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Mel Menker

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Ultimatums: Taking the Easy Way Out?"
by Mel Menker   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, May 25, 2007
Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2007

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We all have received ultimatums throughout our lives and our natural tendencies is to reject them. The following offers helps on both sides of ultimatums and provides some "ground rules" for getting the most life benefit possible.


Clearly defined by Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, ultimatums are simply “final propositions, conditions, or demands, whose rejection will end negotiations and cause a resort to force or other direct action.” Ultimatums are a regular part of daily life. Spouses to their mates, parents to their children, employers to employees, teachers to students, coaches to athletes – literally all of us - administer them. Ultimatums are generally given to alter behavior in some way and is generally done in two ways: 1) to deter negative behavior or 2) to encourage behavior that can produce results that bear more or better “fruit.”

However, within the two types of ultimatums can be found two types of personal agenda interwoven in the mindset of the person drawing the proverbial line in the sand. The personal agenda can be selfish in its motivation or it can be out of unconditional love and concern. I can have either my own desires or wants at the heart of my dictates or the needs of the other at the forefront, but I cannot have both simultaneously.

An example of a selfish ultimatum can be a spouse wanting to change the way his/her mate responds to him/her, usually for his/her own benefit. He/She perceives he/she wants or needs something from the mate and previous “hints” have failed to deliver the expected results. The frustration builds and suddenly evolves into the delivery of a “do or die” option which really only has one answer; do it my way or “hit the highway.” This kind of ultimatum nearly always brings disastrous results while miserably failing to accomplish its intended goal of behavioral change.

Why does it fail? It does so because it doesn’t have the heart and well-being of the recipient in mind. It’s not about deterring negative behavior or encouraging behavior that can produce results that bear more fruit. Selfishness has no place in either form of ultimatums because the motive for doing so is impure. While I recognize that unresolved conflicts and crises might result in an emotional buildup that can bring us to the point of “pulling the pin of a hand grenade,” there are far better ways of handling such painful issues without having to alienate the other person receiving our wrath. I refer you to the book M.E.S.H.: How to Have Mental, Emotional, Spiritual Health for Life which I co-authored with Rev. John Carroll for information on interpersonal relationships with a special emphasis on the need to understand the differences between men and women. A large “chunk” of ultimatums bathed in selfishness come from a lack of understanding of the differences between men and women.

The result of ultimatums underlain with selfish desires is that the one receiving such directive will nearly always take the path of least resistance, which is to “die” rather than to “do.” Over the last number of decades we have seen a cultural shift of people “taking the easy way out.” Rather than make any attempt at reconciliation or an investment of valuable change to make a relationship better and fruitful, it has become easier to simply walk away. It’s not limited to spouses and their marriages, but in every avenue of human relationships in our culture. Children seek to be emancipated from their parents; employees walk of their jobs at the first hint of an ultimatum; people will go to a different business if the manager won’t given them what they feel they should have. Why? I offer the answer is that most of the ultimatums people have experienced in their lifetimes has been smothered in selfishness rather than legitimate concern for the recipients. We all have experienced it, and have probably engaged in it ourselves, and we have decided up front that we will not be victimized by selfish demands anymore. We can “smell” a selfish ultimatum “from a mile away” and “we’re not gonna take it any more.”

The bottom line is painfully simple; we can give ultimatums but they must always be about the betterment of the recipient and cannot “taste” of the hidden agenda of selfishness. People have to know that an ultimatum is actually out of true concern for the recipient’s well-being and for no other reason. An example of such can be a legitimate concern for someone such as a physician who wants to alter a patient’s non-compliant approach to medical care knowing that to do so can change the patient’s quality and perhaps even length of life.

An ultimatum can also be for a child who cannot yet see the larger picture of life beyond the moment but will down the road. A passage from the book of Proverbs reveals that if we “train up a child in the way they should go, when they are old they will not depart from it.” I love that phrase “when they are old.” In the time of Jesus the average life span was about 40-48 years of age. “Old” in that culture tended to be around the age of thirty. What the proverb means to us today is that our children will not fully understand the love and selflessness behind our ultimatums until they have moved beyond the emotional decision-making process of youth that lasts until they are about age twenty-one and they begin to claim the “big picture” for themselves through practicality, reason and faith. And, it will be somewhere around the age of thirty when our children will begin to call us and say, “Dad (Mom), you were right.” I smile when those calls come to me today and I hear the affirmation of the truth of the wisdom found in the Bible.

On the surface, ultimatums can serve practical and meaningful purposes. Parents give ultimatums to their children that are tied to consequences for deliberately breaking boundaries that can result in life-destructive behavior. They do this because they have the best for the future of the children in mind. Because children make decisions based on emotions – how they feel - a child cannot see beyond the moment and may see the parents as “mean” or unloving and having little or no comprehension of what the parents are seeking to do through the ultimatums given. But parents who truly love their children will persist in giving ultimatums until the child responds in ways that are positive and life affirming.

What’s the bottom line? There are two. First, for those giving the ultimatum, ultimatums can only be to deter negative behavior and to encourage behavioral change that results in the production of more “fruit.” But, the ultimatums must be bathed in unconditional love for the recipient. We can never convey that unconditional love will be withheld if they choose to reject our directives. And, they must never contain a selfish motive on our parts. We must still love them in spite of their behavior. We must separate our unconditional love and concern for the other from their behavior. And, we must realize the recipients of our ultimatums may not, at this time, fully understand our caring and concern. But, we give do not shy from giving them if they meet the “criteria” we have set forth.

Second, for those on the receiving end of an ultimatum, we need to pause a moment and carefully examine the “facts” that may surround the ultimatum. We must withhold emotional responses that immediately reject the ultimatum and seek the truth. Is there something we need to change in how we live life? Are we heading in some form of life-destructive pathway that requires an adjustment if we are honest with ourselves? As we listen to the ultimatum and the body language, facial expressions and verbal tones that accompanies it, can we hear the unconditional love and concern for our well-being? Instead of lumping all ultimatums we receive into a perceived pool of selfish agendas by the givers of the ultimatums, do we take the time to separate fact from fiction and perhaps reject our desire to take the easy way out?

I trust this simple article will help us view ultimatums from a more healthy perspective on both sides and provide relational growth for us all.

(c)2007 Mel Menker
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author.

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