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.

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4 Responses so far.

  1. This is quite a fascinating question, because indeed, it’s “tricky”. I may be somewhat skeptical about human nature, but the way I see it, one person’s x is another person’s y. So what some interpret as a boundary may seem like an ultimatum.

    I think a key concept is that of legitimacy. I remember studying this in political science class: the idea is that no regime can survive without legitimacy in the eyes of the polity. In exactly the same way, no social outlook, or even personal belief or preference, can “survive” without being legitimate in the eyes of the surrounding social group.

    I don’t know if you read Dan Savage, but I could take an example from his idea of “oral sex as a deal-breaker”. Is this a boundary or an ultimatum? Fifty years ago, the very idea would be unheard of. It would have been seen as an unreasonable ultimatum, even a perversion. Today, many take it seriously. Sexual satisfaction which includes the “right” to oral sex has been presented and accepted as legitimate. Therefore, not providing it is “not legitimate” and no longer accepted as the maintenance of a boundary.

    Those who follow Dan Savage would argue that sexual satisfaction itself is “a deal-breaker” in a marriage – again, something that didn’t have the same legitimacy as two generations ago. This translates as: refusing sex is not a “legitimate” boundary, and expecting sex is no longer an ultimatum. That is, the end of the relationship as a consequence for refusing sex is not seen as “coercive”.

    If a boundary is not seen as “legitimate”, it will come across as unreasonable, and fall into “ultimatum” territory. Therefore, I think social norms have a lot to do with how we judge the limits we set for ourselves and others. Just my two cents. Very interesting to think about.

  2. whatever1980 says:

    Thank you for renaming my ultimatum to setting a firm strong and powerful boundary. Meaning that if the man I have been with for 4 yrs. 5 months does not propose to me by August 10, 2010 then I am done – Kapeech? I really am in love with him, but I am nearly 30, have a great foothold on my career, am very attractive – which helps, very loving, and can cook like a chef and if after living with him for 2.5 yrs. if he doesn’t know if he wants to at least be engaged to me then goodbye – if this relationship ends I am vowing to myself to take a minimum of 6 month break, no more sex before marriage, and frankly I am starting not to trust men because of this seemingly annoying insecurity my boyfriend must possess. I will dump him August 10, 2010 if he can’t make up his mind and he will for sure miss me.

  3. whatever1980 says:

    …whats even better is if he does “find” another…she is not me – I am that confident in the care that I have provided to him. Arguments have been few, love=a lot, no love-life issues to speak of, play to his interests, very selfless (even though right now I sound downright selfish and arrogant) – just a small rant. I need other women to reply to my above left message. Men can reply too, but I really want a down to earth womans opinion – woman to woman did I do the right thing? He calls it, “His timeline.” But it is August 1, 2010 – he has til’ the 10th so 9 days, really is taking the surprise out of anything unless the surprise is nothing.

  4. bev says:

    brilliant comparison

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