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Is the Use of Ultimatums In Reality TV Relationships Realistic?

A Personal Perspective: You shouldn't have to force someone to marry you.

Key points

  • An ultimatum in your relationship is threatening emotional abandonment.
  • Clear and open communication is a big part of a successful marriage.
  • Reality television doesn't end when the cameras stop rolling.
  • It is important to try to avoid criticisms of character and contemptuous behavior in your marriage.

The Day Prince Charming Came Back for Cinderella

It was March of 2009 when I realized that the reality of being married and having a child was nothing like a commercial for baby food. When I fed my son he threw up on me. When I changed his diaper, he peed on me.

"I can't get him to stop crying, and I can't get him to sleep, and I think he hates me," I sobbed to my husband.

My husband came home with dinner, a bottle of wine, and strict instructions: "You're sleeping downstairs tonight, I'll see you in the morning."

I have never run so quickly into the arms of another man -- Chris Harrison, the then-host of The Bachelor.

Reality romance television began with The Dating Game way back in 1965, and Temptation Island premiered in 2001, but it wasn't until the 2002 premier of The Bachelor that creator Mike Fleiss found a format that made the viewer fall in love with the idea of finding love. By the end of the second season, The Bachelor had amassed 26 million viewers, of which 75% were women between 18 to 39.

The concept was simple, the contestants beautiful, and the timing was perfect. The first episode aired six months after our nation's largest terrorist attack on American soil, the economy had begun to free fall and our soldiers had been deployed with no end in sight.

We needed a happy ending to root for.

When my husband gave me a night of freedom from being a mom, I became one of the eighteen million people who watched the Season 13 finale of The Bachelor.

Single dad Jason Mesnick was a good-looking guy next door and when he proposed to Melissa Rycroft in the final episode, the viewers were content. But, six weeks after his proposal, Jason confessed he had made a mistake and chosen the wrong woman.

Molly became the embodiment of the fantasy that so many of us have nourished post-breakup: he realized he messed up and went running back to her. And yes, they are still together today.

Marry Me or Else

Today, reality television is quite different. Maybe it is the fault of the pandemic quarantine that cause the equivalent of earthquakes and tsunamis with an increase in domestic violence and couples who feel stuck in unhappy marriages.

Netflix saw an opportunity and offered us the ultimate in voyeurism: The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On.

During the course of the eight-episode season, we follow six relationships where one partner has given the other an ultimatum about marriage. In order to determine the fate of their relationship, the couples swap partners with someone else in the group and live with this person for three weeks. After three weeks of intimacy with someone other than the person they else, they return to live with their own partner for three weeks.

The hosts, Nick and Vanessa Lachey, convince us that this is a reasonable way to decide whether or not to marry. Research has shown that attractive people are perceived as smarter, more mentally healthy, and more socially skilled than unattractive people, so obviously they know best.

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Is this what your wedding day is supposed to look like?
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Do You Need an Ultimatum to Get What You Want? says differently. A lack of effective communication is often a factor in unhappy relationships and a common reason for divorce. An ultimatum immediately causes a power differential where only one person is fit to determine the rules that the other must follow. The relationship begins to resemble more of a parent and a child, rather than a relationship with two equal participants.

An Ultimatum is a Demand Followed by a Threat

Issuing an ultimatum breathes life into two of Dr. John Gottman's infamous four horsemen: Contempt and Criticism. The four horsemen are patterns within a relationship that have been empirically shown to identify marriages that end in divorce.


The person who demands that the two must marry or the relationship must end has likely been struggling with feeling unwanted and unappreciated for quite some time. He has to get rid of these awful feelings inside of him, and so he directs the anger and frustration at his partner with contemptuous behavior that can include mocking, eye-rolling, and name-calling, which further stresses the relationship.


Criticism is not simply a suggestion to do something differently or the unwanted offering of advice. Instead, the type of criticism that has the potential to lead to divorce involves all or none statements that often become character assassinations.

In a healthy relationship, one person might say "You forgot to lock the front door again, can you try to remember next time?"

In an unhealthy relationship fueled by frustration, criticism might sound like this: "I can't believe you never remember to lock the front door! It's almost like you're a child."

For Better or Worse

An ultimatum reminds your partner that your love for them is not unconditional, which can cause fear and insecurity in a relationship. I'm personally conflicted about whether unconditional love is a reasonable expectation of marriage, spousal marriage, although it would explain why many people stay in unhappy marriages. However, "for better or worse, til death do us part," does seem to imply an expectation of unconditional love.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Netflix's Ultimatum was a captivating trainwreck and it was painful to watch these couples allow their partner to live with someone else as a purported therapy to help resolve relationship issues. Oddly, it often felt as if the person who issued the ultimatum was actually the one who was more unsure about the relationship. And unlike The Bachelor, it was nearly impossible to envision a happily ever after for anyone involved.

The final reunion episode gave us the answer to what happened when the cameras shut off, and which couples were still together, but for many of the couples, a final decision may happen after they have the space to gain more perspective.

The good news for those who will soon find themselves single is that rebound relationships can be successful -- just don't drag the next person on a reality show, okay?


Hamermesh DS, Parker A. Beauty in the classroom: Professorial pulchritude and putative pedagogical productivity. Economics of Education Review. 2005;24:369–376.

Amato, P. R. and Previti, D. (2003). People’s Reasons for Divorcing: Gender, Social Class, the Life Course, and

Adjustment. Journal of Family Issues, Vol. 24 No. 5, July 2003 602-626. DOI:

10.1177/0192513X03254507. 2003 Sage Publications.

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