Dear Carolyn: I’ve been seeing someone intermittently for six months. I enjoy our time together, but I am always the one to arrange everything. I’ve tried asking the other person to pick out something to do, I’ve tried telling the other person when I’m available and leaving it in their court, I’ve tried just not initiating contact for a few weeks, but that just means I don’t hear from the person. When I finally do contact them, I’m told they missed me.
On the one hand, I would like to tell this person that the fact that we only see each other if I do all the calling and planning makes me feel like I’m the only one interested in getting together, and that this will eventually sour me on the whole idea.
But I’m wary of trying to control another adult’s actions, and this feels like it’s on the edge of an ultimatum: Start initiating some of the contact or else we’re through. Could you help me clarify when something is an ultimatum versus when it’s a statement of need?
A: The “why” explains the “when.” Ultimatums – “Start initiating some contact or we’re through” – are bad for relationships because they mess with a person’s natural motivation. In good relationships, both parties are motivated not just by their own needs, but also by the needs of the other person and of the relationship itself.
When one of you lobs an ultimatum, you essentially say, “Do what I want or it’ll cost you.” That forces the other into one of two bad choices: Cave, thereby acting in self-interest instead of remaining invested in the balance – i.e., “OK, I’ll do what you want, not because it’s good for you but because I don’t want my life disrupted” – or refuse to cave, thereby denying, just on a technicality, something the other person values or needs.
Ultimatums are particularly unfortunate because they’re so easy to avoid. You need only say exactly what you’re thinking and feeling, voice your specific request, then skip the part about the threat: “The fact that we only see each other if I do all the calling and planning makes me feel like I’m the only one interested in getting together.” Period – no mention of the eventual souring. You can underscore your side of it as boldly as you’d like: “It’s important to me that I not be the only one making the effort …” as long as you bite your tongue when you get to the consequence.
Why? Because, just by leaving that little bit of room, you stop short of backing the other person into the “I do this or get dumped” corner. That corner is responsible for so many “changes” that last only a few desultory days or weeks or however long it takes for the impact of the threat to dissipate.
And just by leaving that little bit of room, you get to see how the other person handles clear knowledge of what you want and need – and applies it to the balance of mine, yours, ours. Useful information indeed.