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Boundaries and Ultimatums? How to tell the difference.

Boundaries and Ultimatums: How to tell the difference between a boundary and ultimatums.

It’s hard to understand the difference between boundaries and ultimatums when you’re in a relationship. Having your own boundaries is healthy in a relationship and helps you place limits on what you personally think is and isn’t acceptable and how you will react if those thresholds are crossed.


An ultimatum, on the other hand, is about control and power. While they both might seem the same, there is a big difference. An ultimatum is a manipulative way to control a situation and get your needs met by force.


Let’s look at how you differentiate boundaries and ultimatums.


Say you dislike your partner talking to a specific person and want to convey how you feel about this.


“If you talk to this person again, I’m going to leave”, and “you talking to this person makes me feel uncomfortable, and if you continue to do this, I won’t be able to stay in this relationship.”


Can you see the difference in how the same message is conveyed?


The first example is an ultimatum. It’s direct and gives the impression you want to simply control whom they talk to.  There is no room for discussion and feels like a threat. Typically, this type of behavior is used when someone’s only goal is to get their way. This is the birthplace of unhealthy relationships.


While there are consequences when both ultimatums and boundaries are crossed, an ultimatum seeks to take away control and end discussions, implying it is this way or no way at all without any further conversation or the chance to open up discussions around the subject.


Another aspect of an ultimatum is the delivery of the words. When discussing your personal limits and what you’re prepared to accept within the confines of the relationship, you need to think about this. Is there an undertone of threatening behaviors, anger, or malice? Is the intention to guilt or shame the receiving party into changing their behavior, so the other person gets their own way? What are the ultimate goals of issuing the ultimatum?


Setting Personal Boundaries


In contrast, setting boundaries is a healthy way to protect yourself physically and emotionally in a romantic or platonic relationship.


A boundary is about you, not them. It is about the lines you don’t want people to cross and what you are happy with.


Going back to the above scenario, when you’re communicating that you would prefer communication with said person to stop, it needs to be about how it makes you feel, not the consequence.


You can state that it makes you feel upset, scared, unsafe etc., and you would prefer it if it didn’t continue. This is what differentiates boundaries and ultimatums. While there are still consequences to both, you need to make it personal to encourage communication and discuss your feelings.


This way, you can open up a choice for the other person to make regarding talking to that person. Now they know how you feel about it and what will happen if they go through with it, they can make a more informed choice about how they will act in the future.


However, when issuing boundaries with consequences, you need to be willing to follow through on what you said for it to be effective. Whether you are ending the relationship, leaving for a few days, requesting you go to therapy or something else. You need to follow through so you can keep your boundaries and create a safe place for yourself that doesn’t compromise what you are willing to accept. If you do not follow through, your boundary is just an empty threat rendering it the same as an ultimatum.


A boundary, when used correctly, creates space for communication to develop and for both parties to discuss their feelings either way. Why does talking to this person make you feel this way? Has something happened to you with them or someone else to make you feel this way? What do you think will happen if this continues?


While boundaries do not diminish responsibility or even open the boundary up to negotiation, they create a space to talk about it healthily.


What to do if you are issued with a boundary request or ultimatum?


While you cannot control how someone broaches this with you and how they deliver what they want to say, you can control how you react to boundaries and ultimatums.


It would help if you remembered that either way, conflict is inevitable, but how you enter the discussion will make all the difference. Choosing to convey your feelings and open up communication to discuss them more can help you stay in control of your boundaries whether you are issuing or receiving the information.


Recapping A Boundaries vs. Ultimatums

  • The intention behind a boundary is to state your feeling. The intention behind an ultimatum is to get your way.
  • Boundaries promote conversation. Ultimatums shut down the conversation.
  • Boundaries build the know, like, and trust factor with your partner. Ultimatums build resentment.


If you’re struggling to navigate the nuances of boundaries and ultimatums, you’re not alone. If you’re feeling stuck, Knot Counseling can help you and your partner have these difficult conversations. If you’re looking for counseling, I invite you to call us for a free consultation. Though we’re located in Lakewood, Colorado, our online therapy services allow us to help couples all through Colorado.


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