Do Ultimatums Ultimately Work?

Making idle threats doesn't help when someone you love is addicted.

You’ve reached the end of your rope. Substance abuse is ruining her life...and yours. You can’t take it anymore. You deliver the ultimatum:

  • It might be your spouse – “Stop drinking or I’m leaving you.”
  • It might be your child – “Give up the drugs or move out.”
  • It might be your sibling – “Get treatment or our relationship is over.”
  • It might be your employee – “Straighten up or you’re fired.”

Ultimatum Issues

What do the ultimatums listed above have in common? Typically, the person delivering the ultimatum expects the one with the substance abuse problem to change. They have had enough. Things have to stop abusing drugs – now. The problem is that this kind of demand is rarely realistic.

If a simple request was all it took to get her to stop, she wouldn’t be in the mess she's in today. To her, your threat may come off sounding like you’re asking her to stop breathing.

The ultimatum may encourage them to get help, but it doesn’t guarantee they’ll enter recovery and it certainly doesn’t mean they’ll remain sober forever. More likely, the change will be temporary to avoid the consequences of your demand. This is where resolve comes into play.

Did you really mean your ultimatum? Often, ultimatums are shouted in moments of anger and frustration. When the time comes to back them up, we lose our resolve. Our loved ones quickly learn the threats are empty. If they make a little effort, you won’t really follow through with the ultimatum. The teen isn’t really kicked out of the house. The employee stays on the payroll. The husband stays with his wife.

Make Your Ultimatum Stick 

Now that we understand some of the most common ultimatum pitfalls, it's clear we have to be careful in our delivery. To boost the effectiveness of ultimatums, think about following these guidelines:

  • The ultimatum must be for you. Usually, we tell our loved one they have to choose – us or drugs. If the focus is on making them change, it’s rarely effective. The choice and change must be your responsibility. You can’t control anyone but yourself. The ultimatum must be about your own personal boundaries.
  • You must be willing to follow through. We teach others how to treat us. If you make repeated threats, but never take any action, your ultimatum is really no ultimatum at all. Your loved one will know they can ignore the next one.
  • It should be delivered respectfully. If you have decided to deliver an ultimatum - and are resolved to deliver the consequences - communicate the ultimatum in the proper way. Rather than shouting during an argument, let your loved one know about your decision in a calm and respectful way. Let them know what you have decided and explain that you are doing this so things can be better for you (or your family, or business.)

 

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