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What’s the Difference Between Boundaries & Ultimatums?

Healthy relationships require sharing your needs while also respecting the needs of your partner. This is where setting boundaries and placing ultimatums can come into play.

Ultimatums and boundaries have major differences in tone and intention. In general, ultimatums are forceful while boundaries are personal—boundaries are the limitations you set within your own life and share with another person.

Here’s what you need to know about the difference between boundaries and ultimatums.

What is a boundary?

A boundary is something that focuses on your needs, limits, and personal choices.

Boundaries are about what you’re willing to allow in your relationships, they are your personal limits. When telling someone about a boundary, there’s room for discussion, but how willing you are to alter your boundaries is up to you. Just because there is space for more communication doesn’t mean boundaries are negotiable.

An example of a boundary might be sharing that you need personal time every day, away from a significant other, or roommate. Expressing to someone that you have a need, and giving them the ability to choose to respect the boundary you establish together, through conversation.

You’re asking someone to do something that gives you respect, but they can choose whether or not to respect it. There’s a choice involved, and that’s the key. Boundaries invite change and are a starting point for discussion, which can help your personal life flourish.

What is an ultimatum?

Unlike a boundary, an ultimatum is about seeking to control someone else’s behavior, not your own. An ultimatum is about getting someone to do something you want them to do, usually for your own personal gain.

While a boundary sets what you will and won’t allow or put up with in your own life, ultimatums are less flexible and don’t have room for change. Ultimatums aren’t up for debate or discussion. An example of an ultimatum is telling a significant other if they talk to an ex, you will break up with them.

Ultimatums are a last resort where you ask someone to do something or there will be a consequence. Ultimatums are final and don’t involve room for discussion the way boundaries do. Placing ultimatums can weaken your relationship by building resentment or making someone feel controlled.

If your partner is giving you ultimatums or setting boundaries without being willing to listen and communicate, couples therapy can help. Through office-based couples therapy at Valley Oaks Health, you and your partner can learn how to improve communication and get insight into your relationship.

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