Setting Boundaries Versus Making Ultimatums

Have you ever asked yourself any of these questions?

  • How do I set boundaries in my neurodiverse relationship?
  • How do I enforce my boundaries if my partner doesn’t agree with me or won’t honor my boundaries?
  • How do I know if my boundaries are reasonable?
  • How do I even know what my boundaries are?
  • What do I do when my partner says my boundaries are critical and controlling?
  • What do I do when my partner’s boundaries violate my own?

As an autism and neurodiverse relationship expert, I hear these questions often. Setting boundaries, including establishing clear dealbreakers is an area where many partners struggle. Hurt, anger, and pain are present in disconnected relationships, making partners more likely to express their needs in ways that are counterproductive to what is truly desired. Boundaries lead to connection whereas ultimatums reinforce the cycle of rehashing relationship problems.

What is a Boundary? How is It Different From an Ultimatum?

A boundary is a stated preference or need along with a clear indication of the outcome based on your partner’s choice whether to honor your boundary. It acknowledges that your partner is free to choose their behavior with the knowledge of what your response will be accordingly. When you communicate your boundaries to your partner, you are not telling them what they have to do. Boundaries are free of blame and criticism.

An ultimatum is an expression of dissatisfaction about a partner’s actions or behavior, often in a moment of experiencing intensely negative emotions, coupled with a threatened consequence if your partner doesn’t comply. Ultimatums often involve guilt, shame, and blame directed at your partner. It is an attempt to compel your partner to change their actions or words to meet your expectations and needs. Ultimatums typically involve shame, guilt, and judgment.

In case you are still confused (many people are), here are some specific examples of boundaries and ultimatums that are common for neurodiverse couples where one or both partners is autistic or ADHD.

Examples of Boundaries Versus Ultimatums

EXAMPLE # 1: Name Calling and Verbal Aggression

Your partner’s anger is so intense at times that it feels out of control to you. He/She calls you hurtful names or makes hurtful statements about your character.

Ultimatum:You have to stop with the abuse! I don’t want to divorce you, but if you don’t start to control your behavior, I’ll be forced to consider it.” 

This is a demand and a threat. It’s vague. The “abuse” and the “behavior” is not defined. The threat of divorce is abstract and is something that will be “considered.” It is not a specific action or outcome. Ultimatums often put responsibility on your partner for your own choices and decisions with messages like:

  • “You’re forcing me to…”
  • “You’re giving me no choice but to…”
  • “What else am I supposed to do/think when you…”

Boundary:If you start calling me names like [insert names that have been used] in a disagreement or become angry to a degree that I feel uncomfortable or unsafe, I will retreat to the bedroom or take a drive for about half an hour. I will come back, but if you continue to call me names like [insert examples of what has been said], or if your level of anger is still uncomfortable for me, I will retreat for another half hour.” 

This specifically conveys your threshold for when your boundary has been crossed, but doesn’t tell your partner what to do – it is also clear about what your response will be.

EXAMPLE # 2: Delayed/Avoided Decision 

There is a decision that needs to be made about something (household, kids, plans, finances, etc.). You have mentioned this to your partner, but he/she hasn’t followed through as of yet with a discussion about this decision.

Ultimatum:We need to make a decision about [insert topic] and you still haven’t told me what you want to do. Once again, you refuse to have a simple conversation, so if you don’t have anything to say about this, I’ll take care of it, and you’ll have to live with the consequences!”

Ultimatums are often emotionally charged with resentment, frustration, and are usually designed to guilt or shame a partner into meeting a request or need. This is very counter-productive, and isn’t likely to result in the outcome that you actually want.

Boundary:I would like to discuss the decision we need to make regarding [insert any upcoming decision]. Please tell me when you have 5-10 minutes to chat in the next [insert time frame.] If I don’t get a response from you by [insert time frame] (or if you tell me you’d rather me make this decision on my own), I will proceed with making this decision to the best of my ability. Thanks!

This communicates a clear request to discuss a specific topic, for an identified duration of time (open-ended timeframes are vague), and states what you will choose to do if your partner decides not to follow up with you. It also provides an alternate option that works for you. (“if you’d rather me make this decision.”) 

A boundary is direct and clear and does not insert expectations, criticism, or judgment about a partner’s choice.

EXAMPLE # 3: Sexual Intimacy

Your partner expresses a desire for sex, but you feel minimal (if any) desire for sex because you regularly feel like your partner doesn’t acknowledge everything you do in the relationship and family. You also crave affection, words, or gestures from your partner that indicate attraction and desire for you, but your partner doesn’t do these things in a way that you want and expect from a romantic partner.

Ultimatum: “How can you expect me to have sex with you when you never show me any affection or respect and you take everything I do for granted?! It’s so hurtful! You need to start making more of an effort!” 

Although your emotions and distress are totally valid, this ultimatum is guilt trippy and coercive. It creates a dynamic that becomes lose-lose for both you and your partner. If your partner now starts initiating affection and makes an effort to acknowledge you more, then you are likely to believe these behaviors are goal-driven to get you to want sex. That certainly doesn’t give you what you ultimately want from your partner who in turn is likely to experience a certain degree of “ick” about it, as well – and may even just avoid it altogether. Neither of you are getting what you want.

Boundary:  “I want to desire you and to have a sex life with you – it’s important to me! There are some factors that are directly tied to how my body and mind experiences sexual desire. For me, it’s not just a physical drive. Three things that are necessary for me to feel desire are:

(You need to do some soul-searching to determine what your top three things are, but here are some suggestions based on what others have shared with me)

  1. Non-sexual affectionate touch like holding hands or cuddling – at least a few times per week
  2. Verbal (or in text/email) affirmation at least once per week that you value who I am, and respect my intelligence (even when we have different opinions) or that you recognize my efforts and the hard work that I do for our relationship and home.
  3. I need to hear, regularly, that you are attracted to me based on what you value in me as a person – otherwise, it feels like I am a body that is available to you to use for masturbation.

Some of these things may be difficult to you, or may seem unnecessary, and I understand that you have different needs and preferences than me. However, it is important to know that this is how my sexual drive is hard wired into me. It is your choice whether to accept these things about me and make an effort with these actions. However, I cannot change how my body is wired to experience sexual desire, so please be aware that I will not desire sex if I don’t receive affection and affirmation.

Boundaries Foster Connection; Ultimatums Facilitate Contempt

Boundaries are a vital component of healthy relationships. Setting clear boundaries enables us to communicate our limits and ensure our safety and well-being. By expressing our boundaries, we empower ourselves and give our partners the choice to respect them. On the contrary, ultimatums are destructive for both you and your partner – and don’t result in the outcomes that you truly want.

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