During a recent divorce mediation, I learned that the husband had been having an affair. When the wife found out, she demanded that he immediately end the other relationship and get some therapy, or else she was filing for divorce. I think “Minnie” scheduled the meeting with me to show “Mickey” that she meant business. I sent them away because mediation doesn’t generally work for people who’ve issued ultimatums.

Another couple I sent away as a result of an ultimatum came to me because “Bill” had purchased a new business with the assumption that “Melinda” was going to help him in the office. She had neither the time nor the desire to do so, and he told her that she had to work with him, or they were getting a divorce.

There isn’t much that’s good about an ultimatum, unless you enjoy breeding resentment, or you don’t mind losing your ability to negotiate. Because an ultimatum is typically issued out of anger or frustration, the consequences aren’t very well thought out and often seem disproportionate or exceedingly dire.

On the other hand, once in awhile an ultimatum can yield positive results. It can be a successful tool in establishing boundaries as long as the ultimatum has been delivered after significant thought and thorough planning. If you’re at the tipping point, please don’t issue an ultimatum until you’ve considered the following four ways in which a consequence may impact you:

Financially: How will the decision affect your bank accounts, your budget, and your credit?

Physically: Where will you live, where will you work, where will the kids go to school, what will you drive?

Socially: How will you handle the unsolicited advice of well-meaning family and friends?

Emotionally: Will you be happier or more miserable?

These questions can apply to your marriage, your aging parents, your maturing kids, or your employment. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to take the time to figure out what you really want and need before issuing the ultimatum. And let’s not forget that in order for an ultimatum to be effective, the consequences also need to be realistic. In the scenarios described above, neither spouse was ready to end the relationship, so the ultimatum turned out to be more of a threat than an actual consequence.

Obviously, I believe that resolution is the antidote to the ultimatum. And in the same spirit as I suggest thinking and planning prior to issuing an ultimatum, resolving a difficult situation also takes two things: conversation and patience. If “Mickey” would have admitted to “Minnie” that he wasn’t happy, counseling might have been a better solution than an affair. And if “Bill” had talked with “Melinda” prior to spending a chunk of their retirement funds on a new business, he might have understood that she wasn’t going to participate.

Do you think an ultimatum can be effective? Has an ultimatum ever worked for you? Please comment about it and share your results.