How to Voice the Ultimate to Your Partner—And Be Heard!

Know your bottom line. Here's how to exceed his threshold of deafness.

Posted Nov 06, 2016

If you are going to voice the ultimate, make yourself heard. 

To say “If these things don’t change, I’m not sure I can stay in this relationship” is to voice the ultimate bottom line. If you really can’t live with something, you need to make yourself heard, rather than conclude that the other person can’t hear.

Sometimes your partner can’t imagine that you’d ever leave because there’s been a long history of complaints and threats that never truly challenged the relationship. If the survival of the relationship is truly at stake, you need to push the conversation to an entirely different level.

The first challenge is to be clear within yourself where you stand, which isn’t easy. Then you need to be clear with your partner, which may include writing him a brief note in your own handwriting (no e-mailing or texting for important subjects, please).

Consider Ruth, who came to see me because, as she put it, “I’m married to a sex addict.” She discovered that her husband, Bill, had four affairs during their ten-year marriage, and she suspected many more emotional and physical affairs from checking his e-mail and tracking his whereabouts. Both agreed that his sex addiction left him powerless to have relationships with women that didn’t lead to a physical or emotional affair. Bill was in individual and group counseling with a male therapist who specialized in this problem.

At the start of therapy, Ruth talked more about Bill’s sex addiction than she did about her own issues. She kept up with the literature and frequently gave Bill reading material, as well as advice. “I love him,” she told me. “Sometimes I’m mad and sometimes I’m sad, but I know that sex addicts are often powerless to control their behavior.”

In therapy, Ruth gradually stopped being the expert on Bill and instead focused on herself. She had a difficult decision to make: If nothing changed, how much longer could she live this way? A year? Five years? Ten? Forever? Ruth considered whether she could tolerate Bill’s behavior even though it caused her pain. If this was her decision, she needed to emotionally detach and learn to live with it. This would mean retiring her ineffective efforts to change, criticize, educate, monitor, or mother Bill as she moved forward with her own life. If, alternatively, she was reaching the limits of her tolerance, her challenge was to make sure that Bill understood this. The latter was where she landed.

When Ruth recognized that she couldn’t continue to be in a non-monogamous marriage, it no longer mattered whether Bill’s behavior was driven by his hormones, his brain chemistry, a traumatic past, or the phases of the moon. It made no difference whether Ruth called it sex addiction or sauerkraut. What mattered now was that she was in too much pain to stay in the marriage. Armed with this personal clarity, she defined her bottom line in “I” language over several conversations and without criticism or blame. She also bought a blank card and wrote this note:

Dear Bill,

I’m writing this note because I’m not sure you’re hearing me. I’ve mentioned divorce so many times that it may sound like just one more threat, but this is no longer true. You need to decide whether you can be monogamous and faithful. I know I can’t continue for too much longer if you’re not. On a 1-10 scale of readiness for divorce, I’m a 9. If nothing changes, and I discover another emotional or physical affair, I plan to call a lawyer to file for divorce.

Love, Ruth

Bill did more of the same and Ruth carried out her plan. She couldn’t save her marriage, but she could, and did, save her dignity. She knew she had given Bill every chance of hearing her. While going through a divorce was immensely painful, it was, over time, much less painful than staying in a marriage that was eroding her self-respect.

Most of the issues we face in marriage aren’t “deal-breakers,” but the challenge of taking a bottom-line position is the same. You need to get clear with yourself about where you stand. If you’re not exceeding his threshold of deafness with multiple conversations, change the medium to a handwritten card—and don’t exceed two paragraphs. When you’re aiming to be heard, go for brevity.

For more on having a clear bottom line with a partner, child, or family member, read The Dance of Anger