Boundaries vs Limits vs Ultimatums

Know the difference so you can have long-lasting, loving relationships.

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You Know You Need Boundaries

There’s someone, or several people, in your life that are causing you headaches.  Life seems very difficult when you are around these people.  You are on edge, and your anxiety symptoms creep up as you anticipate the next dramatic situation that may arise.  You know you need boundaries with these people, but what exactly is a boundary, and how do they differ from limits and ultimatums?

Boundaries define where you end and others begin.  Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend compare boundaries in their book, Boundaries, to a fence with a gate.  Imagine your yard behind your house.  A fence marks where your property ends, and your neighbor’s property begins.  The fence keeps unwanted people, and animals out, while allowing some people and animals in through the gate.  You get to decide who you let in the gate.

We set boundaries on ourselves, to keep us feeling safe and secure in our relationships.  For example, “I will not allow someone to speak to me in a rude, condescending way.  If they do, I will ask them to stop, or walk away.”  You can’t control the other person’s behavior, but you can control how you respond.

How Are Boundaries Different From Limits?

Boundaries are the way in which we change our behavior in a response to someone else.  A limit is a restriction you put on another person’s behavior, to keep them and yourself safe.  You might set a limit for your teenager, that they cannot drive after 11:00 pm, because it is not safe.  Another limit might be that you will not work at a job that requires travel away from your family.  A limit could be, “I can forgive someone for yelling at me, but I will never allow hitting.”

Some people use boundaries and limits interchangeably.  The distinction can be hard to decipher.  Both boundaries and limits help you create healthy, loving relationships with family and friends.  By communicating what your boundaries and limits are, you are helping the other person know how to effectively relate to you.

Ultimatums Are Not Part of Healthy Boundary Setting

Ultimatums are behaviors you try to force on another person.  They are threats.  They are not part of a healthy relationship.  You cannot control how another person behaves (unless they are your minor child, and even then, you cannot force them to comply.  Have you ever tried to force a toddler to stop crying in the grocery store?).  Trying to enforce ultimatums requires bullying, intimidation, force, and/or control.  Ultimatums are abusive, because you are trying to force your will on another person against their wishes.  Ultimatums deteriorate relationships.

You can make a request, and the other person can choose to comply, but when you force an ultimatum, they are following your wishes to avoid a negative or painful outcome.  Ultimatums are not very effective, because they require someone to do what they don’t want, which ends up causing resentment, and most likely only temporary compliance, or even the illusion of compliance.  

We all know, or have heard of someone, who forced a significant other to propose marriage, only to have that person break off the wedding right before the ceremony, or file for divorce shortly afterward.  What about the spouse who reluctantly agrees to go to rehab, after being threatened with divorce, only to go back and start drinking again shortly after being released?  Then, there are the parents that force their children to go to college to get a medical, or law degree, in order to get tuition paid for.  The student ends up quitting, hating their career, or cutting contact with their parents.  The employer that leads through intimidation and ultimatums, will not end up running a long-term, successful business.

Boundaries and Limits as Part of a Healthy Relationship

Codependents and empaths may have poor boundaries, which causes a lot of heartache.  If you don’t know the limits of the behaviors you will allow in your life, and the boundaries you will set for yourself when someone tries to cross those limits, you open yourself up to being mistreated, and possibly abused.

Examples of Healthy Boundaries:

  • If my relative speaks to me in a condescending way, I will comment by asking them to repeat what they said, tell them they are being hurtful, or walk away to speak with someone else.
  • When my spouse comes home late again, without calling me, I will not hold dinner.
  • When my mother comments about how I am raising my children, I will let her know that parenting decisions are reserved for my spouse and I.
  • If my brother comments about how I am investing my money, without me asking for advice, I will thank him for his thoughts, and let him know I am trusting my own decisions.
  • When my best friend invites me to participate in a new weight loss challenge, or marathon, I will politely tell her no without needing to explain myself.

Spend some time deciding what behaviors make you feel safe and loved, versus behaviors that make you feel insecure and hurt.  Plan what boundaries you will follow to help you get the loving care you desire.  A few other helpful books are, Terri Cole’s, Boundary Boss, and The Verbally Abusive Relationship, by Patricia Evans.

Have you caught yourself trying to force an ultimatum?  How have you worked on creating healthy boundaries in your relationships?  Share in the comments.

If you would like a little more boundary clarification, you can download my boundary video and e-book here.

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