Fewer Ultimatums, More Boundaries: What Tough Love Looks Like in a Marriage

“The point is not to control your spouse, it is to control yourself and make better choices.”

by Ashley Abramson
Originally Published: 
Couple having a heated argument

“Give ’em some tough love.” It’s an often-repeated saying in regards to relationships, both with kids and adults. Let’s say your kid is acting out. It’s common, as a parent, to use a bit of tough love to teach your child a lesson. Warning them, for example, that you’ll take away that night’s screen time if they continue throwing peas at the dinner table. But similar strategies of course shouldn’t be used when dealing with other adults — including your spouse.

This sounds obvious, but it’s important to understand why this doesn’t work in a marriage. For one thing, you’re not in charge of your spouse. (“Unlike with parenthood where there’s a hierarchy, marriage is a meeting of equals,” says marriage coach and relationship expert Lesli Doares.) For another, while the occasional ultimatum might motivate your child to stop an annoying or inappropriate behavior, it’s just not possible to force someone to do something.

So what happens when shit hits the fan and you need your partner to change for the well-being of your marriage? Skylar Ibarra, a therapist with Lenarra Therapy in California, says “tough love” in a relationship comes down to setting clear and confident boundaries, not ultimatums. While the latter focus on getting someone else to change, the enforcement of healthy boundaries places the power squarely within. With a boundary, you’re essentially communicating how you feel about a behavior, why it won’t work for you, and then describing the natural consequence that will occur if the behavior continues.

“The point is not to control your spouse, it is to control yourself and make better choices for yourself,” notes Kimberly Perlin, a psychotherapist in Towson, MD. “In changing your behavior you are inviting your partner to choose differently than the same old particular pattern.”

For example, an ultimatum might sound like, “If you don’t start spending every weekend at home, I’m leaving you.” A boundary-setting statement would be closer to, “When you’re not at home, I feel unloved and uncared for. I need to feel loved and cared for in a relationship. If this is something you feel you can’t do or don’t want to work on, I’m going to prioritize my own needs, which will likely mean leaving.”

“Instead of an argument, it’s a statement of fact,” says Ibarra. For many reasons, such points are difficult to make. But in case you need them, here are some therapist-backed tips for using tough love in a relationship, no ultimatums required.

1. Set Boundaries Early On

Ultimatums, per Ibarra, tend to feel increasingly necessary the longer a person goes without setting boundaries. For example, if you notice your spouse drinking too much but don’t say anything, you’ll internalize frustration and blow up later on when it really matters –– like when it starts to affect their health or behavior in more negative ways. At that point, when the stakes are higher, ultimatum will feel like the only option.To avoid the need to threaten or control your partner later on, be intentional about enforcing healthy boundaries now. Part of doing that is recognizing your own responsibility to self-advocate.

“Once we understand our own responsibility to express our needs and to give fair feedback, we can also start holding ourselves to a better standard of behaviors we will accept from others,” Ibarra says.

2. Be Clear and Honest

The first step to boundary setting is describing your experience of your spouse’s behavior –– what you don’t like and how it’s affecting you. It may be tempting to water down your message to avoid hurting your partner, but Seattle-based psychologist Carly Claney, owner of Relational Psych, says it’s important not to adjust your message to be more digestible. Instead, express your needs and expectations clearly and honestly –– doing so will increase the likelihood your spouse will understand and take steps to change.

3. Be Respectful

When your spouse is behaving in a disrespectful or hurtful way, it’s totally normal to be upset. But keep in mind starting an argument won’t help either of you. According to psychologist Mark Sharp, owner of Aiki Relationship Institute in Illinois, it’s important to communicate your needs respectfully. Raising your voice, calling names, or belittling your partner will just create more negativity and escalate your partner emotionally, which makes it more difficult for them to take in and process your message.

4. Make Statements

One way to maintain respect and get the results you’re looking for? Claney suggests using the classic “I feel” statements when talking to your partner. For example you could say, “I feel bitter about the responsibilities I have around the house when I see you relaxing all weekend while I work on chores. I need your help to find a new way of balancing household labor.”

5. Lay Out The Consequences

If you’re asking your partner for something that’s important to you, be as clear as possible about the consequences that’ll naturally occur if you don’t get what you want or need. Those consequences might vary from the feelings you have about your partner — for example, “If you don’t respond to this, I’ll get the message that you don’t care about my needs” — to the end of the relationship. Once your partner understands the potential consequence of their behavior, they might be motivated to make positive changes.

6. Ask For Help

Tough love, according to Perlin, is appropriate anytime a behavior is unsustainable in your relationship. But there are times when your partner’s behavior may cross the line and become abusive. If that’s the case, don’t hesitate to involve a therapist, who can help you determine whether the relationship is salvageable and if so, how to enforce boundaries that help you both. And it may go without saying, but always prioritize your own well-being and safety.

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