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Ultimatums and the Irrational Economics of Relationships

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To ultimatum or not to ultimatum: that was the question posed by a Stuff Mom Never Told You listener on Twitter earlier this week in reference to a guide to getting a guy to propose by strategic negotiation. Because that's all an ultimatum really is -- a haggling process with extreme emotional terms and conditions. From personal experience, proffering an 'either/or' doesn't turn out so well; in the few instances I've tossed them out, I've caved too much on what I wanted from a partner or had to walk away. When I turned the question over to Facebook fans, dozens echoed similar experiences. By and large, ultimatums were seen as pre-breakup checkmates, last-ditch efforts to see whether there's any chance of steering a relationship toward a sunnier future, even though the forecast calls for rain. There were a few women who testified to ultimatums-gone-right with marriages to prove it, but they appeared, at least anecdotally, to be the exceptions to the rule.

Yet even though most folks agree that ultimatums aren't a great idea, we still resort to them, time and again. To puzzle out whether this kind of romantic bargaining is worth the risk, it might be wiser to consult an economist than a relationship expert.

Since the early 1980s, economists have been baffled by how men and women play ultimatum games with money. The rules are simple: you take two people and give one of them $20 with the condition that they have to give some of the cash -- any dollar amount they choose -- to the other person. But here's the crucial twist: the only way to "win" and for both parties to keep the free money is for the recipient to accept the offer. Otherwise, everybody loses.

According to the principle of rational maximization, humans should act like terribly selfish creatures who should try to get away with handing over just $1 so they can keep as much of the free money as possible. But economists discovered that's not what happens in the real world. Due to the high risk of rejection posed by looking like a Scrooge McDuck who can only part with a measly dollar, people tend to give away a more substantial amount of the stash, usually between 40 and 50 percent. Anything less than 20 percent, and the chances of being turned down skyrocket.

What do strangers squabbling over 20 bucks have to do with romantic relationships? The "do this, or else" conundrums often go down just like the classic economics experiment. The aggrieved partner puts forward an offer, but the outcome ultimately is contingent on the other partner accepting or rejecting. And for that reason, I'd argue that our economic compulsion away from rational maximization, or what's absolutely best for us (selfish or not), is why romantic ultimatums are ill-advised. Yes, relationship experts often warn that women should be ready to walk in case their partners poo-poo their offer, but we're naturally predisposed to building in compromises before we even present our ultimatum in order to mitigate the chance of being rebuffed. In other words, even if our dreamboat agrees to meet the demands of an ultimatum, there's a good chance we won't, or at least won't want to, stick to our guns on it.

Toss gender into the mix, and playing the ultimatum game becomes even less favorable for women in particular. One study, for instance, found that men and women alike demand higher offers from female bargainers, and male recipients also attract more advantageous arrangements for themselves. In another study examining gender differences in ultimatum game behavior, women not only extended more generous offers than men, but were also more like to accept whatever offer came their way. Apply those economic trends to relationships, and it sounds like the odds of striking a mutually beneficial arrangement are stacked against women. Perhaps that's why Ask Men's comprehensive guide to dodging ultimatums from unreasonable, irrational girlfriends reassures dude readers that "when your girlfriend uses threats to get her way, the ball is in your court, (bro)."

To which I say let's do away with this ultimatum nonsense, establish standards from the get-go and learn how to communicate in relationships along the way. And if you find yourself wanting to hardball for what you want from your partner, it's probably in your emotional economic interest to go on, take the money and run.