The Difference Between an Ultimatum and a Boundary
And why ultimatums don't work!
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This is one of the main questions I get asked about boundary setting, usually with queries as to whether boundaries are just trying to force other people to do things that you want so let’s start out with the basics.
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What is the difference?
Boundaries are about YOU. Your treatment, your respect, your needs and how you want to be spoken to.
Ultimatums are about THEM. Their problems, their behaviour, their refusal to obey and you trying to control a separate human being.
Choice is also another key difference. With every boundary, there is a choice. You can either respect it or not and there will be a consequence to each choice. With an ultimatum, you have been backed into a corner. It’s their way or the highway.
Why Do People Give Ultimatums?
Ultimatums tend to focus on the person at the receiving end of it but actually, it tells you a lot more about the person giving the ultimatum.
Many people set ultimatums because of fear. They are uncomfortable in the unknown and uncertainty so they’d rather have a clear-cut answer even if it’s not the answer they want. This is a tactic to push people away because they feel vulnerable and whilst it might look like the other person is scared, the person giving the ultimatum is usually looking for an excuse to cut and run all the way thinking that because you’ve given the ultimatum, it is not your fault. You have something to pin it on and therefore you can convince yourself it isn’t you running.
They haven’t been taught good communication. When you give an ultimatum you force them to make a decision rather than creating room for a discussion. They might have valid concerns or issues they need to work through or simply support while they work through some big feelings. An ultimatum prevents all of this by just seeing the outcome and not the process.
What happens if I give an ultimatum?
Even if you get your way, this is just the beginning of your problems. Most ultimatums often result in one person feeling resentment which if the person can’t communicate, will result in passive aggression, sarcasm and mean jabs disguised as jokes.
It breaks down trust because if you did it once, how do they know you won’t do it again the next time you don’t get what you want?
It also prevents communication because they feel pressured into making a decision as opposed to discussing their feelings around it which may conflict. They could worry if they are honest, you might cut it off again.
What should I do instead?
Set a boundary. I understand you believe you need a decision right now and you might feel some sort of win from getting that conclusion but you want people to get to that place of their own volition. Usually, if you have set an ultimatum, it is because you have waited too long and now the decision feels urgent. Instead set a boundary earlier on, saying something like “I was wondering your thoughts on X? I don’t need an answer right now but it has been on my mind so it would be great if you could think about it and then get back to me”. You can then bring it up again and talk through their thoughts when they have had a chance to sift through their thoughts themselves. Express your needs before they become a dealbreaker and continue to have conversations as you work through both people’s feelings
I won’t lie, a lot of this article was inspired by the fact that I have been watching the reality show The Ultimatum and whilst I do not agree with the premise of the show, there were some interesting learning points. I do find it interesting that they open the show with “Psychologists agree that giving an ultimatum is not exactly a good way to get someone else to do what you want”. Shows like this create the idea that issuing ultimatums is normal rather than highlighting all couples appearing on this show are already in an unhealthy place whether they last or not. Remember just because they last doesn’t mean it is a healthy relationship.
The show very much focuses on ultimatums in the context of romantic relationships with ‘either get married or it’s over’ and with some relationships on this show, the writing is on the wall so my question would be ‘Why are you staying when they have told you they can’t fulfil your needs?’. But the main theme is they don’t listen to each other, they talk at each other! If you need an ultimatum in order to get ‘commitment’, then that’s not commitment. A commitment comes from free choice, not from fear of losing you.
Fear of commitment is often complex and can stem from what you were taught about love from your primary caregivers in your childhood. It takes time to understand this and to heal it.
Whether someone is right for you comes down to many factors from morals to values to mutual interests or compatible lifestyles. And commitment is actually the active choice to stop looking at other options or if someone is a better match. You can’t force them into wanting what you want, even if an ultimatum results in a temporary fix.
What are your thoughts? Have you been given an ultimatum before? I love hanging out in the comment section and I reply to most of the comments so let me know what you think!
Lots of love,
Want to know more about boundaries in love? My new book on dating might be the one for you <3