Last year, “Melanie” (not her real name) received a marriage proposal from “Jeff,” her boyfriend of seven years, that came with an ultimatum. Jeff had recently cheated on Melanie and then broken things off with her, but the two kept in contact because they had a big trip planned together the following month.
Days before the trip, seemingly out of nowhere, Jeff popped the question to Melanie and gave her two choices: get married or cut off contact forever. Melanie told him she needed to think about it, especially given the recent rockiness in their relationship.
“The way he did it made me feel so trapped,” she told HuffPost. “It made me cry inconsolably any time I was alone because he only gave me two options: marry him or not even be friends anymore. And he had been my best friend for nearly 20 years at this point.”
For several months, they tried to make things work but ultimately called it quits earlier this year after Jeff became more and more controlling.
Of course, not everyone who proposes a marriage ultimatum ― “If we’re not engaged or married by X date, we’re done” ― does so in such a blatantly manipulative manner. Some people are frustrated by a lack of forward momentum in the relationship and may feel that an ultimatum is their only choice (Spoiler alert: It’s not). Some people lack healthy communication skills and don’t know how else to get their point across.
“Generally, ultimatums don’t yield a good outcome, but every situation is different,” psychologist and dating coach Samantha Rodman said.
We asked marriage experts to explain why people issue marriage ultimatums, why they don’t typically work as intended and what to do instead.
Why People Issue Marriage Ultimatums
People who present their partner with a marriage ultimatum may do so in a misguided attempt to have their needs met in the relationship. They are caught between their desire to get married and their partner’s need for more time. But the way they go about it is what makes it problematic.
“I think they want to respect their partner’s cold feet and want to give them the gift of time to make their decision,” psychologist Ryan Howes said. “But they also want to set a boundary to respect their own needs, so they set a date.”
There may also be another more subconscious reason, according to Howes. Essentially, the person giving the ultimatum may be trying to avoid taking responsibility for their own life choices by giving all the decision-making power to their partner.
“They want their partner to decide whether or not to propose because they haven’t taken stock of their own feelings about the relationship,” Howes said. In other words, the ultimatum comes from a place of doubt and forfeits the ultimatum-giver’s own agency.
“The way he did it made me feel so trapped. It made me cry inconsolably any time I was alone because he only gave me two options: marry him or not even be friends anymore.”
– “Melanie,” recipient of a marriage ultimatum
“The truly empowered person is aware of what they want and is able to ask for it,” Howes said. “This is the riskier option, but the more powerful one.”
“Do you want to get married? Then how about telling your partner you’d like to get married and asking them what they want?” Howes suggested. “If they say no, or not right now, then the decision lies with you to stay or leave, knowing that the proposal may come in six months, or maybe never.”
Then ask yourself if you’re willing to stick it out or not.
“Do you want to wait? Yes? Then wait, and that’s your choice,” Howes said. “Do you want to leave and find someone else who is more certain? Then do that. Pushing your partner to make a decision is a way to sidestep your own power and decisiveness.”
Why Ultimatums Don’t Work (At Least Not Well)
Let’s say you tell your S.O. that if he or she doesn’t propose by next summer, you’re going to find someone who will. Hey, you might even scare or bully your partner into actually doing it. But is that really the way you want to start the next chapter of your relationship?
“Nobody wants to feel threatened,” Rodman said. “However, again, if you are genuinely stating your boundaries and intentions, e.g. you want to get married before you’re 30 or you’re losing interest because of no marriage, then share those feelings with your partner.”
And if your partner says no? “Be prepared to walk,” Rodman said. “Don’t use it as a manipulation tactic.”
“Do you want to get married? Then how about telling your partner you’d like to get married and asking them what they want?”
– Ryan Howes, psychologist
Howes said that if you feel giving an ultimatum is your only option, consider it a big red flag in the relationship. Marriage is about a lifetime of joint decision-making, discussions, debates and compromises. This is only the first of many big decisions that lie ahead.
“If you are thinking of the ultimate power play of an ultimatum at the beginning of the relationship, how might that play out later on?” Howes said. “What if you disagree about kids, careers, money management, parenting, savings, and wills and trusts? Might it be better to work on clear communication and compromise from the very beginning than kick things off with a power play?”
One point to highlight: There’s a big difference between standing up for what you want or need in a relationship and issuing an ultimatum. No one is asking you to sacrifice what’s truly important to you (in this case, marriage) ― it’s all a matter of how you express your needs.
“If someone feels that they will genuinely move on if they don’t get married, then that is a truthful and honest thing to share,” Rodman said. “The ultimatum should not be fake, a threat you trot out but don’t mean.”
And know that even if your partner does end up proposing, there may be lingering feelings of bitterness afterward. No one enjoys being backed into a corner.
“Sometimes, I see a client who experienced this in their dating life, and they usually end up resenting it after the fact,” Rodman said.
What To Do Instead
The proper way to broach the subject is straightforward: State your case (“I’d like to be engaged by 33 because I want to be married before we start having kids”) and then ask your partner how they feel about it, Howes said. Listen to what they have to say and then decide for yourself if you’re willing to wait or if you need to move on.
“I think the only discussion to have is, ‘I’d like to get married, would you?’” Howes said. “And when you hear the response, you make your own decision. Waiting for the other to determine your future is disempowering.”
Get those notions of a totally surprise fairytale proposal out of your head. Your future together is something that should be discussed at length before you even think about getting engaged. If you or your partner are truly on the fence about what the future of the relationship looks like, it might be worth going to couples counseling to suss out your true feelings.
“I would hope that a proposal is only a ceremonial formality to celebrate, and that the serious discussions about compatibility and desire and the future have been ongoing for some time,” Howes said.