When you think of "ultimatums", what comes to mind?

Manipulativeness, maybe? Ultimatums are typically considered a negotiation tactic, and not a very pleasant one.

But there's a different thing that can happen, where an ultimatum is made, but where articulating it isn't a speech act but rather an observation. As in, the ultimatum wasn't created by the act of stating it, but rather, it already existed in some sense.

Some concrete examples: negotiating relationships

I had a tense relationship conversation a few years ago. We'd planned to spend the day together in the park, and I was clearly angsty, so my partner asked me what was going on. I didn't have a good handle on it, but I tried to explain what was uncomfortable for me about the relationship, and how I was confused about what I wanted. After maybe 10 minutes of this, she said, "Look, we've had this conversation before. I don't want to have it again. If we're going to do this relationship, I need you to promise we won't have this conversation again."

I thought about it. I spent a few moments simulating the next months of our relationship. I realized that I totally expected this to come up again, and again. Earlier on, when we'd had the conversation the first time, I hadn't been sure. But it was now pretty clear that I'd have to suppress important parts of myself if I was to keep from having this conversation.

"...yeah, I can't promise that," I said.

"I guess that's it then."

"I guess so."

I think a more self-aware version of me could have recognized, without her prompting, that my discomfort represented an unreconcilable part of the relationship, and that I basically already wanted to break up.

The rest of the day was a bit weird, but it was at least nice that we had resolved this. We'd realized that it was a fact about the world that there wasn't a serious relationship that we could have that we both wanted.

I sensed that when she posed the ultimatum, she wasn't doing it to manipulate me. She was just stating what kind of relationship she was interested in. It's like if you go to a restaurant and try to order a pad thai, and the waiter responds, "We don't have rice noodles or peanut sauce. You either eat somewhere else, or you eat something other than a pad thai."

An even simpler example would be that at the start of one of my relationships, my partner wanted to be monogamous and I wanted to be polyamorous (i.e. I wanted us both to be able to see other people and have other partners). This felt a bit tug-of-war-like, but eventually I realized that actually I would prefer to be single than be in a monogamous relationship.

I expressed this.

It was an ultimatum! "Either you date me polyamorously or not at all." But it wasn't me "just trying to get my way".

I guess the thing about ultimatums in the territory is that there's no bluff to call.

It happened in this case that my partner turned out to be really well-suited for polyamory, and so this worked out really well. We'd decided that if she got uncomfortable with anything, we'd talk about it, and see what made sense. For the most part, there weren't issues, and when there were, the openness of our relationship ended up just being a place where other discomforts were felt, not a generator of disconnection.

Normal ultimatums vs ultimatums in the territory

I use "in the territory" to indicate that this ultimatum isn't just a thing that's said but a thing that is true independently of anything being said. It's a bit of a poetic reference to the map-territory distinction.

No bluffing: preferences are clear

The key distinguishing piece with UITTs is, as I mentioned above, that there's no bluff to call: the ultimatum-maker isn't secretly really really hoping that the other person will choose one option or the other. These are the two best options as far as they can tell. They might have a preference: in the second story above, I preferred a polyamorous relationship to no relationship. But I preferred both of those to a monogamous relationship, and the ultimatum in the territory was me realizing and stating that.

This can actually be expressed formally, using what's called a preference vector. This comes from Keith Hipel at University of Waterloo. If the tables in this next bit doesn't make sense, don't worry about it: all important conclusions are expressed in the text.

First, we'll note that since each of us have two options, a table can be constructed which shows four possible states (numbered 0-3 in the boxes).

    My options
  options insist poly don't insist
offer relationship 3: poly relationship 1: mono relationship
don't offer 2: no relationship 0: (??) no relationship

This representation is sometimes referred to as matrix form or normal form, and has the advantage of making it really clear who controls which state transitions (movements between boxes). Here, my decision controls which column we're in, and my partner's decision controls which row we're in.

Next, we can consider: of these four possible states, which are most and least preferred, by each person? Here's my preferences, ordered from most to least preferred, left to right. The 1s in the boxes mean that the statement on the left is true.

state 3 2 1 0
I insist on polyamory 1 1 0 0
partner offers relationship 1 0 1 0
My preference vector (← preferred)

The order of the states represents my preferences (as I understand them) regardless of what my potential partner's preferences are. I only control movement in the top row (do I insist on polyamory or not). It's possible that they prefer no relationship to a poly relationship, in which case we'll end up in state 2. But I still prefer this state over state 1 (mono relationship) and state 0 (in which I don't ask for polyamory and my partner decides not to date me anyway). So whatever my partners preferences are, I've definitely made a good choice for me, by insisting on polyamory.

This wouldn't be true if I were bluffing (if I preferred state 1 to state 2 but insisted on polyamory anyway). If I preferred 1 to 2, but I bluffed by insisting on polyamory, I would basically be betting on my partner preferring polyamory to no relationship, but this might backfire and get me a no relationship, when both of us (in this hypothetical) would have preferred a monogamous relationship to that. I think this phenomenon is one reason people dislike bluffy ultimatums.

My partner's preferences turned out to be...

state 1 3 2 0
I insist on polyamory 0 1 1 0
partner offers relationship 1 1 0 0
Partner's preference vector (← preferred)

You'll note that they preferred a poly relationship to no relationship, so that's what we got! Although as I said, we didn't assume that everything would go smoothly. We agreed that if this became uncomfortable for my partner, then they would tell me and we'd figure out what to do. Another way to think about this is that after some amount of relating, my partner's preference vector might actually shift such that they preferred no relationship to our polyamorous one. In which case it would no longer make sense for us to be together.

UITTs release tension, rather than creating it

In writing this post, I skimmed a wikihow article about how to give an ultimatum, in which they say:

"Expect a negative reaction. Hardly anyone likes being given an ultimatum. Sometimes it may be just what the listener needs but that doesn't make it any easier to hear."

I don't know how accurate the above is in general. I think they're talking about ultimatums like "either you quit smoking or we break up". I can say that expect that these properties of an ultimatum contribute to the negative reaction:

  • stated angrily or otherwise demandingly
  • more extreme than your actual preferences, because you're bluffing
  • refers to what they need to do, versus your own preferences

So this already sounds like UITTs would have less of a negative reaction.

But I think the biggest reason is that they represent a really clear articulation of what one party wants, which makes it much simpler for the other party to decide what they want to do. Ultimatums in the territory tend to also be more of a realization that you then share, versus a deliberate strategy. And this realization causes a noticeable release of tension in the realizer too.

Let's contrast:

"Either you quit smoking or we break up!"


"I'm realizing that as much as I like our relationship, it's really not working for me to be dating a smoker, so I've decided I'm not going to. Of course, my preferred outcome is that you stop smoking, not that we break up, but I realize that might not make sense for you at this point."

Of course, what's said here doesn't necessarily correspond to the preference vectors shown above. Someone could say the demanding first thing when they actually do have a UITT preference-wise, and someone who's trying to be really NVCy or something might say the sceond thing even though they're actually bluffing and would prefer to . But I think that in general they'll correlate pretty well.

The "realizing" seems similar to what happened to me 2 years ago on my own, when I realized that the territory was issuing me an ultimatum: either you change your habits or you fail at your goals. This is how the world works: your current habits will get you X, and you're declaring you want Y. On one level, it was sad to realize this, because I wanted to both eat lots of chocolate and to have a sixpack. Now this ultimatum is really in the territory.

Another example could be realizing that not only is your job not really working for you, but that it's already not-working to the extent that you aren't even really able to be fully productive. So you don't even have the option of just working a bit longer, because things are only going to get worse at this point. Once you realize that, it can be something of a relief, because you know that even if it's hard, you're going to find something better than your current situation.

Loose ends

More thoughts on the break-up story

One exercise I have left to the reader is creating the preference vectors for the break-up in the first story. HINT: (rot13'd) Vg'f fvzvyne gb gur cersrerapr irpgbef V qvq fubj, jvgu gjb qrpvfvbaf: fur pbhyq vafvfg ba ab shgher fhpu natfgl pbairefngvbaf be abg, naq V pbhyq pbagvahr gur eryngvbafuvc be abg.

An interesting note is that to some extent in that case I wasn't even expressing a preference but merely a prediction that my future self would continue to have this angst if it showed up in the relationship. So this is even more in the territory, in some senses. In my model of the territory, of course, but yeah. You can also think of this sort of as an unconscious ultimatum issued by the part of me that already knew I wanted to break up. It said "it's preferable for me to express angst in this relationship than to have it be angst free. I'd rather have that angst and have it cause a breakup than not have the angst."

Revealing preferences

I think that ultimatums in the territory are also connected to what I've called Reveal Culture (closely related to Tell Culture, but framed differently). Reveal cultures have the assumption that in some fundamental sense we're on the same side, which makes negotiations a very different thing... more of a collaborative design process. So it's very compatible with the idea that you might just clearly articulate your preferences.

Note that there doesn't always exist a UITT to express. In the polyamory example above, if I'd preferred a mono relationship to no relationship, then I would have had no UITT (though I could have bluffed). In this case, it would be much harder for me to express my preferences, because if I leave them unclear then there can be kind of implicit bluffing. And even once articulated, there's still no obvious choice. I prefer this, you prefer that. We need to compromise or something. It does seem clear that, with these preferences, if we don't end up with some relationship at the end, we messed up... but deciding how to resolve it is outside the scope of this post.

Knowing your own preferences is hard

Another topic this post will point at but not explore is: how do you actually figure out what you want? I think this is a mix of skill and process. You can get better at the general skill by practising trying to figure it out (and expressing it / acting on it when you do, and seeing if that works out well). One process I can think of that would be helpful is Gendlin's Focusing. Nate Soares has written about how introspection is hard and to some extent you don't ever actually know what you want: You don't get to know what you're fighting for. But, he notes,

"There are facts about what we care about, but they aren't facts about the stars. They are facts about us."

And they're hard to figure out. But to the extent that we can do so and then act on what we learn, we can get more of what we want, in relationships, in our personal lives, in our careers, and in the world.

(This article crossposted from my personal blog.)

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An ultimatum is basically a refusal to negotiate.

Reality doesn't do negotiations, so it necessarily only issues ultimatums.

As ultimatums have to use some distinction - some either/or-construction - this always includes the escape/further negotiation via proposing another distinction. That might also apply to reality in so far as the ultimatum issued by reality exists only in the interpretation as binary by the observer.

As ultimatums have to use some distinction - some either/or-construction - this always includes the escape/further negotiation via proposing another distinction.

Huh? The point of the ultimatum is that negotiations are over, you can propose what you want, but this does not provide any escape.

Yes, ultimatums in the default sense of "a demand whose fulfillment is requested in a specified period of time and which is backed up by a threat" are basically enforced commands. But apparently we are using many more loose readings of the term - basically those introduced by the OP. Namely either/or-constructions which interpret something real as contingent (otherwise no choice).


This was really great, I'm pattern matching this idea to the "Win/Win or no deal" mindset from 7 habits. It seems to be the same mindset here , either you both get what you want, or you end the relationship/

Thinking about it, I think one of the biggest reasons that ultimatums may make other people angry is you're forcing the other person to make a difficult decision. For instance, you may know that there is no "win/win" option (eg, imagine that your KNEW your partner wouldn't be happy with polyamory) but you still pose the question so that it puts the other person in the awkward position of having to either choose an option they don't actually want due to emotional dependecy, or be the one that ends the relationship. Sometimes ultimatums are "copouts" so that the other person has to make a difficult decision instead ot the ultimatum maker.

As a side note, does anyone no how to model this type of "my decision is based on your decision" game in a payoff matrix? I tried to do a simple one for the first example (because I'm learning game theory and this seemed like a good place to practice(, but there was not a nash equilibrim where I thought there would be

I ended up starting with this payoff matrix: http://prntscr.com/8lopa4 , then removing the logically impossible options, like this: http://prntscr.com/8loq2b

But that seems to be a really ugly way to do it. and it leaves neither an equilibrium nor even a globally optimal strategy. Is there a prettier way to do it that doesn't resort to two seperate tables like the preference vector example?

"Sometimes ultimatums are "copouts" so that the other person has to make a difficult decision instead ot the ultimatum maker."

I agree, with this and the rest of your assessment above the line.

Regarding the second half, I set my two decisions to

  • GF "vafvfgf ab natfgl pbaib"
  • Malcolm "nterrf gb efuvc+pbaqvgvbaf"

Which is a bit weird, but makes it so that there's an obviously preferred column.

I think the useful part of ultimatums is the revealing of one's preferences. Transmitting the information that e.g. "I'd rather be single than in a mono relationship." The partner probably already knows that you prefer poly to mono, but not that you actually prefer nothing to mono.

The problem I see with making ultimatums is that it is described as a one party's move. Why couldn't both sides reveal their preferences at the same time? Then the situation would feel more fair, more symetrical, wouldn't it? (Well, there would still be the asymetry that one party thinks it is useful to reveal the preferences now, while the other party may think otherwise.)

I can imagine two reasons to hide one's preferences:

1) Cheating at negotiating the compromise. Let's say that both partners measure their utility on a scale from 0 to 100. Neither is able to find a partner where they would get 100 points from the relationship, and they both decide that an outcome of 80 or higher is acceptable. There are two ways how they could arrange their relationship. Option A gives 90 points to both. Option B gives 80 points to partner #1, and 95 points for partner #2. Assuming linear scale, A seems like a fair solution. However, if the partner #2 will lie about their preferences and say that option A only gives 50 points to them, partner #1 would probably agree on the option B.

2) Preferences about other person's preferences. Imagine that partner #1 prefers poly relationships to mono relationship, but would still prefer mono relationship with partner #2 to not having a relationship with partner #2. On the other hand, partner #2 dislikes polyamory so much they wouldn't stay in a relationship with a person who has a preference for it. In such situation, partner #1 by exposing their preferences would get the worst outcome for them.

Yeah, the simultaneity thing would make a lot of sense! In my experience, these realizations have been pretty spontaneous, and then articulated immediately. But you could potentially do it better if you were planning this sort of thing from the outset.

Wait. If you were planning it ("it" being knowledge and communication of immutable preferences) from the outset, why wouldn't you communicate from the outset?

Only in cases of unreliability and distrust does simultaneity matter. If you're just telling the truth, and there is mutual trust that each is doing so, then you should make the statements as soon as you know the facts underlying them.

Right, yeah, I think this has to do with trust and immutability of preferences. I guess, the simultaneity thing would make sense for cases with definitely-immutable preferences, and less trust.

My favorite part of this post was the inclusion of the exercise left to the reader; working through it really helped me deeply understand what you were saying. I suggest that this type of thing become more common because generation effect.

I agree, though that particular technique (in and of itself, without context) is also used as a Dark Art.

I wouldn't be surprised if every single principle of effective learning has, by someone, somewhere, been co-opted into a dark art.

Could you elobrate why you think this technique is a dark art? I don't see anything dark about it.

That's a good question. I don't really know. I think I've been equating 'persuasion' with 'dark art'. I need to figure out what separates effective persuasive techniques from dark arts, if anything, and if the label 'dark art' has any use.

I have some doubts that, on most human-relationship topics, anyone knows their preferences well enough to correctly identify such turning points, whether expressed as ultimatum to others (if you don't quit smoking, I won't be around you), or only as bright-line test for themselves (if they keep smoking, I'll be happier without them).

This uncertainty makes it very common for an ultimatum to be given as a negotiating point, rather than a true prediction of conditional events. This is especially true for something like a Schelling fence on a continuum - getting yourself to commit (and your partner to believe) to the unpleasant action if an arbitrary line is crossed is not easy, and for many people on many topics, not possible.

My favorite part is the concrete example.

"Either you quit smoking or we break up!"


"I'm realizing that as much as I like our relationship, it's really not working for me to be dating a smoker, so I've decided I'm not going to. Of course, my preferred outcome is that you stop smoking, not that we break up, but I realize that might not make sense for you at this point."

I especially like that it is pointed out that it can be interpreted as an ultimatum of the first kind i.e. as exerting pressure to get ones will despite it being meant cheritably. I have explicitly made this experience multiple times. I guess some people always look for whether and how a situation is controlled. And pattern match both kinds of ultimatums against the pressure form.

Oh, totally. Some people will only be able to hear the second one as the first one. I definitely don't want to date them.

Some people will only be able to hear the second one as the first one.

Some people will only be able to say the first one as the second one. Also not good.

Problem is that you don't always know in time because such cases don't necessarily materialize in sufficient clarity early on. Esp. if one or both wear rose colored glasses.