BOUNDARIES: Not Ultimatums

BOUNDARIES: Not Ultimatums

When describing the importance of boundaries and types of boundaries earlier in the week, I discussed that boundaries are different from ultimatums and hinted at a subsequent post on the topic. Here it is!

I will again admit to you, this is a HARD thing for me to fully grasp. I’m only at the precipice of understanding this topic and have so much work to do in implementing boundaries and not ultimatums, to the extent that I even succeed at realizing where boundaries are needed in my relationships and somehow am able to communicate them.

The slightest change in how you approach these- proactively versus reactively, from a calm versus angry or emotional place, asking versus demanding, out of love versus out of fear- is the essence of healthy boundaries and not unhealthy, relationship-ruining ultimatums.

Boundaries assist in the formation of respect within the confines of a relationship. Whether with friends, family, or a romantic partner- boundaries identify to others your personal limits. Boundaries are internally focused and do not attempt to control other people.

Ultimatums, on the other hand, expect someone else to make changes. They are about trying to gain power over someone and making them see things your way. Ultimatums eliminate free will in a relationship, and invite the other person to walk away or otherwise engage in destructive behaviors in response.

These might seem like subtle nuances. They are. But that doesn’t make them any less important. So much of communication depends on our intention and tone, doesn’t it? Think of a situation where you communicated with someone over text or email and they completely misconstrued what you were saying because text and email doesn’t convey tone or intention well (without an exceptional amount of additional wording, at least). It’s happened to all of us. And so too it is with boundaries and ultimatums.

person emailing on computer

My favorite piece of information I can share about boundaries vs ultimatums came from a podcast episode that I listened to awhile ago and first got me started on this track of thinking- it said something along these lines…

More often than not, ultimatums end relationships. Boundaries invite relationships to change.

Let me use an example to demonstrate the difference and say that, for purposes of this illustration, your spouse has a pornography addiction.

First, you need to determine what you are responsible for and what you are not responsible for. Remember a post from a few weeks back? You are responsible TO other people, not FOR other people.

Your job is not to get your spouse to stop his pornography addiction. Your job is to take care of yourself. When figuring out what taking care of yourself means, you may ascertain that you do not feel safe being married to someone that has a pornography addiction. You may find that you need to leave the marriage. You may determine that you are not able to live with your spouse while in active addiction.

Your job then is to set and communicate your boundary. You don’t do this by being threatening or demeaning or even demanding, but by concisely stating your intentions in this area.

To your spouse, you communicate: I feel threatened/insecure/insert emotion here by the pornography addiction, and I will not be able to share a home with you while you engage in this behavior.

Here, you own what is your business. YOU are not comfortable with the addiction. YOU don’t want to live with someone that is using pornography. YOU don’t need your spouse to change his habits in order to take care of you. We direct our lives in the direction we want to go.

Better yet, though, boundaries really come from a place of “us” though, not just “me.” Boundaries invite both parties to act freely and offer the chance to work together towards a solution.

Some of the subtleties referenced earlier may help you in approaching boundary setting from a healthy perspective, and so I’ll elaborate on them a little more.

Boundaries are proactive; ultimatums are reactive. Boundaries require you to think about something in advance, often outside of the confines of a particular situation. Boundaries are value driven, and can be set, even after an incident, because they are tied to something greater- values. Ultimatums are more reactionary in nature and usually not tied to anything other than eelings in the moment.

Boundaries are set from a calm place; ultimatums are set from an angry or emotional place. This goes hand in hand with the previous highlight- ultimatums are often set when in an extreme emotional state. They usually lack a clear head and heart. If you ever talk to her again I’m leaving you! A boundary comes from a place of calm, removed from the heat of the moment. A value of your mifght be fidelity or security, and setting a boundary on behaviors tied to that value would keep it from turning into an ultimatum.

Boundaries ask; ultimatums demand. Boundaries give both people the chance to make their own choices in a relationship because they provide freedom for parties to work together. Ultimatums eliminate any chance for respect because they are not collaborative- one person sets up a binary choice and the other is left having to choose.

Boundaries are created out of love; ultimatums are created from fear. I have lived most of my adult life thinking I was absolutely fearless. It wasn’t until I started trying to set boundaries in my marriage that I recognized how afraid I was of a variety of things. Afraid of not being loved enough for the person to change. Afraid of being alone. Afraid of being selfish or having someone mad at me.

Boundaries are created from a place of love, though, not fear. Particularly, love for yourself. The more you have a healthy sense of self-love, the more you will be able to live according to your boundaries. Setting boundaries with empathy and understanding ensures that they will be set in love.

Boundaries grow a relationship; ultimatums destroy a relationship. Boundaries encourage a relationship to get deeper, to grow and change in ways that bring the people closer together. Ultimatums are destructive and leave feelings of bitterness and resentment because they eliminate freedom. Attempting to control someone or manipulate them will only foster the further deterioration of a relationship.

Okay, so I’m not going to lie to you. Reading all of that, and then processing it enough to write it and share with all of you, I STILL am extremely uncomfortable and insecure about my ability to put this into practice. It is still really hard for me to see the difference between these two things, and I instantly go to a million situations where I would have to react to something that happened without having first set a boundary. That the issue would be serious enough that it requires change or is big enough that it’s a deal breaker, but with an invitation to solve the problem together and not sound like it’s something I’m demanding. Because what if your partner or spouse or girlfriend doesn’t think it’s a dealbreaker? What if the issue simply isn’t as important to them?


Still figuring this out, but I suppose if I had to break it down to its most basic form:

Ultimatums- If you do X, Y will happen. The mindset is- I’m not going to let you get away with that.

Boundaries- Here is something that is important to me; how can we solve this problem together?

My final words on this (for now): Healthy boundaries are inherently a two way street. They involve give and take from both people. Not only do we know what we want and need, but we respect that the other person has wants and needs as well. When you’re in a healthy relationship, you each have blanket permission to ask the other person for the things that you want and need and you can hear others when they communicate their wants and needs as well.

By recoveringsuperwoman

Krista is a a corporate attorney and single mom of 3 young kids- Nico, Gabriella and Milana- residing in Orlando, FL.


  • A relationship will only workout when the efforts are made from both sides and for this boundaries are truly needed and boundaries are the foremost need too they are so necessary to keep any of relationship stronger and healthy..Glad to know all about the information and every type of these..Thanks indeed for sharing this..found it quite helpful and useful…truly amazing…

  • I never thought about the difference between boundaries and demands. But everything that you’ve written here makes perfect sense. “Boundaries are proactive, demands are reactive”. I loved reading this and looking forward to more articles like this one.

  • This is such a great article thank you so much! I admit in the past when I react I demand. When I respond I set boundaries. Yoga and meditation help me see the important difference in how I communicate.

  • Lyosha Varezhkina

    Making boundaries is an important step in each person’s life. Thanks for making this insightful and kind post

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts

%d bloggers like this: