I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy lately. I’ve finally reached the most recent season, in which Dr. Miranda Bailey and her husband separate with the intent to divorce. It ultimately came down to a desire on Bailey’s part to undergo a fellowship rather than take a (better paying, better hours) job as an attending at the same hospital. Her husband issues an ultimatum. She argues that a marriage that rests on an ultimatum is not really a marriage.

Now I am biased on this subject ten ways from Sunday. My wife is a doctor and underwent two fellowships upon graduating. What I was hoping would be three of four years of residency-hours/residency-pay turned into six (with a year of unemployment or employed in a different state). At no point did I issue an ultimatum, but had she started talking about yet another fellowship, I would have seriously considered it. I had bent about as far as I was capable of bending. After we were done in Cascadia, I did make one more gesture of six months so that she could bone up on her skills for a few specific procedures that never seemed to pan out while we were in Cascadia. Point being, if she had said “one more fellowship” I would have said “no.”

Now, Bailey’s husband was objecting to a first post-residency fellowship. But she was a surgical resident, which is five years instead of Clancy’s three. Plus, they had a kid that he was left alone with and that cost money that she wasn’t particularly making as a resident and wouldn’t make as a fellow. That’s not to say that he was right and she was wrong. They’d been on the skids often enough that I had forgotten that they hadn’t split yet. But his request was not unreasonable and that he put it in the form of an ultimatum.

But, reasonable or not, in what form but an ultimatum can somebody say “enough!” to something that is going wrong? Ultimatums have something of a bad rap because they’re supposed to be controlling. But marriage requires submission to somebody else’s desires. At least sometimes. And if you never draw a line, there’s no end to the degree that one partner or the other can do what they want regardless of what you want and you have no choice but to follow. Or you can leave without giving forewarning that the next straw is the last, as though that’s more.

That’s not to say that ultimatums are always reasonable. I think that generally speaking, it’s a bullet that can be fired maybe once a decade or so. If a person is having to repeatedly issue ultimatums, it’s a sign that there are some serious problems. It means that either one person is abusing ultimatums or the other wants to walk as close to the line as possible without going over it.

I take threats of firing someone in the same manner. If my job is in danger, I do want to be informed about it. But if it happens more than once, it more likely than not means that either I am not well-suited for the position or that they are using threats on my job as a motivation tool, which is unacceptable. I’ve never had my job threatened more than once, though, so that theory of mine has never been tested.

Relationship-wise, I don’t think that I have ever had an ultimatum issued against me. I issues some vague ultimatums while with Evangeline (“Things are going to need to start changing or I’m outta here”, things like that”), but I’m not sure if those count and they were indicative of a relationship in (constant) trouble. A slightly more “real” ultimatum came towards the end when I put a deadline on it. The deadline was a month and about three weeks into that month I found out that she was becoming romantically involved with someone else.

Anyhow, everyone on the show seemed to simply accept that ultimatums were unacceptable. This included Richard Webber, the big boss man. What’s notable is Webber’s wife gave him an ultimatum that he would give up medicine entirely. I don’t recall it being presented in quite the same harsh light. Perhaps because male ultimatum’s about a woman’s career are considered unduly controlling, perhaps because Webber had been unfaithful early in their marriage and she could use that against him, perhaps because we kinda knew and liked her while Bailey’s husband only seemed to show up when something was very wrong.


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10 Responses to In Defense of An Ultimatum

  1. ? says:

    She argues that a marriage that rests on an ultimatum is not really a marriage.

    Ergo, her termination of it isn’t a real divorce.

    [Insert witicism about the busy rationalization hamster.]

  2. trumwill says:

    Not sure she was going there. I think she was going with the notion that “He ended the marriage when he issued the ultimatum.” Which is true to an extent. Presumably he’s filing for the divorce. But it’s an evasion of responsibility, on the part of a man or a woman, when you don’t acknowledge that you could have saved the marriage. Particularly if the required actions are not unreasonable. I’m biased, of course, but requesting that she pull in the promised income (when she can) and work the promised hours (when she can) does not strike me as wholly unreasonable. Though I suppose the reverse can also be said, where his allowing her to pursue the career she wants to pursue is not in itself unreasonable, depending on one’s point of view.

    On a sidenote, one of the things I saw a couple of times amongst Clancy’s colleagues is that divorce actually happens in or near the end of the hard times. It’s weird. They make the entire residency or fellowship and then when it’s finally drawing for a close, they separate. Not enough anecdata to be statistically significant, but it’s an odd phenomenon.

  3. Mike Hunt says:

    Of course, the thing about ultimatums is: if you issue one, and it is not met, you have to leave. If you stay, then you have nothing to stand on.

    Sometimes people are selfish, and need to be reminded that marriage is a partnership. In this case, and in your case, if you filed for divorce, the judge could award alimony based on imputed income, rather than just actual income.*

    This is also a good reason to not follow anyone to allow them to further their career unless you are married. If you sacrifice, then break up, you are SOL.*

    BTW, you are watching a show made for women.

    *I am not an attorney. Please seek the advice of qualified counsel.

  4. Kirk says:

    I haven’t watched Grey’s Anatomy for a couple of seasons now. Though I think the episode you reference is a rerun, it makes me a bit curious as to what’s going on with that show.

    Anyway, what is a fellowship?

  5. anondoc says:

    “Anyway, what is a fellowship?”

    A medical fellowship is subspecialty training after residency. Some internal medicine and surgical subspecialty fellowships can be several years long (e.g. cardiology, gastroenterology, cardiothoracic surgery). Other specialties offer one-year fellowships, but people frequently do more than one. Pay is usually on the same scale as residency, and hours are not always much better either, although sometimes call can be taken from home or scutwork is less severe.

    The reasons for pursuing fellowship training vary by specialty and individual. Subspecialty-trained internists such as cardiologists earn significantly more than general internists. For some other specialties, the job market is weak, and fellowships offer a holding pattern until something better opens up.

  6. stone says:

    What if you’re a drug addict or alcoholic and your spouse tells you you can’t ever use drugs or alcohol again? What if you hit your spouse, and he or she says, if you ever do that again, I’m out of here?

  7. trumwill says:

    Well Sheila, a marriage that rested on that ultimatum would be a weak marriage indeed. But not because of the ultimatum.

  8. trumwill says:

    Mike, given the income differentials and potential income differentials, alimony would almost definitely not be going from the homemaking husband to the doctorly wife. It would likely be going in the other direction.

    Yeah, I watch Grey’s Anatomy. But I also watch football and used to watch Wrestling and 24. So I think I’m okay.

  9. Mike Hunt says:

    @8

    You misunderstood me. The working spouse can pay alimony based on imputed income. That way, someone making $100K can’t quit their job to take one making $50K just to reduce his support obligations. The judge may order the support amount based on the higher salary. The same applies to people who intentionally turn down higher-paying jobs.

    Watching wrestling is even more gay than watching GA. Of course, I enjoy both Frasier and The Golden Girls, so I am not one to talk…

  10. trumwill says:

    You’re right, Mike, I completely misunderstood what you were saying despite the fact you were quite clear. I missed a crucial phrase.

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