Last week, my Counseling Tidbit touched on moving forward in relationships when one partner appears hesitant to get married while the other is raring to go. One faithful reader asked, “It sounds good but does that type of advice really work? You always hear that you shouldn’t give your partner an ultimatum.” My answer is this: yes, my advice does work and no, ultimatums should not be issued.
Please allow me to clarify. An ultimatum is a threat, a promise that punishment will be used if someone does not do what is wanted by another. In a loving relationship, ultimatums generally should not be given. That is why my advice had to with boundaries, not ultimatums. An interpersonal boundary is basically the dividing line between what behavior you accept from others and what you are willing to do to protect it. Assertion is the language of healthy boundary-setting.
Thus, in this instance, the partner who wants to get married is setting a boundary deadline. That partner is saying, “It is important to me that I get married and gain the benefits that will bring. If you would like to marry me, that would be wonderful! If you do not, then I need to find someone who wants the same things I do.” The boundary is less about telling the reluctant partner what to do and more about what that person is willing to do. In this way, the partner who wants to get married regains some power in the relationship and has done so in a healthy way.
Boundaries are great but very difficult because they take constant maintenance. That is why I stated that the partner who has the boundary needs to be serious about moving forward. While it may be painful in the short term (because it will require breaking up with a loved one), it offers an equalization of power in the relationship and the prospect of future happiness. If, however, the boundary is not maintained, the power that was regained will fade away and any future boundaries will be harder to set. That is why I always caution my patients against setting a boundary they will not keep. It just isn’t worth it.