Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage XX. Avoiding the Ultimatum Manipulation

Grant that this Thy handmaid may, in all things, be pleasing to her husband; and that this Thy servant may love and cherish his wife; that they may live according to Thy Will (from the Marriage Service Prayers of the Orthodox Church).

The ideal of Christian marriage is well known: “that they may abound in every work that is good and acceptable unto thee.”i A marriage that is blessed by God is one that interiorizes the Love the Persons of the Holy Trinity have for each other, as well as the Love they have for their creation. Thus a husband and wife’s relationship will manifest Christ’s instruction to his Apostles: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (Jn 13: 34). It will also demonstrate the words of the Father, said of our ancestral parents, “ . . . male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it...” (Gen 1: 27-28). In other words, they will produce, and will love their offspring in emulation of the creative loving act of God Himself. (Morelli, 2008). At times, faulty cognitions and the ensuing dysfunctional and behavioral barriers get in the way of actualizing Divinely enlivened spousal love. Ultimatum is one such roadblock.

The Ultimatum Cognitive Set

The Cognitive-Behavioral Clinical Model (Beck, 1976; Beck, Rush, Shaw & Emery, 1979; Burns, 1980 Ellis, 1962; Morelli, 2006b,c) provides insight into understanding ultimatum. According to this model, dysfunctional emotions such as anger, anxiety and depression are produced by distorted or irrational beliefs, attitudes, and cognitions. Situations (some event that has happened or something that someone has said or done) do not produce or cause emotional upset. Instead, we upset ourselves by our irrational interpretations of such events or situations. Ultimatums are the result of the dysfunctional cognition known as Demanding Expectations: Beliefs that there are laws or rules that must be always obeyed. Kim views her husband’s refusals to do her will as making him “impossible to reason with.” She irrationally believes that there is a universal law that her husband, and or children, should always do what she tells them to do. And they better come through with a big “proof” that they appreciate her. If they don't comply with her ultimatum, she considers that she has the right to get very upset.

The basic cognitive interpretation bringing about ultimatum is that when one’s spouse or child is not saying or doing what the spouse or parents think should be done, they have the right to get angry and set the conditions which they think will regain family harmony. They feel self-justified in their attitudes. This frequently occurs after a person has invested time and energy trying to explain their view or getting others to say and do what they want. They may also feel they have the right to disengage, rebuff, snub, or in other ways to show a cold shoulder to the noncompliant spouse or offspring. They desperately want to show the other how unfair or ridiculous their actions are; and how right they themselves are. They feel that to do otherwise would be to acquiesce to the power of others over them. Ultimatum communicates that the others do not have the right to take advantage of them. On the other hand, the unyielding partner is labeled as ‘inflexible’ or the child as ‘stubborn.’ Setting ultimatums, by self-assured, peremptory declarative tone of voice and by assumption of unwarranted power, becomes a way of manipulating others to get one’s own way.

A Psychospiritual Caveat

Avoiding the ultimatum manipulation does not apply in situations involving serious, ongoing and intractable moral issues or behavior patterns that are a clear and present danger to a spouse and/or family members. For example, in situations in which a spouse is living, and is committed to live, a polygamous-adulterous lifestyle (e.g., an open marriage), or in which a spouse who commits physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse as defined by law and does not commit to seeking immediate treatment; in such situations the spouses would be candidates to be given an ultimatum: begin immediate treatment or separation and, if appropriate, that legal action will be taken.

Moral lapses (such as adultery and substance abuse, etc.) require guidance and discernment. Such moral lapses do not have to result in termination of a marriage. Husbands and wives can learn from their failures and can even make their relationships stronger. They can work at demonstrating their re-commitment to one another. One way of accomplishing this would be for the spouse who was unfaithful to be completely open about the details of their daily lives and, in turn, for the aggrieved spouse to work at developing trust. (Beck, 1988). In as much as determining the objective severity of moral issues is not as clear cut as criminal abuse, guidance is necessary. This is especially true given the tendency to employ cognitive distortions and the ensuing emotional over-reactivity (Morelli, 2006a,b,c,d,e) In a previous essay I described the use of the Preference Scale and the Mental Ruler technique, (Morelli, 2007c,d). These tools, with the guidance of a scientifically trained licensed mental health practitioner and a spiritual father/mother, should be used to discern the appropriate action.

The Consequences of Ultimatum

Beck (1988) considers ultimatums a defeatist belief, because they frequently aggravate situations that are already tense and thereby undermine constructive understanding, dialogue and opportunity for individuals to make decisions on their own. Similar to the effects of nagging which I have described as an extreme marriage “over—control” (Morelli, 2007b), use of ultimatums is usually associated with anger. (Morelli, 2005) Individuals who employ ultimatums in their relationships with others are usually blind to the effects of their manipulation attempts. A person being given an ultimatum often feels controlled and resists the magisterial imperatives. The manipulated individual feels they are being treated in a bossy, autocratic, high and mighty and magisterial manner. In order to maintain a sense of healthy self-worth (Morelli, 2006a) they feel they have to resist. They view the ultimatums as symbols of a power struggle between a greater power and themselves. They feel a loss of freedom and a sense of being boxed in. Healthy self-esteem is lost. Ultimatums reduce family concord, and are, at the very least, communication errors (Morelli, 2006b).

Cognitive-emotive-behavioral Intervention

Treatment entails actively disputing and challenging the irrational attitude: that it is catastrophic if people and events are not the way they want them to be (Ellis, 1962). To restructure irrational cognitions into rational cognitions, the individuals issuing ultimatums might ask themselves: “what law in the universe states that others will respond to their peremptory demands?” Careful reflection will reveal that no such “law” exists—it is a ‘self-made law’. Some may try to justify their demanding expectations because they perceive that they are entitled to hold them because of some titleii they have. But applying the same question to entitlement will reveal that there is no law in the universe that says people will comply with the title-holder because of their title (Morelli, 2007a).

Actually, in such situations, the entitler now has two problems; first, their ultimatums are not being complied with, and second, a problem of their own making, their holding on to their irrational self-imposed “law” that others should comply because of some title they hold, be it mother or father, elder sibling or some such. In successful cognitive restructuring , “undemanding preferences” replace demanding expectations. This restructuring will result in stable functional emotions, and when necessary this process can be used for efficacious programs to aid in modifying the behavior of others if it departs from socially or Christ-like appropriateness (Morelli, 2006d). Successful restructuring would also eliminate idiosyncratic, egoistic, autocratically imposed ultimatums.

The Ultimatum Spiritual Set: Pride

St. John of the Ladder (Climacus) (1991) tells us: “Pride is denial of God, an invention of the devil, the despising of men...” He goes on to detail the application of pride when dealing with others, such as in making ultimatums. “The consummation of vainglory is the beginning of pride; the middle is the humiliation of our neighbor [as used in this essay: spouse-children], . . . the extolling of one’s own exertions, fiendish character.” What better spiritual description of the person who uses ultimatum in manipulation of others, which I described previously as “magisterial,” than St. John’s observation that “An arrogant man yearns after authority.”

The Spiritual Intervention: Humility

St. John goes on to explain that the healing of pride is humility. “If you keep up a sincere condemnation of yourself before the Lord, you can count us as weak as a cobweb.” In this regard it would do well to recount the wisdom of St. Paul’s understanding of how we can become blinded by our own misguided principles: “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Cor 11:14-15).

St Isaac of Syria speaks of humility as “. . . the raiment of the Godhead. The Word who became human clothed Himself in it... Everyone who has been clothed with humility has been made like unto Him who came down from His own exaltedness and hid the splendor of His majesty and concealed His glory with humility...” Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2000) informs us how we can put this into practice, that is to say, the way to attain it: “Humility is primarily an inner quality. It consists in trust in God, absence of hope in one’s self, the sense of one’s own unworthiness and defenselessness . . .in the depths of the heart . . . it [also] reveals itself outwardly . . .in giving honor to others [and] enduring offenses and afflictions.” For those who issue ultimatums to their loved ones, interiorizing humility into their hearts and then practicing humility in their thoughts, words and deeds toward others would be a powerful spiritual treatment.

To acquire the humility needed to spiritually heal pride’s offspring, ultimatum, we must “pray constantly” (1Th 5:17); in the words of St Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977): “to pray all the time is clearly the antidote to [all] pride . . .,” and be united with the Church through her Holy Mysteries, especially Holy Confession with its frequent examination of conscience, and the reception of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ at the Divine Liturgy.

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5).


Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion (2000). The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Beck, A., (1976). Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders. New York: International Universities Press.

Beck, A.T. (1988). Love is Never Enough. NY: Harper and Row.

Beck, A., Rush, A., Shaw, B. & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York: Guilford.

Burns, D. (1980). Feeling Good. New York: William Morrow.

Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. New York: Lyle Stuart.

Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and Human Growth. NY: W. W. Norton.

Morelli, G. (2005, October 14). The Beast of Anger. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.

Morelli, G. (2006a, January 06). Self Esteem: From, Through, and Toward Christ. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-self-esteem-from-through-and-toward-christ.

Morelli, G. (2006b, January 27). Understanding Brokenness in Marriage. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-understanding-brokenness-in-marriage.

Morelli, G. (2006c, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-asceticism-and-psychology-in-the-modern-world.

Morelli, G. (2006d, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/smart-parenting-III-developing-emotional-control.

Morelli, G. (2006e, May 08). Orthodoxy and the Science of Psychology. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-orthodoxy-and-the-science-of-psychology.

Morelli, G. (2007a, March 15). Good Marriage: How An Attitude of Entitlement Undermines Marriage. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/good-marriage-I-how-an-attitude-of-entitlement-undermines-marriage.

Morelli, G. (2007b, May 15), Good Marriage III. Nagging: The Ultimate Marriage Over-Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/good-marriage-III-nagging-the-ultimate-marital-over-control.

Morelli, G. (2007c, June 5). Good Marriage IV: The "Preference Scale" - A Tool for Communication, Negotiation and Collaboration. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/good-marriage-iv-the-preference-scale.

Morelli, G. (2007d, September 20). Good Marriage X: Perfectionism. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/good-marriage-x-perfectionism.

Morelli, G. (2008, July 6). Good Marriage XIII: The Theology of Marriage and Sexuality. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/good-marriage-xiii-the-theology-of-marriage-and-sexuality.

St. John Climacus, (1991). The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

Wheeler, E.P. (1977). (ed., trans.), Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.


i From the Marriage Service Prayers of the Orthodox Church, Antiochian Orthodox Catholic Christian Archdiocese of North America.

ii Many words, in this case words indicating title, have what psychologists call surplus meaning. In the case of titles, these are assumptions based on what they are entitled to on the basis of the title itself: “If you are a husband, your wife should . . . ;” “If you are a mother your child should . . . ;” “If you are a priest your parishioners should. . . ;” “If you are a bishop your priests should . . . ;” and if not you have the right to get upset, angry, retaliate, get vengeance, etc. This is an example of the application of shoulds as a despotic act—for which psychologist Horney (1950) coined the term “tyranny of the shoulds.” This is also discussed extensively by Ellis, (1962).

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: July 6, 2010

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