She turns to him, takes a breath, and holds it for a few seconds. Then she says it: “I’m not going to be in a marriage with a man who won’t talk to me.”
He scowls. And what he says next is so cliché, well, you’d think the Cliché Police would have busted down my office door and arrested him on the spot. The husband says, “Are you giving me and ultimatum!?”
Oh you poor boy. Here we go. The woman risks a move of self-respect, daring to believe she deserves a husband who is an emotional grownup. And his response is an indignant tantrum, poised as a rhetorical, scolding question. And he doesn’t even see the irony.
But, much to my surprise, the woman’s answer is not cliché. She abandons the usual script, which is to back-peddle and sputter and to apologize “if that sounded like an ultimatum” and to assure The King that she would NEVER behave so badly as to have actual expectations of his royal highness.
Nope, instead the woman holds the man’s gaze, expression steady. And what she then says is even and simple: “Yes, I’m giving you an ultimatum.”
If you could see the expression on this man’s face, you’d agree with me this woman should write a book called “Derailing Runaway Trains of Narcissistic Bullying for Fun and Profit.” The poor guy has nowhere to go. Nothing left in his bag of tricks. Someone should tell him to close his mouth before Africanized honeybees make a nest in there. He’s meeting his wife again for the first time.
I have mixed feelings about deploying ultimatums as a strategy for great marriage.
On the one hand, ultimatums are sometimes necessary. For the person rendering the ultimatum, it is sometimes the last stand for self-respect. For the person receiving the ultimatum, it is sometimes the last chance to, uh, well, how shall I say … pull your head out.
Re-read your marriage vows. If you extract them from the nicey-nice of ceremonial prose and poetry, then, one way to think about wedding vows is that we freely bind ourselves to a rigorous list of ultimatums. I agree to: love you, cherish you, not have sex with anybody else, etc.
I’m saying the very heartbeat of marriage begins when we publicly recite a list of ultimatums we are giving ourselves! So, why should it surprise us (let alone offend us) when, driven to necessity, our mate delivers his/her version of a marital Dun letter, making a just and right claim on the promises we made.
A ton of marriages owe their very survival to the husband or the wife who found the courage to take a definitive stand and deliver an ultimatum: If you don’t stop drinking … If you ever lay your hands on me again … If you ever lie to me again … The choice is porn or me … Either permanently sever all contact with [the other love interest], or … Either join me in a commitment to great sex, or … I’m not interested in the psychoanalytic origins of your anger management problems; but I’ll never tolerate another episode like last night …
All marital ultimatums come down to this: Please don’t make me choose between this marriage and my self-respect. Because I’ll choose self-respect.
On the other hand, the delivery of an ultimatum already speaks to a lot of damage done. When you find yourself having to remind your mate that drinking a quart of vodka every weekend or having serial affairs does not, in fact, constitute acceptable levels of “to love and to cherish,” well, you risk feeling a little ridiculous. Like, how is it I’m married to someone who requires the occasional ‘heads up’ that disdaining and humiliating and betraying me are not the same as cherishing me?
I’m saying that, yes, the recipient of the ultimatum often responds with offense and indignation. But, in fact, it’s the one who delivers the ultimatum that often must then struggle with feeling offended – because they had to deliver the ultimatum at all!
“I can’t believe you’re threatening me,” the man says, still hoping to pound his wife into retreat. “I’m not,” the woman says, her expression still a mercenary calm, “I’m threatening myself.”
Someone should tell this man to be very, very careful. And that someone is me.
(Steven Kalas is an author, therapist and Episcopal priest. You can reach him at SKalas@marinscope.)