Boundaries vs. Ultimatums

One of my Facebook friends posted a question recently that I think has a lot to do with sex:

how do you differentiate holding non-negotiable boundaries from issuing ultimatums?

This is one of those tricky questions that gets to the heart of relationships, communication, and (by extension) sex.

On some level, both boundaries and ultimatums are an attempt to set a limit on what someone else might do. They may even use the same words. Take a look at this sentence: “If you go out tonight, I won’t be here when you get home.” I can easily imagine this being said in anger as an ultimatum, firmly and calmly spoken as a boundary, or for that matter, a piece of information that might be important. So much turns on our tone of voice, our intonation, and our emotional energy that it can be hard to figure out where a boundary starts turning into an ultimatum if all we’re looking at is the words. We have to dig a little deeper to tell them apart.

In my experience, ultimatums are about control, even when they’re presented as a choice. Sure, you can choose to go out, and I’m making it very clear what I want you to do. Ultimatums are often couched in anger and/or shame, both of which are very powerful tools for controlling other people. They also have a tendency to be framed as an absolute and a person leveling one isn’t likely to be open to hearing explanations, reasons, or other alternatives. And ultimatums are usually given in an either/or, as if those are the only two possibilities in the universe.

By contrast, boundaries are truly about choice. Yes, you can choose to do this thing that I want you to not do. And if you decide to do that, I will make my decision about how to respond. Even when there’s a clear preference for what we want someone to do, there’s room for them to make a genuine choice. And while anger can inform our process (after all, anger is a really useful signal that someone is doing something that we don’t want them to do), boundaries are usually best received when they’re not spoken angrily. Boundaries let other options remain open- they don’t have to be either/or, even when they block some of the possibilities.

Ultimatums come from a desire for control and force. Boundaries come from a place of power and strength.

Ultimatums shut down options. Boundaries open up choices.

Ultimatums stop a conversation. Boundaries start one.

Ultimatums threaten with consequences. Boundaries offer a chance to seek a solution.

Ultimatums are rigid. Boundaries are firm, yet resilient.

Ultimatums often end a relationship. Boundaries invite a relationship to change.

It seems to me that the real difference between the two is the intent of the speaker and I don’t think that there’s always a clear line between them. And this makes them tricky because it can be very tempting to shift out of our strength and into trying to control someone. The words may be the same, and there’s a world of difference between the two.