How would you feel if I, as the Houston marriage counselor, told you and your partner, “Set aside your differences, or else you can’t keep coming to counseling sessions”? You would probably be taken aback by me criticizing you in this blunt way and insisting that you resolve all your relationship problems or face harsh consequences.

Ultimatums within relationships make people feel the same way.  Issue an ultimatum to your partner and you’ll immediately set him or her on the defensive and create resentment. Even if you have the best intentions behind your ultimatum (for example, maybe you’re trying to get your partner into substance abuse treatment), this tactic rarely works out.

It’s About How You Say It, According to the Houston Marriage Counselor

That’s largely because of the way that ultimatums are delivered. They come across as an attempt to control or change another person, rather than addressing your own needs and emotions. When we give this kind of harsh criticism and place the responsibility for our relationship problems on our partner, our partner tends to become less receptive and even resistant.

While ultimatums are generally a bad idea, setting firm boundaries in your relationship can be a positive thing. What’s the difference? It’s in the way you present what you have to say. For example, instead of saying, “You need to stop drinking or I’m leaving you,” you could try something like, “It’s hard for me to see you drinking so much, and I don’t think we can work on our relationship problems together until you go to rehab.” That second statement focuses on how the speaker feels, and instead of coming across as a threat, it shows how he or she genuinely cares for their partner.

I also tell my Houston marriage counselor clients that it’s important to speak in a clear and calm manner when you’re setting boundaries. You don’t want to raise your voice or speak in a harsh tone, because this will make you sound combative, and it may seem like you’re laying down an ultimatum even when you’re not.  Remember, how you say something is generally more important than what you say.

It can be hard to work on relationship problems when you feel like your partner needs to change, but resist the urge to give them a strict ultimatum. Consider seeing a Houston marriage counselor so that you and your partner can talk about how you can work together to improve your relationship.