Boundaries vs. Ultimatums in Relationships

boundaries in relationships

Oftentimes, boundaries are confused with ultimatums in relationships. You know…when you and your partner argue and someone sets a “rule” with a “consequence” and doesn’t adhere to the “consequence?” This usually creates further conflict with accusations of threats being made, resentment later ensuing and finally another argument happens weeks or months later and your partner brings up your ultimatum. Yuck!

We hear our therapists talk about boundaries and the importance they provide in our relationships all of the time. Boundaries are important for emotional health as well as our own self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Setting boundaries in our relationships can help communicate to our partners what is okay and what is not okay, but what’s the difference between a boundary and an ultimatum? A boundary is a bottom line. A boundary means that If something really does not change, you’re telling your partner that you really can’t stay and you need them to know that. You really have to know that you would actually need to leave the relationship or adhere to what you told your partner would happen. Essentially, you need to say what you mean and mean what you say. This is why a lot of times boundaries are seen as ultimatums or threats. Most of the time- we are very good at telling our partners what needs to change but we are not very good at following through with the consequence portion. This is why boundaries can be difficult to set and maintain. Who wants to leave a relationship or make their partner feel bad about their behavior?

So how do we set boundaries? The first step is reflecting on your own personal values and core beliefs. The more we are able to live in line with our own value and moral system, the happier we feel. The next step is discussing with your partner clearly what you will and will not tolerate. Your partner is not a mind reader, if you don’t express your needs in a clear and concrete way, they don’t know that what he or she is doing is unacceptable. You’re inviting your partner to ignore your needs. You will need to back your boundary up with an action. Some examples of boundaries with actions are that you can tell your partner that if you are in a monogamous relationship and they decide to not honor this, you will leave the relationship. You can set a boundary with your personal time by telling a friend that you’ve decided to take personal calls on Saturdays after 10:00am in order to spend mornings with your children and that you will need to call them back after 10:00am, for example. Backing the boundary with an action is key.

If your boundary is crossed, you need to be direct and firm with your response. This is where things usually get tricky. We don’t want our partners or friends to think we are rude or hurt their feelings so a lot of times, we cave at this part. What we have done now is create the cycle of using ultimatums. We’ve communicated our boundary, it got crossed, and we essentially let it slide.

When you start setting boundaries and adhering to the action, expect a shift in your relationship and within yourself. Setting better boundaries will not be easy at first and will take some practice but once you start, it will be hard to stop! You will start noticing an improvement in your self-esteem.


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