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Boundaries vs. Ultimatums

by Collin Down

In a recent discussion about the biggest dating mistakes women make, some readers expressed confusion about the difference between setting boundaries and issuing ultimatums. Although the two strategies have similar goals in that they both seek to set limits, they’re opposite sides of the same coin, and they generally produce opposite results.

The key difference is that you set boundaries up front, from a position of strength and power. If your boundaries are violated, you are prepared to walk away from the relationship.

When you issue an ultimatum, you do so from a position of desperation and weakness. It’s a “one last chance” strategy, and if you have to resort to it, you’ve already lost.


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 Characteristics of Boundaries vs. Ultimatums

  Boundary Ultimatum
Key characteristic Behavioral standard for self, i.e. statement about your behavior. Behavioral standard for partner, i.e. statement about someone else’s behavior.
Emotion Rational: thoughtful, considered, calm. Irrational: motivated by fear, anger, shame.
Trigger Self-respect. Lack of boundaries.
Timing Proactive: Conversation up front sets expectations early. Reactive: Last ditch effort after expectations not met.
Control Responsibility for self.  Coercion and manipulation of partner.
Risk Acknowledged and accepted. Attempt to eliminate uncertainty by putting risk on partner.
Effect Self-liberating. Self-punishing.
Outcome Allows for flexibility, options, discussion and negotiation. Predetermined: If this, then that.


Christian Carter’s article Do You Have The Kind Of Attitude Men Find Irresistible? at Your Tango does a great job of explaining this from a male perspective. In fact, he says that when women set boundaries it makes men more attracted to them:

Irresistible Attitude #1: “I don’t let a man determine what I will have in my love-life.”

This kind of woman won’t settle for a man who isn’t giving her what she wants and needs emotionally. Men respect this at a deep level, and they either become engaged and inspired by this to want to be with you…or turn the other way if they really aren’t looking for what you want.

How do you embody this? By first taking stock of what you really need in a relationship, and then sticking up for it. For instance, say you’re ready for an exclusive relationship. Simply tell him, “You have every right to date other women, but I’m looking for exclusivity. It’s what feels right for me.” This is a lot different from issuing a man an ultimatum. It tells him that this is what you need independent of him and that you are not looking for him to make something happen. Rather, you are stating what you are looking for – with or without him.”

The woman who explains her desire for a relationship this way is exercising her natural prerogative to select from among interested males. She is not afraid to filter out men who don’t meet her qualifications. Her statement reflects confidence that her time is better spent evaluating other options.

Carter’s next irresistible attitude is also about boundaries:

Irresistible Attitude #2: “I’d leave a man before I allow unacceptable behavior.”

This woman won’t stay in a relationship that’s abusive, degrading, or morally questionable. She also won’t put up with bad behavior from a man. Integrity and trust are important to her, and she lets him know that.

The cornerstone of this attitude is a healthy sense of self-esteem. In a relationship, the first person you must take care of is you. Know your boundaries so that you can recognize when someone crosses them – and let him know when something is not acceptable to you.”

Pretty cool, right? By being a woman who stands up for herself, you’ll make higher quality men more interested in you. This is a no brainer! A man cannot love a woman he doesn’t respect, and he can’t respect a woman who does not have personal boundaries. For that matter, the same is true for women – we are even harder judges of men who act “whipped.”

Not all boundaries are anticipated and spoken aloud up front. I was once dating a guy I worked with, and no one else at the office knew about it. At a going away party for one of our coworkers, he not only ignored me, which was perhaps understandable, he flirted madly with the other women in the office. I quietly left.

The next day he expected to be chewed out but I simply stated calmly that I don’t date people who try to make me jealous. I told him he was free to continue flirting all he liked, but that we were over. He actually said that he had expected drama and an ultimatum, and of course he begged for another chance. I didn’t give him one, I knew his character was sketchy at that point. But I do remember feeling really powerful at that moment. Like a boss!

Have you experienced both setting boundaries and issuing ultimatums? How did your experience differ?

What boundaries do you consider important for dating and relationships?