Absolutes, Ultimatums and the Fine Line

We’ve all been there.

“If you don’t x, then I will y“!

We’ve been on both sides of that too. We know the sinking feeling that we feel after it’s been uttered. We know the rage that starts to build at a demand for the impossible. We know the dread of having just set ourselves up for disaster. We know there is no right answer to that. If we comply, we feel bullied and shamed. If we are faced with non-compliance, we feel taken advantage of, unloved. Notice I’m not being specific about the type of relationship this is or even the side of the sentence (the utterer or the hearer) that I’m referring to. It’s a mess all around.

At the same time, stubborn difficulties in relationship, whether it’s spousal, parent/child, boss/employee or any number of others, often seem to need a kick in the pants to shift. Consistent violations of trust (real and perceived) are not tolerable for most people on a long term basis. How do we handle this in the real world without triggering the avalanche of negative consequences my archetypal sentence above usually generates?

While I don’t have a completely solid answer for this one, I think exploring the possibilities is always a good idea.

First of all, I want to address the idea of systems in relationships. Relationships are stable systems that like to stay where they are. By “stable”, I don’t necessarily mean “good” or “healthy”. I just mean they stay the same, even in the face of pressures to change. For those of you who remember chemistry, think about a buffered solution. When you toss in a little acid, the ph stays the same. A good biology example is our body temperature. When we get hot, we sweat. When we get cold we shiver. We stay at 37 degrees C.

This stability is great if things are “good” and awful if they are something else. It’s what makes the difficulties stubborn. That is why when you decide you refuse to yell at your 15 year old while having the “clean your room” discussion, his indifference to your patient logic and sarcastic reference to your nagging makes you nuts and then you yell. You are trying to change the system but the system pushes back.

Now, while a stable system is stubborn, it isn’t impossible to shift. If you create enough change in one aspect, the rest will eventually move. In chemical systems, heat and catalysts are all ways to shift a system. In relationships, there are also lots of options but there is a glitch in the “system shifting system” that we need to be very wary of.

Often, the first response to an attempt to shift the system is what appears to be chaos. In human relationship terms, that feels like anxiety, fear, insecurity, rage and other unpleasant emotions. Humans don’t like those states very much and, when faced with them, we like to engage our self protection systems. We shut down, lash out, lie, turn the tables, bring up the past, deflect et cetra. In a horrible irony, those responses are the buffers in our acid/base balance of our relationship. They tend to produce the very thing we are trying to shift away from. It’s awful but it’s a problem everyone has, no matter what your mental health soundness score might be.

If we now examine my “crisis in eight words” above, we start to understand how truly difficult and dangerous it can be. It is, in essence, a plea to change the system.

If you don’t clean your room, I will throw your video games in the garbage! If you don’t start helping me with the kids, I’m leaving! If you don’t treat me better, I’m never speaking with you again!

In each of these horrible moments, there is a real need for a change. However, the sentences are nuclear bombs and make a very big mess. They accomplish the opposite of what we are looking for most of the time and if we are on the other side of them, they engender an immediate defense of shut down, anger, desperation and other non-relationship building states.

I have a theory that those kind of ultimatums result not only because we feel pushed to them or like we have no other option. I think we look at them as the quickest way to fix the problem. Humans don’t like being insecure and desperate. They don’t like feeling bad. They want it to stop. Now.

Sadly, there are no quick fixes in a complex system that can lead to a predictable outcome. If you are frustrated with your buffered solution and just want it to CHANGE NOW you can just dump it out. That’s change. It may not be the change you are looking for.

How do we get the change we are looking for, given how difficult it is to shift a system and the potential chaos that can result as we input our energy while we push? I don’t have a perfect answer for that question but I do have some useful thoughts.

First of all, know your system. You need to understand all the elements, including how you contribute, This requires, to borrow an AA phrase, a fearless moral inventory. It means you need to stop using your high school logic for your graduate school life. Own your own stuff or you are lost.

Next, you need to figure out if you can handle the consequences of both change and no change. Pressure on relationship does result in chaos and may result in things you aren’t keen on, like breaking up. If you aren’t ready to face that as a possibility in your requests and pressures for change, you are much less likely to get your desired outcome. You will back off in the case of the threat of loss.

Finally, the pressure can’t be of the nuclear bomb variety. If you are properly prepared, own your own contributions, are willing to admit your own follies and are prepared to set boundaries, you will find you can behave much more rationally. You can ask for things you need with a positive moral force. You know it’s right for you, for your family, for your job, whatever the context.

That is the fine line of which I speak and it’s not easy to walk. It sure is a lot better than the alternative, however. Nuclear fallout is fairly difficult to clean up and lingers pretty much forever.