The importance of setting boundaries around ourselves, for the purpose of self-protection and self-management, is an extremely hot topic in the mental health world. However, on the surface, boundaries can look very much like ultimatums, which are usually detrimental to the health of our interpersonal relationships. In this blog I explore (1) the difference between boundaries and ultimatums; (2) what to do when someone interprets your boundary as an ultimatum; and (3) under what circumstances ultimatums are ‘acceptable’.
Generally speaking, ultimatums are about force: usually involving a threat or demand that attempts to control another person. Boundaries, however, are about personal power: a limit that you set for yourself, around yourself, that does not come from a place of anger, judgement, or blame.
In theory, there’s a difference, but how does that play out in practice?
For example: “We are done if you ever speak to them again” versus “I am really uncomfortable with you talking to this person, and I don’t think I can continue the relationship if that continues”
One of the above examples is clearly coming from a place of anger and tries to force the world to go my way. The other comes from a recognition of emotional discomfort, and informs Person A what Person B will do if the behaviour continues. There appears to be more room for discussion in the second example around the meaning of the word “uncomfortable” - e.g. exploring where the discomfort originates, or how both parties can mitigate the discomfort - rather than a blanket ‘either/or’ that appears in the first example.
This pattern continued across other examples of boundaries versus ultimatums that I thought about: the structure (“if x, then y”) remained relatively similar, but the intention, respect, and compassion underneath the statement differed. Essentially, the difference is in what lies beneath the words:
Is it about YOU or ME?
Is the statement designed to protect me, communicate about my needs, or bring focus to something I am struggling with, or is it designed to control, threaten, or provoke you?
What is the emotional tone beneath the words?
Is the statement coming from a place of anger (aggressive, threatening) or disgust (shaming, guilt-inducing)? If not, where, emotionally, does the statement come from?
Is there room to communicate?
Boundaries do not need to be negotiable, but they often open up more space for communication (hearing and being heard) than ultimatums do. Boundaries allow someone to express their feelings and needs, and often allow for others’ responses or ideas to be shared as well: they come from a place of calm and emotional safety.
Does it remove responsibility for someone to address their own issues?
Ultimatums can place the blame and onus on change onto the other, whereas boundaries arise when people take responsibility for themselves (e.g. recognising where they often let themselves down or react with trauma patterns and taking steps to try and prevent that).
Take the ultimatum from earlier: “We are done if you ever speak to them again”. This places the onus for improving/keeping the relationship on the other, and the speaker takes no responsibility for the origins of their jealousy, low self-worth, or insecurity, nor do they make any attempt to work through those problems. The focus is on their partner just doing what they want in order to fix the problem.
The boundary, “I am really uncomfortable with you talking to this person, and I don’t think I can continue the relationship if that continues” leaves space for communication: Why are you uncomfortable? Is this anxiety something we can work on together? Is me not talking to them the only solution? How else can we ensure our relationship survives? There is a deeper sense of a relationship where issues are addressed, rather than a dictatorship with liberal applications of blame.
On this point, I will also reiterate that just because a boundary creates space for communication between parties does not mean it is always negotiable. A boundary is a personal limit that may or may not be a hard line in the sand, whereas an ultimatum is always a hard line in concrete (“my way or the highway”), but whether or how a boundary is discussed, changed, or compromised, is up to the boundary-setter.
... Next, to the million dollar question...
What do we do if someone receives our boundary as an ultimatum?
The easy answer? People will receive information however they want to receive information, and you have no control over how they choose (consciously or otherwise) to interpret, react to, or respond to, your boundary.
Now, we are not responsible for the behaviour or reactions of other people - but that doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for how we behave initially! We have a responsibility to communicate our boundaries in a way that is respectful and considerate (assuming this is part of your value system). As my father always says, “Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional” and that statement is 100% true in the case of setting boundaries: the way you choose to enter into the discussion will increase or decrease the likelihood that combat will occur.
You are likely to upset someone (conflict) when you set a boundary, especially if you have previously accepted behaviour from them that violates it, or have behaved yourself in a way that violates it. Does that mean you shouldn’t set the boundary? I don’t think so. However, I’m not you, so you need to answer that question for yourself, depending on (1) where you place “others’ emotions” and “my personal boundaries” in your hierarchy of importance, and (2) whether you’re willing to accept the natural consequences of not setting a boundary to avoid upsetting someone else.
I would love to give you perfection: A boundary setting statement so wonderful that it gets accepted immediately, with no stress or relational conflict... but I can’t. It doesn’t exist. There are too many variables outside of your control to aim for perfection. You can, however, set yourself a standard: “Am I happy with how I articulated that, how I showed respect, and how I communicated my needs with them?” If you can walk away satisfied that you’ve lived up to your expectations, you’ve done your best - the rest is their choice!
...and that’s important: the other person has a choice!
They can choose how they respond: Whether they accept the boundary, or whether they tell you to F-off, or whether they do something else entirely!
Before you go, there’s one last question to explore: Do ‘acceptable’ ultimatums exist?
Let’s talk about drugs: “We are over if you continue to do cocaine every weekend”... boundary or ultimatum? It looks a lot like the jealousy ultimatum example I gave earlier, and it’s aggressive, threatening, controlling, about THEM, takes responsibility for the problem out of the ultimatum-givers’ hands, and leaves no room for communication... but I think a lot of us would say this ultimatum is ‘acceptable’, as opposed to the ‘unacceptable’ jealousy ultimatum.
Because, like most things, boundaries and ultimatums are not black-or-white, good-or-bad, or acceptable-or-unacceptable. Setting an ultimatum around health or wellbeing is more likely to be ‘acceptable’ because our intention is often to help the other person, as opposed to setting an ultimatum around who our partners can/not see, where the intention comes from a more selfish place.
Human beings are incredibly complicated. Relationships are more complicated than the sum of the people involved. Often, what matters the most are the nuances and context of the relationship, rather than the black-and-white ‘definition’ of what constitutes a boundary or an ultimatum. When considering setting a boundary (or giving an ‘acceptable’ ultimatum!), focus on clear, respectful communication, where you explain your needs, present your boundary and (if appropriate) allow discussion on the best way to move forward. Oh, and remember the other person has the freedom to react, respond, and choose their behaviour - you cannot control them or ‘make them see’ anything unless they want to!
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