“Sometimes you need a hard lesson to learn what you need.”
That was the conclusion of a participant on a new show called “The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On,” which airs on Netflix this week. The idea sounds like the fantasy of every woman or man who has been in a relationship for years and wants to tie the knot already.
Six couples come to the show agreeing to split up and date other people for three weeks, at the end of which they have to decide whether to put up or shut up, marry or move on. The show dangles the hope of clarity for people in relationships whose goals seem perpetually blurry. Maybe one member of the pair will decide to end the relationship having realized there are other fish in the sea, or conversely, become so jealous seeing his or her partner with other people that they’re finally willing to settle down.
Unfortunately, the premise may only create more chaos in the relationships of the people involved and even the people watching the show.
One participant claims she couldn’t decide whether to marry her boyfriend because he wanted kids and she didn’t. “It wasn’t a hard no or a hard yes; it was just something that I felt like I needed to explore a bit more,” she said.
She went on: “So going on there, I had the thought that I was going to somehow miraculously figure that out with someone else. I wanted to marry him, and he wanted to marry me, and it was just the children thing, which was so frustrating, because everything else in our relationship was very good.” Seeing her boyfriend with other women was so difficult for her that the couple left the show early.
Producers of “The Ultimatum” obviously had to create some kind of gender balance artificially since often the couples in this situation are men who don’t want to settle down and women who do. But who wants to watch a bunch of nagging women tapping their feet and watching their biological clocks ticking?
The real question is what effect an ultimatum actually has on a relationship. I remember a couple — friends of mine who were living together — both in their late 20s when the relationship started. Year after year, I watched as she held on, knowing that she wanted a family, waiting for her boyfriend to propose. She was probably 35 before she finally figured out it wasn’t going to happen. Would an ultimatum have helped?
Kay Hymowitz, the author of “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys,” warns that “needing an ultimatum to make a commitment should be a yellow warning flag. He — or she — is either unsure about his feelings for you, doesn’t want to give up the party life, or just thinks he can get away with not planning for the long-term.”
Sure, in some cases an ultimatum can make a partner realize “the time has come and you’re the one,” Hymowitz says, but “you’d better be sure you have your eyes wide open to the reasons for his foot-dragging.”
We have all seen enough of those relationships to know that what they need is not an ultimatum but a woman with enough gumption to walk out. Mark Regnerus, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of “Premarital Sex in America,” tells me that “no amount of threats will move an ambivalent man — who already enjoys the perks of cohabiting without the responsibilities of marriage — toward the altar.”
He adds, “Like other reality dating shows, this one acts as if it can bend the norms of how relationships actually work in the real world.”
In the real world today, men have fewer incentives to settle down — there’s no stigma against premarital sex or cohabitation — and even if they do have incentives, they are not working with the same timeline as women.
Regnerus suggests that couples participating in the show may actually undermine their relationships. “Count this as yet another show that tends to leave women more anxious than men and primes the public for another dose of ‘non-monogamy,’ which is toxic to marriage and the sacrifices and trust it requires.”
The popular wisdom is that women and men should have lots of experiences with other partners to know what they like before they settle down. In fact, having a long string of sexual relationships makes people less likely to marry and less likely to be faithful when they do, while people with fewer partners tend to be happier in marriage.
As much as we may dream of the scenario where the guy who has been taking the girl for granted finally realizes the gem he has, the chances of this happening seem to be pretty slim. Regnerus is even willing to make a prediction with regard to this show: “Revisit these couples in a few years. The likelihood that you’ll locate them at different addresses is very high.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.