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TL; DR

My new date has a habit that is a deal-breaker for me. She knows it bothers me generally, but doesn't know it bothers me enough to break up with her.

My questions is, how do I tell her that without it sounding like an ultimatum?

Details

I started dating someone new. It's going well, but she has one habit that's a deal-breaker for me. The actual thing is a bit more serious, but I'll make up a silly example. Say she is an hour late to every date. She knows it's bothering me and apologizes every time, but she doesn't know how much it's bothering me. She feels it's OK for a woman to be a bit late, so it's not a big deal and an apology is enough. While it might be fine for some men, for me it's a deal-breaker and we won't continue dating if that goes on.

My question is, how do I tell her that without it sounding like I'm giving her an ultimatum.

The usual recommendation in these cases is to say "your behavior upsets me", but in this case, she knows it upsets me, she just doesn't know how much.

If I say "it upsets me so much I'm considering breaking up with you", that sounds like an ultimatum.

I don't want to demand any particular action from her, that's why I feel like I'm not giving her an ultimatum. If punctuality isn't really her thing, it's totally fine. I just want to give her information about how much this bothers me because currently, she doesn't have that information. It's totally up to her to decide whether she wants to act on it.

I want to strike more of an "FYI" tone. Kind of like "this car is for sale" sign. If you want to, you know you can call and ask for details. If not, it's obvious that the sign doesn't obligate you to do anything.

Consider these two situations:

  • Situation 1: I'm a smoker. It's a conscious, deliberate decision on my part. Yes, I've read all about what first-hand smoke does to me and what second-hand smoke from my cigarettes does to other people. I still choose to smoke. It's part of who I am. I won't quit smoking for any prospective girlfriend.
  • Situation 2: I visit the gym on Wednesdays and Fridays. But there is nothing really special about those days. I just like having a schedule, so I picked two days at random and put them on my schedule. I'd easily change these to any other two days for the slightest reason or for no reason at all. It's just not very important to me.

If her lack of punctuality is like Situation 1, i.e. something that she doesn't want to change or is difficult for her to change, then it's not fixable. I wouldn't even consider asking her to change her behavior for me.

But there is a chance that it's more like Situation 2. I.e. maybe she could stop doing that fairly easily if she realized that I perceive her behavior not as playful teasing but as a deal breaker. I'd like to give her that information so she can decide what she wants.

The reason I don't want to sound like I'm giving her an ultimatum is that I consider ultimatums, especially this early in a relationship, to be a big red flag. To continue with my "Situation 2" example. If I somehow learned that it's more convenient for my gf to meet up on Wednesdays, I'd gladly move my gym to Tuesday instead to make more time for her. It wouldn't be a problem at all. But if she told me "move your gym session to Tuesdays, or else we're over", I'd probably break up with her pretty soon. Even though I could easily satisfy that particular request, I'm not happy with the idea of someone thinking they are entitled to control my schedule.

So essentially what I want is to communicate to her how seriously I view her habit, while making it clear that I'm not trying to control or manipulate her and it's entirely her decision.

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    I don't understand what you're trying to achieve. If it's a deal-breaker for you that means that it truly is an ultimatum that you want. If you somehow are able to convey it in a FYI tone, yet she doesn't change her behaviour, would you actually break up with her? – Imus Oct 23 '19 at 7:02
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    Have you told her that it is an deal breaker for you? Or only that it bothers you? Given that it is an ultimatum (without a set time limit) it will be hard to not voice it as one – XtremeBaumer Oct 23 '19 at 7:11
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    @Imus: If I convey it in an FYI tone and she doesn't change the behavior, yes, I'll break up with her. Again, consider the car analogy. I can tell you "I demand you make me an offer on this car today, or else I'll sell it to someone else". This comes across as angry, confrontational, threatening, and I'm trying to control what you do without any justification. Or I can put up a "for sale" sign that conveys all of the same information, but doesn't have any of the above negative connotations. – oscar Oct 23 '19 at 7:27
  • @XtremeBaumer: No, I haven't yet. If I just say "hey, you are late all the time and it's a deal breaker", I feel it still sounds like an ultimatum. I was hoping to find a more gentle phrasing. I see your point though, I want to convey a strong sentiment and it may not be possible to do without equally strong wording. – oscar Oct 23 '19 at 7:31
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    A better analogy would be telling me "I already have another buyer lined up, so if you want the car you'll have to make an offer today". That's not unfriendly at all, but honest and still an ultimatum. Just putting up a "for sale" sign conveys totally different information. To complete the analogy, that "for sale" sign solution would be the same as saying "I don't like it that you're always late" but not breaking up over it if she keeps doing it. You specifically told us that that's not what you want. Quick note: an ultimatum in this context doesn't have to be a bad thing though! – Imus Oct 23 '19 at 7:33
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It doesn't help that your problem isn't really lateness, but something else you don't want to mention. Still, I'm going to answer as though it was lateness.

When you are not on your way somewhere, discussing going somewhere, or fresh off waiting while she was really late somewhere, ask her, gently,

Imagine if you arrived late for [whatever thing she was most recently late to] and I was not there. And later I just texted you "oh well you didn't show up so I guessed you cancelled or something and I left." You'd be shocked, right? That would be horrible behavior on my part, right? Or if I had just gone in, ordered, started eating, and was on dessert when you showed up? Also a horrible thing to do, isn't it?

(You may want to pause here to reassure her you're not threatening to do that in any way, this is a thought experiment.) Then go on,

I don't do that. I sit and I wait and when you do arrive we have dinner or whatever as planned. Why? Because I care for you. That's what people do in a relationship. They inconvenience themselves a little for the other person to be happy. And my doing this, it's not "no big deal" - it's pretty much the definition of a relationship. If you ever showed up somewhere to find I had left, or started without you, you might consider breaking up with me over it, I'm sure.

(Getting her feelings on the matter here is relevant.)

Now, you do not want to say "I put myself to trouble for you and I demand you put yourself to trouble for me." What you want to say is

I know to you it seems like no big deal when you're late. But I am there waiting. And I am only waiting because I care for you. I wouldn't wait for a coworker or person I arranged to buy something from on the internet. I am waiting for you. [If it applies:] And I worry while I'm waiting, maybe something has happened to you. It has to be said: you are making me wait. You'd be hurt if I didn't. Are you doing all that you can to minimize the time I spend waiting for you?

Be sure you listen to the answer. Perhaps she is. Perhaps she will blurt out that she is, but if you give her time to think about it, she may later realize she is not.

I think I'm a pretty thoughtful partner. I [text you regularly, don't make plans with others until I check with you, keep my promises, whatever]. It's taking quite a lot of thoughtful and generous energy to always be waiting while you're late. And to get a quick "sorry" but really, you think it's ok. I would rather put my energy in to things that are worth more to both of us.

Now that she has the details of what your specific problem is (you don't like waiting, you do it only for her, and she doesn't thank you for it or work to minimize it), she may tell you more about why she can't change, she may promise to change, she may ask you to work with her to make this less of an issue, or you may have a big screaming fight. I hope she wants to work with you on it. For example, if she meets you at your home, waiting there a little while is less trouble than waiting at a bar or restaurant. If you avoid things with fixed start times, like plays or movies, her lateness matters less. And so on.

I have been a chronically late person, I have been in a relationship with someone who felt 15 minutes early was still pretty much late, and I have had friends who are chronically late. It's not generally something you can change about a person. But you asked how to let her know that it matters, and how much it matters. When you're talking about having a limited amount of energy to be a partner, and when you suggest she might break up with you for not waiting, you're kind of leaning up against that topic. Whether you keep going in that direction depends on how she responds.

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  • I think this can fairly easily be adapted to the actual habit I'm having a problem with. – oscar Oct 23 '19 at 20:27
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In my opinion, what you are trying to do is setting up a boundary (punctuality) which is good, but you want to translate the responsibility of breaking up if the boundary keeps being broken onto her, which probably won't happen because for her arriving late is not such an issue.

Being sincere is almost always the best option, so I would wait for the next time you meet and put an effort to have a great date with her. Then, close to the end when you are planning the next date, tell her lovingly but firm something in this lines:

"For me punctuality is important and I feel deeply uncomfortable if I have to wait anyone for a long amount of time, specially the person I date. Therefore, as I like you and I want us to enjoy our time together as much as possible, do you think you can try being more punctual next time we meet?".

Enforcing boundaries is always a bit "tense" but it's necessary (and attractive), and this way you let her caringly know that you like her and want to keep dating, but also that you have needs that she needs to fulfil. Whether she decides to cooperate or not (giving her some time to adapt), you'll have your answer.

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    It may even be that she can't make it on time, even if she wants to. I have severe ADHD and this is a problem which has plagued me my whole life. My husband understands that if he absolutely needs me to get somewhere on time he needs to call me when I need to leave and probably do a followup call to make sure I have left. And I, in turn, have learned to respond to his reminders with the gratitude they deserve. Either she can get places on time or not. If not, OP needs to find out sooner rather than later. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Oct 23 '19 at 15:08
  • Hi and welcome to IPS! Please take a minute to read our citation expectations. Answers on IPS need to include some backup in the form of either personal experience or references - could you explain why you think this advice will work, have you used this approach in a similar situation before, or is this something you've seen recommended by someone else? You might find How do I write a good answer? helpful too. – Ælis Oct 23 '19 at 16:39
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You need to go through a few distinct steps. Each will need time, and at least a few interactions for each one.

  1. Set the boundary
  2. Note her violation of the boundary
  3. Set the penalty
  4. Warn, and then act

That's the outline. Now for some details: First, it has to be clear that there is some behavior here which is an issue, and you have to get that across without any threats or consequences. Make sure she understands what the relevant issue is, and that its something you care about. (If you cannot get this message across, there is probably nothing to wait around for.)

Second, after she has understood the issue and you can talk about her behavior being either acceptable (within the boundary) or unacceptable (outside the boundary), help her notice when she is violating your boundary. This is still without threats, its just making sure she is aware of what she is doing and that its not acceptable to you.

Third, after she is aware of the issue and recognizing when she is crossing the boundary, you have the basis for talking about it with her openly. At this point, if she is mature and in to you, she will probably be taking care to respect your boundary, and there will be no need to give any ultimatum. If she doesn't care at all, then anyway the relationship is not developing well, and probably not worth investing in. If she cares but has trouble acting on it, its time to give her an ultimatum, not as a threat, but as a consequence. Make it clear, simple, and direct, but not threatening. At this point she should have no problem understanding where you are coming from.

Lastly, you can give her a few warnings if she is still not cooperating, and with each warning you will need to remind her that this is a deal breaker. If she is not with you at this point, act on your ultimatum, and move on with your life.

Don't give her the ultimatum unless it really is a deal breaker, and you are ready to walk.

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Saying "it upsets me so much I'm considering breaking up with you" isn't describing how much it upsets you, it explains the consequence you are considering because of how it upsets you.

I've been in similar situations where my date would consistently turn up late, I felt that they were not respecting my time by showing up late without any effort to update me on when they would be ready. That feeling of not being respected entirely was the real issue for me and so I phrased my request for them to attempt to be more punctual like so:

I feel like it's incredibly important in any relationship to feel respected and when you consistently come late to our dates I don't feel like my time is being respected. This is a really important issue for me and I would like to know that once we've agreed to a time to meet we both try to honor that. And if something happens and you can't make that time please let me know as soon as you can so if we need to we can make other plans.

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Remember that a "deal breaker" is normally something like "If you do X, we can't be together." Where X is something like cheating, owning a dog or putting ketchup on your mashed potatoes. Ordinarily, these aren't things that are fixable. They either are or they aren't. So it's a little confusing to me that you're using this terminology here.

It's clear that the two of you have differing views on "punctuality." Presumably you've made your case and made it clear to her why you don't appreciate the way she's acting and why this is a "deal breaker" for you. So you've come to a point where you feel your only two options are to make a stronger case for yourself (ie: ultimatum) or to end things now.

But ask yourself this: if you have to give her an ultimatum to get her to do what you want, is this relationship worth it? Even if you end up laying it on thick and making it clear you'll end things if she doesn't comply, is this really the kind of relationship you want? And where does it stop? If you have to go to all this trouble to prevent something this early in the relationship, what happens when--inevitably--you have differing opinions elsewhere down the line? You'll be setting a precedent now.

There are many articles out there on setting the tone at the start of the relationship--precisely because this is such an important aspect of growing closer with someone. The way you act now will impact all of your interactions going forward. As such, if you've made it clear that you don't like what she's doing and she continues to do it, then--at this stage of dating--I'd consider her SOL.

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  • There isn't enough space in the comment, but I added a clarification in the OP. – oscar Oct 23 '19 at 20:33

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