Boundary vs. Ultimatum
By: Nancy
October 10, 2015

halt I cannot tell you how many times I have helped folks who have difficulties having boundaries to develop better ones, only to have their spouses get super reactive to those new boundaries by screaming about how “he/she has taken to giving me ultimatums!” Happens all the time. What is the difference between the two?

Let’s start by talking about what boundaries are. Boundaries are the statements made by anyone that let others know what they won’t tolerate. I may have a boundary that states “I will not accept anyone calling me names.” That is a valid boundary…it is not safe or productive to name-call, even during conflict.

Good boundaries come with consequences. If they don’t have consequences, are they really doing any good at all? It would be like your mom telling you that you cannot have a cookie, but since you know she has no intention of enforcing that directive, you walk right past her and grab one anyway and start munching away. And then what happens? She does nothing. Not much of a boundary, and it does absolutely no good. All it really does is undermine the respect she can expect from her child.

So many times I hear people say, “But it’s just so much easier to let them do it anyway, I’m so tired of fighting it.” I understand being a tired parent/spouse. Whether we are a stay-at-home-mom/dad or work outside the home, by the end of the day we are plum wore out. These are battles, however, that must be won with our kids, and hopefully when they are still very little. The same is true with our other relationships, and the sooner the better. We have to teach people how it is OK, or not, to treat us.

barbed wireBoundaries are a way of teaching people where the line is for us. They must have consequences that we absolutely intend to enforce, and the consequences must fit the infraction. If you struggle with determining what consequences are just, there are books that can help, or you can spend a little time with me and we can figure it out together.

Now that we have that straight, we need to tackle the difference between a boundary and an ultimatum. When a boundary hits the ears of our significant other or family member, they can sound an awful lot like an ultimatum to them. Here is where each person has to be totally honest and non-reactive, because the difference between the two lies in the truth about motivation and focus.

The questions we must ask when attempting to have a boundary are these:

  • “Am I trying to control the other person, or my own space?”,
  • “Am I reactive/attached to the outcome, or am I matter of fact and neutral?”
  • “Where is my focus, on what’s OK for me or what the other person is doing, or not?”

If you are setting a boundary, and calling it that, while still focusing on controlling the other person’s behavior, you may still have some relational enmeshments that are getting in the way of a healthy relationship. If you are focusing on your own space and what you will and won’t tolerate, non-reactively and matter-of-fact-like, you are having a boundary. Being able to say “You can do what you wish, but if you choose to do this behavior with me, you will not continue to have the pleasure of my company indefinitely” is a good way to check your motivations and keep your focus where it belongs. You’re not telling the other person what to do or not, just what you will or won’t tolerate, allowing them to choose. A subtle, but important, nuance.

Questions we can ask as the person on the receiving end of the boundary:

  • “Am I taking this personally, and running it through my shame filter?”
  • “Why does this person feel unsafe with me, and how can I take better care of their feelings?”
  • “What has happened throughout our relationship that is so painful for this person that they are having to say, ‘Ouch’ so strongly?”

Ya, I know. It’s not that easy, right? You are correct, it’s not easy. Just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not possible, or right. You have to have a pretty good handle on your own issues and reactivity, and have a very large dose of humility in your heart, to pull this off. Can you do it? Can you allow your partner to have their own space to breathe and feel safe with you? Can you take ownership of how you’ve hurt them, even if you aren’t aware of it? Remember, people don’t need to have boundaries with people who are safe.

I hope you enjoyed our chat today. I’m going to go make myself some Wild Mountain Blueberry coffee and enjoy this beautiful fall day. Thank you for reading my work!

Healing Hearts provides counseling services to the surrounding communities of Indianapolis, Fishers, Carmel, Zionsville, Westfield, Noblesville, and Geist. E-Counseling is available for residents of Indiana. Call or text today to set up your appointment. 317-218-3038

© 2015 Nancy Eisenman, MSW, LSW