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An LGBTQ Therapist Reacts to The Ultimatum: Queer Love

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Episode 1, Part 1

Full disclosure, I have never watched a season of the Ultimatum franchise before, and was not really interested until they announced a queer spin-off. Queer people have been largely excluded from mainstream reality TV, particularly dating shows, because of what producers call “logistical difficulties.” For this reason, dating shows have never really felt like they are “for me” - I know I’m not really the intended audience, and have trouble getting excited about another season of the bachelor or whatever.

Early Skepticism and Relational Ambivalence

The premise of this show seems to be that people issue an ultimatum to their partner - either they get engaged, or break up. Then they spend three weeks living with a stranger in a “trial marriage,” followed by three weeks living with their original partner in a second “trial marriage.” Off the bat, I am skeptical. These are not the choices of people with secure relational styles, and I really hope this show brings the drama without causing too much unnecessary suffering for its participants.

Relationship research suggests that the availability of other partners is one of the predictors of relationship breakdown when one person is feeling uncertain about whether they want to stay. It’s one of the reasons that polyamoury or ethical non-monogamy probably won’t “fix” a relationship that’s not working, which is a trap that a lot of couples fall into. Relational ambivalence, which is another word for not knowing whether to stay or go, is often best addressed by giving your relationship 100% of your attention and effort to see if a) it makes you want to throw up (in which case you should clearly leave), or b) by committing fully and not having one foot out the door, your partner changes how they act towards you in response and the quality of your relationship improves enough that you want to stay.

I’m also not a huge fan of ultimatums as communication tools, because while sometimes necessary, they often represent a lack of willingness to negotiate, compromise, or see a situation from a partner’s perspective. When ultimatums are issued, it is also because one partner has been trying to advocate for themselves or their needs for a long time with no movement. So I’m guessing the pre-existing relationships these couples have going into this experience are stuck and unsatisfying, to the point that one partner has one foot out the door. I wonder why they think playing house with hot strangers is going to improve their relationship satisfaction. This doesn’t seem evidence-based. Oh well.

Toxic Monogamy

Putting my skepticism aside, on to the first episode! The first contestant? Participant? Cast member? We are introduced to is Yoly, who explains that it’s “not the fucking roses” or walking down the aisle that attracts her to marriage. She is very definite about wanting to be married, so I guess we can assume she is the person who issued the ultimatum. She explains that her dream is a “once in a lifetime commitment.” Already my couples’ therapist hackles are up: does Yoly expect one relationship to meet all of her emotional needs for her whole life? It’s not unusual for people to have more than one significant relationship with big feelings and commitment in their adult lives.

From time to time I encounter clients who are very preoccupied with the idea of finding “the one” to the extent that it makes it hard for them to accept the partner they have or the potential partners available to them, who all come with flaws and complications and messy feelings. Sometimes this is called toxic monogamy. While there’s nothing wrong with committing to one partner and being monogamous in your relationship with them, toxic monogamy is the belief that you will never be attracted to someone else ever again, and if you are, it’s a sign that something is really wrong. In reality, it’s quite common to have romantic or sexual feelings for others - monogamy just means committing not to act on them. Is Yoly being honest with herself about whether the legal and social institution of marriage is really “glue” that will keep a relationship healthy and satisfying for an entire lifetime?

Lexi explains that she wants someone to say “It’s you. You’re it for me.” Being “chosen” is such a powerful feeling for many people, and those who overvalue the experience of being chosen have often lived through early life experiences where their needs went unmet, their emotions were invalidated, or they felt unseen or unchosen by the adults in their life. Obviously editing accounts for a lot on these shows, and I’m sure the editors have picked out whatever soundbites they think will be most interesting and provocative to the viewer, so I’m not sure how this statement fits into the rest of what Lexi said during her interview. I’ll be interested to see if Lexi has a healthy sense of what it means to have someone choose her as a partner.

Magical Thinking

Mildred tells us she deserves to be happy and deserves to be married, and that’s why she’s issuing an ultimatum. That’s an interesting take. On one hand, we all deserve to have lives that are lived in alignment with our values - although no one’s life is free from suffering, and no marriage is happy all the time. Deserving to be married is a bit different though - people don’t get married because it’s a privilege they earn, they get married because they’re in a stable long-term relationship with someone else who values marriage. Deserving to be married also hits different in a queer context; I’m old enough to remember queer people not being allowed to marry, and so I think we do deserve to get married as much as straight people do. But I accept that there are lots of reasons a partner might not want to get married that are unrelated to my deservingness. Thinking that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people is a type of cognitive distortion called magical thinking. If we engage in this regularly and without self-awareness, it can contribute to low mood, anxiety, and relationship problems over time.

Tiff says she is ready to find love in the most beautiful way. I can only presume she means on reality television.

What? Heteronormativity, Even Here?

Joanna Garcia Swisher swishes across the screen. She confirms that she is not queer, and is here to defy stereotypes about who can be a reality television host. The contestants applaud her bravery in the face of adversity and tell her they’re happy she’s there, and also how pretty she is, which feels unnecessary. Joanna re-explains the premise of the show, and chooses to frame the situation in terms of each partner’s readiness for marriage, stating that one partner is “ready” and one isn’t. This is a moment where the producers really do seem to be “struggling with the logistics” of a queer dating show. In queer relationships, my sense is that it’s much more common for one partner to simply not believe in the institution of marriage, not care about it, or to choose some kind of commitment ceremony that isn’t necessarily sanctioned by the authority of church or state. I’m sure this also comes up in heterosexual relationships, but in queer relationships it almost always needs to be a conversation, at least, and The Ultimatum is choosing to circumvent it entirely. Is it possible that heteronormativity has reared its head, even here, on a queer dating show?

Vanessa, Xander, and the Relationship House

We meet Vanessa and Xander, who talk about having fun together and thanking each other every day. This seems fine? Later on I find out that this show has a relative dearth of they/thems, which is not representative of any queer social circle I’ve been in or my experience as an LGBTQ therapist. Particularly in light of the decision to call this “The Ultimatum: Queer Love” rather than “Lesbian Love” or something. Again I am curious if this is one of the canonical “logistical difficulties” that has prevented queer dating shows from happening in the past, and if they/thems were actively screened out, despite an apparent desire on the part of the producers to show people with a variety of gender expression.

A quick look at the participants' social media reveals that Tiff's pronouns are they/them, Xander's are she/they, and Aussie doesn't use pronouns, Aussie is just referred to by Aussie. It would have been so easy to just put pronouns beside peoples names, so this must have been a conscious choice. Apparently the producers really wanted to give the image of a show about women in relationships with women - erasing the complexities of the participants' identities in the process. I imagine this was in order to make the show more palatable for the straight people who understand what a "lesbian" is but might have some uncomfortable feelings about the expansiveness of queer identities and genders. I have some uncomfortable feelings about queer erasure in service of capitalism.

Vanessa and Xander explain that their boyfriends were best friends in high school, which is a fun origin story. It reminds me of this way of explaining what makes relationships last, by relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman. The Gottmans use a house as a metaphor, and suggest that the foundational levels of the house are “love maps;” the shared stories about what the relationship means to both parties; as well as fondness and admiration: the good feelings and memories that sustain relationships during hard times. Vanessa and Xander seem to have these qualities in spades, but they’re also apparently struggling enough with ambivalence and communication issues to be here, so I wonder what’s going on at the other levels of their “house.” Xander issued the ultimatum here.

… Stay tuned for Part 2 of Episode 1.

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