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“Ultimatums are Tricky”

June 2nd, 2014   •   no comments   
“Ultimatums are Tricky”

Dear Olive,
My girlfriend just cancelled her marriage at the last minute, and it’s made me nervous about my own situation. I know several girls who married even though they knew there were problems. They all ended up divorced. I don’t want to make that mistake. I’ve dated Paul for three years. We’ve lived together eighteen months and he’s a great guy, but I want to get married. I’m thirty and it’s time. Even though Paul tells me he loves me, he gets weird whenever I mention anything that suggests commitment. If we get flack from friends who want to know when the big date is, Paul gets withdrawn, even nasty. Maybe I’m wasting my time and should move on. What do you think?

Dear EJ.
While there are several issues here, you sound as if you just want a simple yes or no from Paul. An ‘either you’re with me or you’re not.’ While there’s nothing unhealthy or unreasonable to ask for what you want and not settle for anything less, ultimatums are tricky. Even if you haven’t thrown down the gauntlet, you sound as if you’re on the brink.

Before you do, you might consider if you want to hear Paul’s answer. Or whether Paul is really the answer to your needs. You stated three things worth noting: “he’s a great guy and you want to get married because you’re thirty and it’s time.” Whenever someone makes time or age the issue rather than feelings, it makes me wonder if they feel they have an expiration date; that time is running out to find a husband and that ever-elusive, happy-ever-after life.

You also stated you don’t want to make the same mistake your friends did. That suggests you expect an awful lot from yourself, including doing everything right and being perfect. That mindset leaves little room for being human and imperfect. Either way, your instincts still deserve respect and nurturing, because they telegraph before rational thought or reasoning kicks in if you’re with a person good for you. Love isn’t neat. Relationships are messy. Things don’t always make sense. Sometimes it’s the spontaneous emotional growth we experience during moments of intense feeling that helps us redefine and recalibrate everything we thought was so.

Perhaps you might mull what’s gotten you so frustrated that you’d consider giving up and leaving. While Paul might believe he really loves you, he hasn’t committed. We all have our own unique and sometimes distorted definitions of what love, commitment and marriage really are. And along with those subjective concepts, many couples go round and round over mismatched expectations before realizing they haven’t done some of the basic things every healthy bond must experience and be built upon in order to grow and be sustained over time.

It starts with communication. Conversations about elemental values, hopes, fears, dreams and boundaries. In-depth talking from the heart and soul, and not characterized by you asking Paul questions while he reluctantly answers. That’s a red flag. A passive aggressive dynamic in which one partner pushes while the other withholds. That’s not something easily changed or ignored.

The place you might start is a conversation about what you each want. But along with talks with him, talks with yourself are as important; ones in which you tell yourself the truth about what you want and question what you have right now. Questions such as “Why would I want a relationship with anyone who doesn’t want to be there as much as me?” Or “Do I really think if I get him to agree to marry me, the dynamics will change?”

Any dilemma in which one wants and the other withholds is about power, control and fear. And when someone shuts down or gets nasty when continually confronted with the same issue, it’s a clear signal they’re uncomfortable, afraid, unwilling or unable to engage. You can’t change Paul. He has to want to change. And you can’t make him want you as much as you want him. Rather than giving away your power and letting him control what happens next in your life, you can sort out what’s going on and decide if it’s really what you want and deserve.

Relationships aren’t easy. They take work and time and energy. You’ve got to want to be there and willing to stick it out when things gets stuck, for they do from time to time.

I think you already know that you’re at push or shove. You deserve to give yourself the answers if Paul can’t or won’t. Anything less than that would be settling, and you deserve much more.

Olive Gallagher, a life coach, ethicist, and national columnist recently moved to Lake Oswego, OR and currently manages her private practice.

The Inner Bottom Line can now be found in first use on Tuesday’s online at and on Saturdays in the print version of The Oregonian newspaper.

You can submit your questions and ethical dilemmas or book consulting appointments and private coaching sessions with Olive at 503-908-7842 or

Hard cover, Kindle and audio versions of Olive’s book, The Nude Ethicist: A Simple Path to The Good Life™, are now available on

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