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Boundaries or ultimatums?
February 16, 2012 8:56 AM   Subscribe

What is the difference between an ultimatum and a hard limit?

An item of contention has come up between my spouse and I and in discussing it, I told him this manner of thing could not happen again or I would not be able to continue the relationship. The issue concerns an ex-girlfriend—let’s call her X— that I have never been comfortable with (in part due to some of the things he’s told me about her, and in part due to the limited experiences I’ve had with her). I found, quite accidentally last week, that my spouse was named in X’s will as the guardian of her child in the event she should die. The child is not my spouse’s child. She is from X’s previous marriage and the ex-husband is still alive and living in our state as far as I know. This will was made a few years ago, definitely during the time my spouse and I were together, in a relationship and planning marriage.

This is the second time I have learned things about his relationship with this woman from someone else. At first, he presented X as “a girl I used to date when I was in college.” I learned from other people much later that he’d basically been with her in some form for the past ten years (we are both in our 30s), had lived with her rather recently, she was considered a member of his family by his parents. Fine, but I wasn’t in the market for someone with this much baggage and he knew that and later admitted that he kept some of that from me because he thought I’d leave him over it. He told me that the relationship had been a difficult one that he'd had lots of trouble extracting himself from. His descriptions of her behaviors sounded a lot like someone with untreated Borderline Personality Disorder, but he claimed that she was finally getting treatment and was much better now. I got over it in time because in every other way he puts my needs first, respects my emotiona and is a loving and supportive partner. I chalked this up to his general cluelessness about how relationships work since he’d been in a very unhealthy one for quite some time. He further limited his contact with her and prevented her from starting a lot of drama between us by enforcing his boundaries. She no longer calls him in the middle of the night threatening to kill herself, so I do believe that he’s made an honest and sincere effort to limit her place in his life.

This recent fact throws me, though, because he accepted this commitment while we were planning our wedding and never told me about it. His defence is that he forgot about it and it’s not likely that he would ever be in the position to be X’s child’s guardian anyway. I say that doesn’t matter and that when you’ve made a potentially life-altering commitment you at least inform the person you’re married to about it. He thinks I’m overreacting because it involves X. I have had no problem with his interactions with X, what I’m opposed to is when it looks like he’s hiding his relationship with X from me. It also concerns me that he claims he’s not close to X anymore, yet he agreed to be responsible for her child. And since I am now his wife, I could potentially be responsible for a child whom I’ve never met and had no awareness I might have to raise. I told him that it doesn’t matter whose child it is, it’s the fact that he concealed this from me that I find so upsetting. But, so far X is the only person I’m finding these important things about second hand.

In our discussion of this, I told him that I could not continue finding out from third parties about these entanglements between himself and X, and that if it happened again, I would consider our relationship broken. He claims I’m making threats and ultimatums. I say I’m telling him that I cannot allow another breach of trust like this and still consider him a trustworthy partner. In part, this is because I know that once I know I can’t trust someone, I cannot have tender feelings for them. It would be impossible for me to have a relationship with someone I thought was betraying me.

But, is it an ultimatum? I’m not asking for anything except honesty regarding his role in X’s life. What is the difference between a threat and a warning that you’re nearing your limits? And am I making too much of this? Anon because he knows I read Ask.Me.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (44 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can't speak to the "threats and ultimatums" question specifically, but I wanted to let you know that this particular situation is absolutely the right place to put your foot down. You absolutely shouldn't make the decision to be named a guardian of someone else's kid without consulting your wife.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:02 AM on February 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


Setting up safe relationship *boundaries* may seem like *threats* to the person who does not like the boundaries you are asking for from them. But healthy and supported boundaries in relationship are essential for safety and growth as a team. His response does not mean that you do not have the right to "put your foot down" as leahwrenn mentioned. You absolutely do. The *ultimatum* component is up to you, not him. You get to decide what your outer llimit is in relationship. You get to decide what makes you feel safe and comfortable.
posted by anya32 at 9:06 AM on February 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you want to get technical, it's not an ultimatum, because ultimatums require a time limit. But in real life, there isn't always a hard line between an ultimatum, a threat, a warning, or a declaration of limits. It's often a matter of perception.

The reality is that you are threatening to break up with him if he doesn't do what you want him to do on this issue. But I think you're getting caught up in the language as though it will help you understand if you're being fair or not -- as though an 'threat' is unfair but 'stating limits' is fair.

I think you're being perfectly fair. Your spouse is doing things which are endangering your ability to trust him, and you're making clear that if he continues to do that, the relationship will not survive. It doesn't matter if it's framed as an ultimatum or not, at the end of the day you have a right to decide what you will and will not accept in a partner.
posted by Jairus at 9:09 AM on February 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Is your question really about the semantics differences between a threat and an ultimatum? The more important question would seem to be whether these breaches of trust are material enough to end a relationship over.

From where I'm sitting, absofuckinglutely. He has essentially signed you up to be a co-guardian (post marriage) for his ex-girlfriend's child by some third party. That seems beyond the pale, to me.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:10 AM on February 16, 2012 [15 favorites]


Hard limits are expressed and discussed as part of a negotiation. They are boundaries based on someone's core values and are communicated in the spirit of cooperation, kindness and respect. Ultimatums are more like threats and are often given out on an ad hoc basis to leverage the other person into doing something. How you approach this will matter more than the content of your request. In fact, before any demands are made, I'd start by laying out in concrete terms how much and in what way does this thing bother you. Lot's of you-do-that-and-it's-making-me-feel-like-this.

Hugs!
posted by Orchestra at 9:11 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


According to wikipedia,

An ultimatum (Latin: the last one) is a demand whose fulfillment is requested in a specified period of time and which is backed up by a threat to be followed through in case of noncompliance. An ultimatum is generally the final demand in a series of requests. As such, the time allotted is usually short, and the request is understood not to be open to further negotiation.

That sounds fine to me, and it sounds like it fits what you describe. You had talked about this issue before, and now you've said "this is the last straw, do this again and things are over."

Whether you choose to call it an "ultimatum," a "hard limit," or just a "clarification of boundaries" doesn't seem to me to be the important question. What actually matters is whether or not he has had a come-to-Jesus moment and understands what he can and can't do if he wants to keep the relationship alive. (And that's an open choice -- he may well decide that he values his connection with her more than what he has with you; that's always the risk of giving an ultimatum like that.) From your description of his response, I think he's probably still either not getting the seriousness of this for you, or is still undecided about what he really values more.

And in case you need to hear it from an uninvolved person, you are definitely not out of line to be upset about this. Taking on guardianship is a big deal and not something that one should do behind one's partner's back, period.
posted by Forktine at 9:12 AM on February 16, 2012


He claims I’m making threats and ultimatums.

Would it be such a terrible thing if you were?

There's this idea that laying down an ultimatum in a relationship is always unethical or wrong. That's nonsense. If there were a rule like that, it would amount to a ban on honest communication — "Even if such-and-such would be an absolute irrevocable dealbreaker for you, you're not allowed to say so, because that would be an ultimatum."

You're absolutely allowed to be honest with your partner. If the honest truth is "You need to do this, or I'm gonna feel obligated to do that," then you're most certainly allowed to say so.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:12 AM on February 16, 2012 [26 favorites]


Technically speaking, an 'ultimatum' is a question ('Do you want X or me'?) which requires an answer. Setting a boundary is not the same, but may be in effective terms ('If you deal with X, I will leave', implying 'Do you want to deal with X and have me leave?').

Also, IANYL, and I don't know the specifics here, but someone naming a person as a guardian and that person becoming the guardian are two separate things. The person has to accept becoming the guardian, and be approved by the Court or whomever. The person appointed can say no to the appointment, however rare that may be in practice, given that people are usually approached about this sort of thing beforehand.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:18 AM on February 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


By the technical definition, yeah, you are making threats and ultimatums. This is a GOOD thing. You know what's best for you, and you are making sure that your own life and future isn't completely derailed by someone to whom you have no allegiance, through a decision on which you were not consulted.

If I were in your position, and my partner pulled this sort of stunt, I would tell him "You're completely right, I am giving you an ultimatum: either you fucking act like an adult, or I'm going to find someone who will".

You are not overreacting in any way - he could have been named guardian of the child of the person who saved his life from a burning fire, and he would still have to tell you, the person he is marrying, that he is taking on this responsibility, which would then extend to you once you are legally joined. This is complete and utter bullshit. I would be seriously pissed if my live-in partner got a pet without consulting me first. "Forgetting" to mention being named guardian of a child who isn't his in the event that something happened to the biological parents is not okay on so many levels.
posted by Phire at 9:20 AM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


From my personal experience, it's both. To someone who is setting a boundary, it's a hard limit. x = y. You don't like y, don't do x, and we're fine.

To someone who really really wants to do x, and can't or won't understand why the other person is setting this boundary, and doesn't want to respect it, it's an ultimatum.

Every time someone has said to me "that's an ultimatum" (with the optional and implied "and you have no right to control me") they have gone ahead and done x anyway, and I've had to decide whether I was able to live with it. Every time "y" has been "or I will have to seriously re-think my relationship to you", I've lost that relationship. And while I, personally, have regrets about those outcomes, I don't regret setting boundaries that I could live with.

I truly hope you don't have regrets around this, and I don't think you're wrong to know about yourself that you can't live with some values of x. I think it's fair to let your spouse know that.

(And I think that your partner is being deceitful around the subject of his ex, in ways that I would not, personally, find appropriate.)
posted by gauche at 9:25 AM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


There is a difference of opinion on whether dealbreakers of the sort you describe are "allowed" in a marriage because marriage is, to some people, saying that you are willing to overcome all hurdles with your life partner. I think what you have said is absolutely an ultimatum, which I see as indistinguishable from a "hard limit", and in my own opinion only, a completely appropriate one.

The issue you have raised brings up a host of other questions [what about the ex's ex? is this something your husband agreed to or merely acquiesced to? how serious is he about fulfilling his responsibilities?] which are going to have to be part of a conversation the two of you have. I have a partner who has an ex that is not dissimilar from the one you describe and I've noticed the same sorts of patterns you describe. The whole MO for dealing with a borderline-seeming partner is all about reducing harm, especially if there are children around, and this can sometimes be handled through lying and giving in and not really working out problems. It's quite possible your husband doesn't know how to actually work through a knotty problem like "My ex wants to put me in her will as responsible for her child" in an adult manner. And as a result, he may not understand what you are doing as being a responsible approach but just acting like his ex and making threats.

So, it's important for you to outline the "This is one of very very few dealbreakers I expect to have" [most marriages have some, usually infidelity or differences of opinion on child-having] and explain that this isn't one of what is going to be a series of manipulative threats over petty issues. The big thing with threats, to me, is that you use them to force someone to do something they wouldn't otherwise do. It's possible that your husband is really excited about being able to raise this child in the event that something happens to his ex but it's more likely, to my read, to be something he agreed to in order to avoid a fight. So you and he need to work out that issue and then if you decide, for you [the TWO of you, you are a partnership] that this will not work he will need to tell his ex that.

He agreed to something before you were married that is no longer okay within the context of your marriage and its okay for him to change his mind on that after consultation with you and he needs to be an adult and manage the fallout from his ex about this. And you need to have a "let's get it all on the table" discussion about any other entanglements with his ex that he has and then from this point forward if he's continued to be mixed up with her, the approach is "Okay please handle this, quickly. Thank you." You may not be able to get him to totally come clean because he may not totally know how to do that, but you can make him prioritize you in word and deed [which in this case would be rescinding his agreement with his ex] consistently. Couples therapy may be helpful for the two of you to get a third party opinion on this.
posted by jessamyn at 9:27 AM on February 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


Accusing you of "threats and ultimatums" rather than, you know, talking about the situation is a bad sign. It may be a tactic meant to make you feel defensive and thereby stop inquiring about his entanglement with X, and this in turn may imply that there are other things he hasn't told you about.

Trust has been broken and needs to be mended. You need to make it clear that while you intend to make an honest attempt to re-establish trust, he needs to be doing the same thing. Putting you on the defensive is the opposite of re-establishing trust.
posted by kindall at 9:27 AM on February 16, 2012 [15 favorites]


How the hell can he control what X does in her life? If she wants to mark him down as the beneficiary of her life insurance would you throw a fit over that too?

He didn't tell you about the whole relationship because he thought you'd freak out. As long as he'd not conversing with her then I don't understand what the problem is. If she is adding him to her Will then that is her desire, and has nothing to do with him or you. I could add you to my Will and you wouldn't know about it, but if your husband found out I would hope he would shrug and say "whatever"

I personally think you're overreacting and both of you need to look at your friendship circles and see who needs to be ejected and who does not. It isn't his actions that have caused your anger here, but another persons, so please don't take it out on him.
posted by zombieApoc at 9:28 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with most of those above about the difference between an ultimatum and a boundary being in the eye of the beholder, and somewhat beside the point.

Let me also add: from what you've shared, it seems as though your husband has a habit of hiding things from you when he anticipates a negative reaction. While this has thus far occurred mostly around his entanglements with X, it's a pattern that could potentially reach into a lot of areas in your relationship, and be just as corrosive to trust elsewhere. I might focus more on *that* behavior--hiding, or at least failing to disclose, information that he knows you'll be upset about--rather than on whether there's any other information about X you don't know.

Also, couples therapy sounds like it could be a really good idea for you two while there's still some trust left. If I'm right about his tendency to hide things from you when he fears or anticipates a bad reaction, couples counseling might be a neutral place to talk about that dynamic and whether there are things either of you could do to help make the relationship a "safe" place for him to tell the truth. (Not saying that you are at all at fault for his choice to hide important information, but how you react to unpleasant information might be feeding the dynamic without you realizing it.)

Good luck, this sounds totally frustrating and tough.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:30 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are you telling him he needs to take his name off the list or you will leave? That to me is an ultimatum: there is a demand with a consequence corrolary to the demand left unfulfilled. What you seem to be describing here is a little more open-ended: drawing a bright-line on what truly constitutes the end limit on acceptable behavior. Theoretically the latter is a good thing, because it let's everyone move forward with a clearer idea of what will & will not fly.

Seriously, though, this isn't about definitions. If you haven't made it clear whether you are demanding an action in response to your outrage or not. It sounds to me like he thinks you are.

I agree that he has taken on an unreasonable obligation on your behalf. I can also allow that he may seriously (and mistakenly) considered it an issue between him & his friend & not you. And he is now in a ROTTEN position of having to consider whether or not this is still a realistic possibility. Don't make him work out that alone; this needs to be a conversation that you participate in --as it should have been from the beginning. I'm not advvising either one to capitulate. This is a huge issue, but it needs considered thought from two people willing to look at practicalities. Coming to the table as two people polarized over the Mom and the method won't cut it, it will only drive this wedge in deeper. So take a deep breath, try to set aside the anger, and dig into this can of worms in the face until you find a stand you can take as a couple.
posted by Ys at 9:33 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The threat/ultimatum/warning question is smoke. He's trying to make the argument about something more within his control.

"If you don't stop a certain behavior, I'm going to dump you" is an ultimatum. But so is "If you hit me again, I'm going to call the police."

You are not making too much of this. He lied by omission and then when you found out about it, he lied about that too - he did not fucking forget that his crazy ex named him the guardian of her child.

Little lies and fictions are not a real problem. They're how we grease the axle of our interactions with other people. Below a certain threshhold, it's understandable and okay to decide to keep a few things to yourself. Being named the guardian of a child, when that child belongs to someone with whom you have a long and tumultuous history and when you are married so that decision will necessarily involve your wife - that is so far above that threshhold that you not only can't see the goddamn threshhold, you can kind of see the curvature of the Earth from up there.

He's using the language of relationship communication to try to muddle the issue. Making threats and ultimatums is an unhealthy behavior when done to try to control a partner. It's unhealthy when the demands made are unreasonable. "Be up front and open and don't lie to me about matters in which I might be legally involved without my consent" is not unreasonable. It's common sense.

You have set your terms for what you need in order to be in a healthy relationship. You can't be with him if you can't trust him. The correct answer to this statement is not, "Don't set ultimatums (and, by implication, you should be with me whether I'm trustworthy or not)." It is: "Okay, you're right. I'm sorry. I'll make this right and not hide my interactions with her from you again."
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:38 AM on February 16, 2012 [28 favorites]


How the hell can he control what X does in her life? If she wants to mark him down as the beneficiary of her life insurance would you throw a fit over that too?

I'm pretty sure that you can't name someone as guardian of your child without that person's consent. This isn't like giving someone a lamp - a guardian is legally obligated to take care of a human being. It's not like people who would like their kids to be financially secure can just declare that, in the event of their death, Bill Gates has to take care of their kids. Bill Gates needs to agree to that.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:40 AM on February 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


Ultimatum: "Do X or I will punish you with Y"

Hard Limit: "I will X", or "I will not stand for X"

Example:

Ultimatum: "Marry me or I am going to leave you"

Hard Limit: "I want to be a wife in the next few years, that is my goal and I am going to work towards it"

Having said that. "No Ultimatums" Is a general relationship rule that does have exceptions in extreme cases.

Example of a time that it is acceptable to issue an ultimatum: You right now.
posted by Shouraku at 9:42 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


His defence is that he forgot about it.

I'm not sure why you're waiting for "another" breach of trust to make you think that he is not a trustworthy partner. Whether he actually forgot that he agreed to be the guardian of a child of a person who has threatened to kill herself multiple times, or if he is just pretending that he forgot because he thinks it'll make you give him less of a hard time... man, I'm not sure I could live with either of those options.

If I were in your shoes, I'd focus less on how you communicate what will happen if yet another shoe drops, but what you're going to do about the ones already on the floor. Tell him how important it is to you that he demand that she revise her will, since he has now "remembered" and his life circumstances and relationship to her have obviously changed since he agreed to it. His reaction should speak volumes.

I'm so sorry you're in this situation. Good luck.
posted by argonauta at 9:48 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


He claims I’m making threats and ultimatums.

Then he is paying attention to the situation. Which is a good thing, because unless he takes this seriously he could really screw up your marriage.

People use this "ultimatums" line as a way of trying to twist the blame back onto you, to make you sound unreasonable or overly demanding. Like, "Gosh, I can't believe this one issue is more important to you than the entirety of our relationship. How distorted and unfair is that?"

But the truth is, you know your limits. And he needs to know them, and care about them, if he is going to be with you. If he thinks that is just incredibly unfair and punitive, then the area in which your realities overlap is just a lot smaller than either of you previously believed.

I totally sympathize, by the way. Some people live a little more deeply in their imaginations than others, and don't realize the very real consequences that their words and actions have in real life. He didn't consider your feelings then, and he's trying to get out of having to do it now.
posted by hermitosis at 9:51 AM on February 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that you can't name someone as guardian of your child without that person's consent. This isn't like giving someone a lamp - a guardian is legally obligated to take care of a human being.

No, people do all sorts of screwy things in their wills that beneficiaries are allowed to ignore.

It's possible he forgot- it's the sort of thing I'd forget if it were tossed off in a casual conversation while I was in the middle of wedding madness (or even tax season). The bigger problem is the hiding things because he doesn't want any blowback from you.

I used to do this and it was a stupid behavior left over from childhood. What's the phrase? "The child's solution is the adult's problem"? I bet therapy will help this if he actually sees it as a problem.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:52 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I guess I'm in a minority, but this seems like an uncessary thing to end a relationship over. You already knew that he had trouble with boundaries and had a problem extricating himself from a very messy relationship -- it's probably part of his personality and his past. The guardianship thing is something that happened long in the past, and it seems strange to tank your relationship over it.

I think it's also possible that instead of focusing on how to resolve this problem, you're wielding threats/ultimatums/boundaries/concepts of "trust as a way to take back the power you feel you lost and to protect yourself. Of course it's fine to have boundaries, and even to demand that he do certain things, but be careful that you're not using threats/ultimatums/boundaries as a kind of revenge or counterplay. It's pretty easy to get caught up in trying to reassert your power when you've been hurt, rather than focusing on how to resolve the situation.

In this case, I think you're perfectly justifed in making demands, such as that he totally cut off contact with X and, to the extent he can, remove himself as guardian. But I don't think you're really helping much by framing this catastrophically, like "you MUST NEVER EVER BREACH MY TRUST AGAIN!!" Because it's pretty hard for someone to agree to never "breach trust" again -- it's such a diffuse concept. It's much easier for you to have a discussion about concrete things you need to see change, and for him to hear and acknowledge your hurt.
posted by yarly at 10:03 AM on February 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


The OP's husband seems to have a really weak grasp on which kinds of details he is obliged to share with her and which ones he isn't -- or worse, he deliberately conceals things out of fear of the blowback.

It's impossible to feel safe in a marriage with someone like this. He needs to stop trying to explain away all her misgivings on a case-by-case basis and look at the overall effect that his past actions have produced. It's not about "never breaching trust again," because of course that's impossible. But he needs to have a basic understanding of what is a big deal and what isn't, and if he can't understand that then I'm at a loss for why he would ever even marry someone in the first place.
posted by hermitosis at 10:08 AM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Some important facts a couple of posters have overlooked:
a) "he accepted this commitment while we were planning our wedding and never told me about it," and
b)" I told him that I could not continue finding out from third parties about these entanglements between himself and X, and that if it happened again, I would consider our relationship broken. "

So yes, he accepted the commitment to be the guardian of X's child, and he accepted it without any discussion while he was actively planning a future with the OP. She is also not saying "DON'T BREAK MY TRUST AGAIN, EVER, OR ELSE," she is saying "I need you to tell me everything there is to know about you and X now, and not let me find out from third parties at some point in the future, because if that happened, I know that I may not be able to trust you anymore and that could mean I will not be able to continue our relationship." Big difference.

OP, you are not being unreasonable or making too much out of this. Please don't let him phrase the issue as you being too demanding or threatening. Frankly, the fact that he has gone on the offensive seems like a red flag to me that there is more out there that he doesn't want you to know.
posted by coupdefoudre at 10:21 AM on February 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


Ultimatum or boundary or upper limit aside -- where/what is the work that you will do together to rebuild the already broken trust? If he's not willing to do the work with you to continue your marriage, if he doesn't agree with you that he has done something damaging to your relationship... the semantics are the least of your worries.

You're not making too much of this. Frankly I don't think you're making enough.
posted by sm1tten at 10:29 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll preface this by saying that I think the question of whether this is a boundary or an ultimatum is splitting hairs.

With that out of the way: if you said "I cannot have any more surprises about your relationship with X," I don't read that as an ultimatum: you're not telling him he must do something Or Else. Well, you sort of are. Since you're essentially saying "if there are any more potential surprises, you'd better come clean about them."

But not exactly. If there are no more potential surprises, he's in the clear, right?

Here's the other thing: he's calling this a threat because he feels threatened. Why is that? My wife once told me that if I ever cheat on her, it's over. That could be regarded as a threat or an ultimatum, but I don't regard it as such because the thought of cheating hasn't crossed my mind. And she was really just telling me how she feels. Which is perfectly fair.
posted by adamrice at 10:40 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The child is not my spouse’s child.

Are you sure? Because if my husband agreed to something as insane as what you've described, I would have serious questions about the child's true paternity.
posted by peep at 10:45 AM on February 16, 2012 [24 favorites]


People use this "ultimatums" line as a way of trying to twist the blame back onto you, to make you sound unreasonable or overly demanding. Like, "Gosh, I can't believe this one issue is more important to you than the entirety of our relationship. How distorted and unfair is that?"

Perhaps more clearly, he's making a problem about the structure of the discussion rather than addressing the topic that is being discussed. Typical dickhead, "I can't talk to you when you're like this!" oldschool paternalistic evasion.
posted by rhizome at 10:54 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are you sure? Because if my husband agreed to something as insane as what you've described, I would have serious questions about the child's true paternity.

This is crazy talk. I, personally, would agree to it for anyone I loved, and that includes old friends.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:54 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Perhaps more clearly, he's making a problem about the structure of the discussion rather than addressing the topic that is being discussed.

Dickhead move or not dickhead move, it's something to consider, and another point in the favor of using a counselor as a mediator.

It would be very normal at this point for the conversation to have turned from "this is a problem in our relationship- how do we solve it? Can we solve it?" to "WTF is the MATTER with you?!" which, although completely understandable, does tend to shut down real communication.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:56 AM on February 16, 2012


I prefer, "don't change the subject, why does this keep happening?" But, y'know, I just reread and the part about her calling in the middle of the night with suicide threats really makes her effect on their marriage much more troubling. The guy probably really needs to cut her out of his life, but he's obviously wimping out on even talking about the details of this relationship that affect his wife, so counseling might be a better use of time than attempting to hash it out with raw conversation.
posted by rhizome at 11:03 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Given the history of his interaction with this woman, I'd be inclined to remove her from the domestic debate and focus on what is inarguable:

People name guardians for their children because the unexpected happens. At a time when he had already committed to a lifetime with you, your husband agreed to be a child's guardian, thus by definition also obligating you - without your knowledge or consent. What should have been a team decision very much was not.

That is a really fucking big problem regardless of the child's parentage. It's a problem for the marriage, but it's also a logistical problem. The question of becoming a named guardian has been asked several times here, and the things couples need to discuss between themselves and the parents include geographic logistics, insurance and finances, legal documentation, and all kinds of things.

Your husband either needs to withdraw as this child's potential guardian or have these conversations with you and the child's mother. Hoping the mother doesn't die before the kid is 18 is not, not, not an acceptable resolution here.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:15 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think everyone covered the boundary/threat/ultimatum issue. That aspect is a distraction from the real issue at hand. It's disappointing he went there.


Here's what jumped out at me:

"... he accepted this commitment while we were planning our wedding and never told me about it."

"This is the second time I have learned things about his relationship with this woman from someone else. "

"His defence is that he forgot about it..."


Someone above mentioned this is not if another shoe drops, but it's about the shoes already on the floor. This is correct.

- Ex GF asked your Spouse to become the guardian of her child while you were wedding planning as a way to "marry" him, too. She did it to insinuate herself into your togetherness. Your spouse went along with this AND he kept it from you.

And putting the emotional aspect aside...

- He should never ever have agreed to anything legally binding that effects you both without consulting you. This is a hard fact. Marriage doesn't work like that.


I think your Spouse sounds immature. He's hiding EX GF from you like you're his mother and the ex is a bad report card or something. And then he's obfuscating and defending the action.

It's great that you've set a hard boundary on this, but you really REALLY should not have had to.


- Do you think your Spouse can develop the skill of recognizing mistakes and correcting them?

This is the skill he's going to need if he's going to stay married to you. Couples counseling might help him with this, but it sounds like he requires individual counseling and an ability to read situations accurately if he's going to make a core change.

If he doesn't change, it's not because he doesn't love you. It's because he's not old enough to be in a real relationship yet.

Don't get stuck trying to teach this guy how to conduct himself as an adult. Give him tools and encouragement, but if he doesn't run with the ball on his own... Well. You know.
posted by jbenben at 11:18 AM on February 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


FWIW, it sounds like he did a pretty good job of convincing you he was an adult and ready for marriage, when in fact, he was not. Don't beat yourself up over it. You're not foolish to believe in someone else. He's the fool if he keeps choosing silly things over his Wife and Marriage.
posted by jbenben at 11:20 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


- He should never ever have agreed to anything legally binding

Again, this isn't legally binding, unless he signed on the dotted line. Ethically, morally, whatever binding? Maybe.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:45 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


But, is it an ultimatum? I’m not asking for anything except honesty regarding his role in X’s life. What is the difference between a threat and a warning that you’re nearing your limits? And am I making too much of this?

Is it an ultimatum? Yes.
Is it an ultimatum? No.

No matter which way you call it, the same thing has the potential to happen: you will potentially want to leave the relationship if you discover any more hidden information about X. And that's totally okay to say that.

I wouldn't say you're making too much out of this, but if your husband is being all "You are threatening me", then instead of setting this up as "you better not be hiding anything else from me", maybe he would respond to "I want to know everything about your relatioship with this woman. I don't want to make this about "oh, I didn't think that was important to mention" or whatever, because then we're focusing on something unimportant like semantics. I don't want there to be any secrets between us, so the only way to do that is to have you spill the beans about any connections between you now."
posted by 23skidoo at 11:53 AM on February 16, 2012


The discussions you had the ended the late-night calls - how did those go and was that before or after the wedding?

Did you completely flip and start hurling dishes before he had a chance to say, "Gee, that is crazy. I'll ask her to stop both for your peace of mind and because that is pure crazy and I shouldn't allow it or be part of it"?

Because unless he has a profound reason for keeping things from you, he is in the wrong.

As many have said, making the discussion about whether or not you are making threats is a clue.

Have you considered therapy?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:15 PM on February 16, 2012


Ultimatums are about what the other person is or is not going to do. Boundaries are about what I am or am not going to do.

"Either you quit keeping infromation from me or I'm leaving you." is an ulimatum.

"I will not stay in a relationship where I cannot trust my partner." is setting boundaries.

You tell him what your boundaries are and let him decide what he is going to do.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:57 PM on February 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


As noted above you can't just will someone a child. The child has a family who will undoubtedly take him in the event of his mothers death. Your husband probably knows that perfectly well and so thought nothing of agreeing. And them forgot since the friend is a giant drama queen and he knows it will never happen.
posted by fshgrl at 3:18 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


For fuck's sake, he entered into an agreement to become the guardian of a child of a suicidal woman without telling you.

Whether or not it's legally binding, she apparently thinks it is, so from a moral point of view he would be making promises he didn't intend to keep if he was counting on its not being enforceable.

The technicality is that an ultimatum is IF YOU BLERPITTY BLEEP, THEN I WILL WERPITTY WEEP. A hard limit is that I DISCOVERED MY WIFE WAS SIX MONTHS PREGNANT WITH THE BEST MAN'S CHILD AT OUR WEDDING AND WAS HIDING IT BY WEARING MUUMUUS, SO I GOT AN ANNULMENT AND FRIEND DUMPED THE BEST MAN.

So now that you can semantically distinguish the two, I guess you can prove that you're in the right and he'll step up and start being a responsible and trustworthy adult now? Or is this maybe not a problem of semantics?

This is the latest of many asks this week from women questioning whether they're allowed to set the most basic limits or are they just being demanding harpies. I think it is not demanding to require your husband to declare any extra kids upfront at the time of the wedding and also to say that if there are any more surprises you're going to have a problem. Even if that does constitute an ultimatum.

I would never encourage a married couple to divorce but you most certainly have a right to put your foot down.
posted by tel3path at 3:41 PM on February 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


This recent fact throws me, though, because he accepted this commitment while we were planning our wedding and never told me about it.

It's not clear what happened here. You don't "accept" what someone puts in their will when they are stilll alive as OK by signing off on it. Is it possible that she asked him to do this before your relationship with him started, and then wrote it down in a will dated around the time you are planning your wedding? If he says he forgot, perhaps she wrote this in her will without asking him -- she can put anyone's name she likes down, they won't be forced to do this just because it's in the will.

But, is it an ultimatum? I’m not asking for anything except honesty regarding his role in X’s life. What is the difference between a threat and a warning that you’re nearing your limits? And am I making too much of this?

He's threatened by your warning.

You seem to feel that he's putting you down by calling it an ultimatum -- but an ultimatum on something about X might let you break up now rather than divorcing down the road. Maybe your views about what should be shared with a spouse differ, this would be a good time to find that out. He might be comfortable putting you on the hook for other obligations without consulting you.

Be careful not to put an ultimatum on things he can't control -- like what X writes in her will. But whether he gives permission to her to do that is another issue entirely.
posted by yohko at 3:49 PM on February 16, 2012


jessamyn makes a valuable point: The whole MO for dealing with a borderline-seeming partner is all about reducing harm, especially if there are children around, and this can sometimes be handled through lying and giving in and not really working out problems.

So it can certainly be seen as excusable that he glossed over this. What's not good is that he's apparently dealing with you as if you were also an unstable and manipulative person that he has to hide things from, which makes it impossible for you to trust him - you never know what's coming next.

What's not good is that instead of embracing the opportunity to start communicating normally in a normal sane relationship, he's treating uncomfortable truths as irritants that will just go away if ignored. Meanwhile, you are left to discover one important fact after another through third parties and not from him, and when you try to bring this stuff out into the light, he accuses you of being a manipulator, as though, first my ex and now you! Why does this keep happening! All this paints a picture of someone who has no plans to accept responsibility for what he does, and blames you when you try to hold him responsible. I have to agree with those who say this shows he has not yet learned to be an adult.

It may help to point out to him that you're not his ex and that hiding stuff from you isn't how he's going to escape conflict. I don't know how much you can influence him, though. As has recently been discussed, spend time around a cluster B personality and you start to think like them - and he was with her for a long long time. He probably has some unlearning to do, above and beyond any possible maturity issues.
posted by tel3path at 4:17 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


It sounds to me like he is the one who is making the threat here:

"If you're going to object to an aspect of my relationship with X, I'm going to lie to you about it."

Do you know who thinks these are details worth dumping your husband over?

Your husband.

That's why he lied about them to begin with.
posted by alphanerd at 5:16 PM on February 16, 2012 [17 favorites]


First: the difference between an ultimatum and a hard limit is, that an ultimatum is "If you don't do X right now, I am going to do Y." A hard limit is a discussion /before X or Y comes up/ that X is something you will not tolerate.

You are not utilizing a hard limit here. These are not things you said beforehand. You are definitely engaging in an ultimatum.

That said, there's bad behavior on all sides. On the one hand, your husband is definitely keeping things from you, and you are within your rights to be upset. He also should have mentioned this before the wedding, the responsibility of accepting a child. That said, why exactly is it that you are not in the market for someone with so much baggage? What, precisely, is it about the nature of his history and friendship with his ex that is so difficult for you?

You said he'd made an "honest and sincere effort to limit her role in his life". What that sounds like from here, is that you asked him to make her a smaller part of his life, and he complied with you.

It sounds like you're not asking for him to be honest about his role in X's life, you're asking for him to have a smaller role in X's life and /then/ be honest about it. This is a really different thing. It's obvious that he is deeply entangled and that he does care about her-you don't accept guardianship of a child of someone you're no longer close to. It's also obvious that he thinks you will leave him if he is honest about it.

Is it true?

What would you do if your husband came to you and said, "I really am still close to X, and I want to talk to her more, open and aboveboard. I worry about her, and I also miss seeing the child that I lived with for a while. I really care about that kid too, and I would like to be the kid's guardian if she dies. She's suicidal, so even though she seems better now, it's definitely a real possibility. I would like X to be a part of my life."

If the answer is not "I would be really happy that he's being up front and honest with me", then it /is/ about X, not about the honesty factor. He is definitely hiding things from you, but it also sounds like you're not being honest with him, in telling him it's just about the secrecy. It is obviously not.

It is also worth nothing that if she is a borderline personality, it is entirely possible that she has burned through her entire family and your husband /is/ the most logical choice for guardian.
posted by corb at 8:50 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


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