No one should be forced to have kids if they aren’t ready. On the other hand, I wouldn’t wait for something so important to me in the hopes that he will change his mind. This is a recipe for disaster. We would love to help you sort through all of this. Call us at 972-441-4432. We can’t fix this in a blog post but it is important for you to work through this.

    • Sylvia Takikawa

      I can relate to your post. My husband told me one week before our wedding that he didn’t want to have anymore kids. All this after telling me he did want to have a child with me. This conversation took place shortly after he had a confrontation with my son. At the time, my special needs son was 12 years old, the product of a previous relationship. Fast foward 17 years later, my son is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and chemical dependency. My husband believes I am putting my son ahead of him which I do not believe I am. I am my son’s main support as his father has never really been in his life. Almost 2 years ago, my husband told me “if D moves in, I’m moving out.” I wish I had taken him up on it. My husband is setting his boundries and I do understand where he is coming from. What he dosen’t understand is my son should not be living on his own as he makes poor decisions. He always has and now I realize he always will. He has been this way since babyhood. I’ve always called him my “opposite boy.” My son is mentally ill and I love him. If he had cancer, I would not tell him to go make his way on his own. I am not so naive to think that biological parents do not have issues such as this when it comes to ill children (or in my case adult child). There are many other issues going on in our marraige, but this one seems to constantly be the reason I considere divorce (although, I have just started to put my finger on other things that have been happening that I was unaware of until now…possible emotional abuse.) My point is, if your man is telling you he doesn’t like children, believe him! Nothing is going to change that. I take full responsibility for my decision when he said no to more children. I don’t know what made me think he would want my son if he didn’t want his own. Needless to say, we are both miserable. This is food for thought. You have to decide what you can live with. Take care of yourself.

  9. Bobby

    Hi. My wife gave me an ultimatum a few days ago. I have a 20 year old child from a previous marriage. My wife wants me to promise to not spend money on him other than college, cell phone and health insurance. She says that he is an adult and we should not pay for anything else. She already met with a lawyer and will file for divorce if I don’t agree with her conditions by tomorrow morning!! Wife has no kids and I know it is difficult for her to see me taking my care of my son. I don’t want to spend much money on him, but I feel like she is (almost) asking me to disown my child. I never want to leave her. When should a spouse say “this ultimatum is unfair?” I totally agree with ultimatums. However, in some cases they may not be appropriate.

    • Kim Bowen

      Bobby, I imagine you feel really torn with neither option at all appealling. Don’t give up your voice in this. There are things you can do and healthy respectful boundaries you can set. I’d like to arrange for you to speak with someone on my team who can answer some questions for you and help you navigate working with us if that is something you are interested in considering. Please call my office so that we can schedule this for you. Or, feel free to schedule a free Discovery Call at at time of your choosing. Wishing you the best, Kim

  10. Martha

    My husband and I have been planning on moving out of the country and he’s upset that I have been procrastinating on packing. I’ve packed some boxes but I didn’t want to pack away everything when we’re still remodeling the house and I know it’s not done yet. Some days he’ll thank me and appreciate the work I’ve been doing. Other days he says I’m lazy and always on social media. That’s partially true but I told him since I had finished my social projects last weekend I would really start working on packing and everything this week. We were even discussing things to do today. Well a family member came over this morning and brought up the moving situation and noticed my husband was under stress. My husband has a temper issue and when something is on his nerves he flips out and will throw things. He didn’t like the word “stressed” and said he’s “nervous” because he’s tired of the house not being packed and constantly asking me. He got angry and threw the chair on the ground, broke the chair and his phone, and said if the house isn’t packed by the end of next month (November) that he will be filing for a divorce. He didn’t even give me a chance to prove I was going to work on packing this week and he never mentioned a date before until he gave me an ultimatum. Is that sufficient enough to give an ultimatum or is he over doing it and being aggressive & neurotic? His dad even told me he’s tired of seeing him being violent, not physically towards anyone but with his words and throwing and breaking things. He told me to get the F out of the house so I did. It’s been a few days since I left to my parent’s and I’ve yet to get an apology from him.

    • Kim Bowen

      Hi Martha, The behavior as you describe sounds both verbally and emotionally abusive to me. As long as you accept it, he will continue to behave that way. Healthy boundaries (to protect you) certainly sound warranted and even an ultimatum may be necessary to show your husband that you will not tolerate his volatile behavior. This isn’t easy work, especially if your spouse is used to behaving and this way and having those around him put up with it. Our coaches are trained to help teach their clients how to set effective boundaries in situations like this. Please call my office or schedule a free Discovery Call and learn more about how we can help you on this journey. Wishing you the best. Warmly, Kim

  11. C W

    My wife has given me many ultimatums throughout our 25 year marriage. Lets look at the last one. “Make up for the last three disappointments before I decide I’ve had enough or we are done. But in the mean time I will be preparing to leave. You can do this if you choose to, or you do not have to if you choose not to. I don’t care one way or the other. But I will not take one step further with you until you make up for it. I will not go to a marriage intensive with you, I will not go anywhere with you, not to eat, not to a movie, not to my favorite Broadway play. I will not read a book with you, or the bible with you or pray with you. I will not take one step further with you until you make up for these things.” These things, #1 – we have separated a number of times. A year and seven months ago she told me I needed to again leave that she was done and wanted a divorce. She gave me a time line to be gone, mothers day 2016 when she would get off of her cruise with our oldest daughter. And she checked on me a number of times to make sure I would comply. (I paid for their cruise together, I planned it for them and I took care of my daughter’s children while they were cruising with a weeks vacation.) And I complied with her demands. I moved out and began working a second job to take care of myself away from her, leaving my full time job pay to continue supporting her. The disappointment – I did not do one thing to win her back while I was gone. She initiated my return (I never wanted to leave in the first place), and I returned 10 months after leaving. #2 – At spring break this year we planned a vacation with as many of our children that wanted to go to Disney World. We have six daughters and three of them went with their families. Again I made all the plans and paid for everyone’s rooms and a great deal of their meals. Our 25th anniversary fell on the day after we arrived. Leading up to the trip she kept telling me to stay away from her on our anniversary as we were not getting along that well. But I made plans anyway and let her in on them on the drive to Florida. She and my daughter that was riding with us promptly let me know my plans were stupid. (I had talked these plans over with a lady I know and she thought they were sweet.) We did end up going to dinner together for our anniversary and had a nice time. And we came home better than we left. But this anniversary ate at her when we returned home anyway. #3 – We decided to go on a three week vacation road trip this past summer. I promised her two things on this trip, she would not leave with anxiety and we would return home in better emotional shape than we had been in years. Well I fell for a computer scam three weeks before our trip and tried to hide it because I was embarrassed about it. I was taking steps to resolve this when she discovered it. So the leaving without anxiety went out the window. And on leaving she told me that she would go but I had better get rooms with two beds as she would not be sleeping with me. Then for most of the trip I had great anxiety. And it was not until the last three days that anything near what I promised her became reality. But when we got home I was more engaged than ever before in our marriage and she even commented on that fact. But then the other 18 days of the trip began eating at her and she became angrier and angrier and could not get over these things. That’s when she gave me the ultimatum. And with the restrictions mentioned above I did not know what to do. I called a well known radio counseling program and all their suggestions fell strongly in those restricted areas. I e-mailed two well known marriage counselors, one a Christian counselor and the other not Christian to the best of my knowledge. They suggested marriage counseling which we were already doing, and with the best counselor we’ve ever been too. This counselor has tried to help us communicate better, but when I share my feelings in counseling I am called a liar or my wife interrupts me and will not allow me to speak. I know this whole thing sounds like I am portraying myself as a victim. I am not the victim here. My wife is the victim here. My wife is strong willed and I have a problem with strong willed people. This plays out with my extreme passive aggressiveness (stealth anger). And I came into this marriage with a porn addiction that did not resurface until 10 years into our marriage. She has never caught me but I have confessed each time it has gotten beyond control. I am in a 12 step program for this and I am taking pure desire courses on top of this with plenty of accountability. But last night my wife informed me that she had reached the point of no return. That she will be leaving and that we are done. I told her last night about all the people I have reached out to for help. Her feeling on that are I am looking for loopholes so I don’t have to do anything for our marriage. So here I am reaching out to someone else that can’t help.

  12. Phil

    My wife and I have been together for 17 years with ,4 kids. things have been degenerating for 7 years some things my fault. At this point though I’ve committed to fixing my issues and our relationship. She has depression issues and I feel a Facebook addiction. We no longer have sex or any intimate relationship she doesn’t work, spends her days on Facebook and now with several men who she endlessly flirts with. She doesn’t want to move out or divorce necessarily just wants me to go to work and leave her alone. I still love her and want our old relationship back. If I leave her alone work and take care of the kids the house is somewhat peaceful yet divided. Any mention of change or working on us etc brings anger and pushes her farther away. I don’t want divorce at all but not sure an ultimatum is the way to go. I want to be able to sleep in bed with my wife again. Go on family vacations have my wife talk to me instead of her internet boyfriends. I’m afraid if I give her an ultimatum her answer will be fine divorce.

  13. Mark

    If your wife doesn’t show you much if any affection, love or have sex much, should you use an ultimatum after trying everything else under the sun? She is Japanese but I have been using that as an excuse for years.

    • Kim Bowen

      Hi Mark. Ultimatums are a last resort and setting ultimatums in a relationship can be scary. They should be used when you are at wit’s end and you know you can’t continue on in the relationship if things don’t change. You can’t change your spouse or her behavior though. You can only change/choose how you respond to it. So if you wife’s treatment of you is no longer tolerable to you, then perhaps an ultimatum is appropriate. The key with ultimatums though, is the follow-through. Otherwise, it’s just words. Often we are able to help couples resolve issues before ultimatums become necessary. If you’d like to discuss this further, please feel free to call us, or better yet, you can schedule a free Discovery Call at a time that works best for you. Regards, Kim

  14. Lindsay Joy Austin

    You say an ultimatum is good for abuse situations… I know this is going to sound funny but I’m not sure if I’m in an abusive-ultimatum situation. My husband suffers from extreme anxiety, to the point where anything can trigger him and I become his emotional punching bag – calling me names, throwing things, doesn’t hurt me but will hold me against a wall/door and yell in my face. I know it’s because of his anxiety, but when is it to the point that I give an ultimatum rather than just putting up boundaries?

    • Kim Bowen

      Hi, Lindsay, I just sent you an email and would be happy to get you connected with one of my marriage coaches. Warmly, Kim