On Relationships and Control – The Ultimatum: Queer Love

Simone Thompson/Netflix

by Audrey Obuobisa-Darko

When I began watching The Ultimatum: Queer Love, I thought, “Giving your partner an ultimatum for marriage is such an extreme move. If you have to get to this stage, might it not be a sign that the relationship has already ended, that it’s time to let go?” Watching this show was such a rollercoaster; I flitted between states of excitement, rage, fatigue, sadness, gratitude, and introspection. At the end of the season, a barrage of questions plagued my mind: Have I been exerting too much control in my relationships? How much is too much control? Is the promise of a lifelong relationship just a fantasy? Am I only holding on out of fear? How do I know when it’s time to let go? Recently, I have been grieving the end of a romantic partnership I believed was destined to last forever, or at least culminate in marriage, which, in our societal conditioning, means forever, anyway. Consequently, these ruminations are making a comeback. 

The Ultimatum: Queer Love had one basic premise. Five women and non-binary couples came onto the show, with one partner giving the other an ultimatum: either we get engaged by the end of this season, or we’re over for good. These were people of different ages (the least being 24 and oldest being 42), ethnicities, personalities, and convictions about marriage, but all together in the show with a concordant purpose. They were meant to ‘break up’ with their partners after the first night, date other show participants, settle in a ‘trial marriage’ with a new partner for three weeks, go back to their old partners, and eventually make a decision: get engaged with the person they came in with (and were with for years), leave with a new fiancée (whom they’d dated for about one week, ‘trial-married’ for three), or leave single.

As absurd as this TV series seemed, it also struck me as very… human. What stood out to me the most was the sheer human proclivity to control; control situations, outcomes, ourselves, others. Mostly stemming out of a fear of uncertainty, it’s only a natural survival instinct to want to bend life our way. However, only a healthy amount of that control is constructive. Anything beyond that can become counterproductive. In relationships, this backfiring may look like power stress when your partner doesn’t behave the way you want them to, altering your authentic personality or convictions for the sake of the relationship (shout-outs to the people pleasers in the back), or holding on out of fear when it is clear that it’s time to let go. The first is born from a need to control others, the second to control ourselves, and the latter to control a situation, in this case, the relationship. While some of the cast tried to remain completely open to the experience, others were found still trying to control the outcome, or even their partners (did someone say Lexi, or Vanessa?).

The Ultimatum: Queer Love, coupled with recent personal experience, deepened my understanding on the fleeting nature of (romantic) relationships, and how that ephemera might not be as bad as we’ve been conditioned to believe. I think that relationships, or essentially, people, come into our lives to serve a certain purpose for a certain time, be it because we need a specific experience of love in a specific period of our lives, or there is something we need to learn. This could be as long as we live (so the construct of marriage tracks in this case, yay?), or as long as a particular stage of our lives lasts. 

The essence of the human life or journey is that of growth, change. We are in a constant state of evolution. Should we not expect, then, that our human connections will be in a constant state of flux, too? This journey is unique to each person. It is possible that two people in a relationship may have their life paths moving perfectly in sync. Very often, however, these journeys may grow asunder at a point, a perfect case being The Ultimatum, where after debating on marriage for years, two people are still at an impasse. The instinct to control fires up here, with one person issuing an ultimatum, when in fact, it might be the time to let go. But how would we know the difference between the time to leave, and the time to stay to work things through?

I barely have any answers to my earlier questions. One thing that has given me a clearer perspective, though, is learning to wield the need for control in a healthier way; by setting boundaries. Boundaries are meant to regulate our own selves; defining our actions and reactions to other people’s behaviours. Setting befitting boundaries, therefore, requires an in-depth knowing and understanding of oneself. When we are clear on who we are, what we want and don’t want in our lives, and set boundaries guarding these, we can make better decisions concerning our relationships. This way, we wouldn’t have the obsessive need to control others. We wouldn’t make decisions – say whether to leave or stay, what our partners should do or not do, what to accept and what not to – out of fear.

When it comes to relinquishing control over situations, learning the art of surrender has proven to be the best prophylactic. Surrender here doesn’t mean being careless or unintentional about the way things go, but rather remaining open to the way experiences play out. Surrendering to what may be, and coming to an acceptance of the possible aftermaths of our relationships just might improve the quality of our connections. Now, I appreciate my relationships for what they are, or were. I can enjoy my experiences with people fully and freely in the present moment, without worrying about what may happen in the future. That which is meant to stay, will stay, and that which is meant to go, should be let go. I find that approaching relationships in this light gives space for love to move freely and in abundance. And how wonderful it is, to love and be loved freely, to choose and be chosen freely, with intention, without fear, without an ultimatum.

Four out of five couples from The Ultimatum: Queer Love are broken up now, so perhaps, my first thought was right after all? It was a wild, chaotic show on our screens that got many people on the edge of their seats, but it definitely left me questioning deeply-rooted cultural constructs in our society: Is marriage rightly the endgame reality we’ve been sold? What does this norm look like for queer people queering the norm? Is this all entrenched in an unhealthy culture of possession and control? And, huge shout-outs to Yoly for this question, since she inadvertently showed out as an ad for polyamory, is polyamory the healthier choice? Let’s explore that in another piece.

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