The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Expressing her needs, without the ultimatum

hax 420 (Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

I’ve always been confused about the difference between issuing an ultimatum and saying, like, “I can’t live with [behavior] any longer and if it doesn’t change or improve, I won’t stay.” Aren’t those kind of the same thing?

My spouse and I are going through a rough time. Spouse has always valued privacy but it’s becoming excessive, I think, and turning into secretiveness. I feel shut out and lonely and my marriage has become a sad and painful place.

I have spoken to Spouse and talked about my feelings but nothing has improved. I’m on the verge of saying I just can’t live this way and if things don’t change, I will leave. I don’t want to go around issuing ultimatums, but it sure sounds like one when all I really want to say is, “This is all I can stands and I can’t stands no more.”

Ultimatums vs. Standards

They’re not kind of the same thing, they are the same thing: You’re saying, like, an ultimatum.

What I’ve been advising instead in these situations is the same clear statement of your need, but leaving off the part about what you’ll do if need goes unmet. As in, in your case: “You have always valued privacy, I know, but lately it seems more like you’re keeping secrets from me. I feel shut out, and our marriage has become a sad and lonely place for me.”

You say you are ready to leave if things don’t change, but you don’t need or want to spell that out. That’s because you want to know whether he will share more with you just because you want and need it, and because he values you.

If you spell out the threat, then it’s possible he’ll make some changes just to keep his own home intact. Then it wouldn’t be a gesture to fulfill you emotionally, but instead a gesture to serve his own needs — one he’s likely to sustain for a few days or weeks or months till he feels secure again, at which point he reverts to his old ways.

So, say how you feel — on that subject you don’t hold back. Then see whether he cares about your feelings enough to work on the marriage with you. If he doesn’t, then you have all the information you need to decide whether to stay on these terms or not.

For those not comfortable holding back the consequences, consider: Many threats to leave turn out to be empty ones, because people don’t know what they’ll do till they get there. This way, you’re dealing only in certainties in saying how you feel. The rest you decide as you get there.

If you ultimately ask for a separation, and he says, "Stay! I'll change!!," then you can point out, "I clearly explained how I felt and you didn't respond. You're responding only now that this affects your quality of life."

If he insists he wants a chance to do right by you, and if you’re at all open to it, then start with counseling so you can see for yourself, over time, whether this is about the two of you serving each other, or the two of you both serving him. Good luck.

Write to

Carolyn Hax

, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or

. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at