The Truth About Ultimatums

I recently worked with a client in my Atlanta counseling practice who reported that her partner "gave an ultimatum" for her to stop acting in a certain way. She asked for advice, which gave us an opportunity to discuss the nature of ultimatums. I decided to write it up in this brief post.  Eveb though it's a simple concept, these are sometimes the ones we tend to forget without a reminder from time to tome

Although an ultimatum may seem on the surface to set a limit on the person who it is directed toward, it actually only establishes a limit on the person who is giving it. It is like a contract only signed by one person. I can't make you buy a car I want to sell: you have to agree to the terms and conditions before the deal is done.

It's the same with an ultimatum: another person can't unilaterally decide what you must do, only what he or she will do in response to your decision. This means that an ultimatum does onlyh binds the person who gives it, not the person who receives it. If you give an ultimatum to someone, it is your credibility that is being called to task, not the other person's.  Don't say it if you don't mean it!

Ultimatums are often an attempt to exercise power over someone, which is fundamentally futile past a certain point. Since the only person you are capable of controlling is yourself, you have to be ready to accept the outcome of how another person responds to the limit you are establishing.  This often comes up in addictions, when an intervention is being planned to motivate a person to get help.. Family and friends can try to influence an addict's decision, but the only thing they can really control is how they will respond in either case.

Rather than give an absolute statement about what you will do if the other person doesn't abide by your boundaries, I recommend saying something like "if you continue to _______ I will respond in a signifricant way that may include ______."  This way you are not boxing yourself into one response while at the same time communicating the essence of your message.

So if a situation arises in which you feel the need to issue an ultimatum to someone in your life, remember that doing so is primarily a statement about yourself.  Similarly, if you are given an ultimatum, this is simply information.  The ultimate decison is yours.


Atlanta counselor Bill Herring helps individuals and couples live healthier, happier lives.  One of his specialty areas involves sexual behavior that impair mental, emotional, physical or relational health. Examples include chronic sexual deception, addictive or compulsive sexual behavior, excessive porn use and other problematic sexual behaviors.