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How To Distinguish A Boundary From An Ultimatum + Why It's Essential To Relationships

Margaret Paul, Ph.D.
Co-Founder of Inner Bonding By Margaret Paul, Ph.D.
Co-Founder of Inner Bonding
Margaret Paul, Ph.D., is a best-selling author, relationship expert, and Inner Bonding® facilitator.
How To Distinguish A Boundary From An Ultimatum + Why It's Essential To Relationships

We hear a lot about setting boundaries in relationships, but often there is much confusion about what a boundary is and when it's appropriate to set one.

Sonia asked me the following question, which illustrates her confusion about boundaries:

I have been reading about the importance of setting boundaries and how this helps in relationships. My question is this: If the man you are in love with regularly withdraws his love because something triggers his fear of abandonment, how can you lovingly accept this behavior and yet respect your own boundaries/values, which in my case include being in a mutually supportive, consistently committed, and loving relationship where my partner doesn't routinely withdraw all communication and affection?

Of course Sonia wants a loving relationship where her partner doesn't routinely withdraw his love, but she has no control over whether or not he does this. What she does have control over is what she does.

A boundary is something you set for yourself—not a way to control your partner. For example, Sonia might say to her partner, "It's too painful to me when you withdraw, so either you agree for us to go into counseling to see if we can work through this, or I will leave the relationship." Or she can say, "It's too painful for me to be around you when you withdraw, so the next time you do this, I will go stay with a friend until you let me know you are available to talk this through." It's about what she is going to do rather than trying to change or control him.

The boundary is that she will leave if he is unable or unwilling to work toward healing this dynamic, or she will stay with a friend. This is what she does have control over. However, she needs to follow through on the boundaries she has set—to actually leave the relationship or stay with a friend if he isn't open to counseling. If she doesn't follow through, then this is no longer a boundary; it's a threat she is leveraging to gain control over him.

Sonia might want to open herself up to learning with her partner by stating, "It's very painful to me when you withdraw. Is there something I'm doing that so threatens you that you withdraw from me?" This might open up the communication and lead to new learning about their relationship system.

There is a big difference between the intent to take loving care of yourself and the intent to try to control your partner. For example, if your partner is always late and you hate being late, you might set a boundary by saying, "I really hate being late, and I also hate being a nag about it. The next time we have an engagement where it's important to me to be on time and you are late, I will take my own car and meet you there." If this is said without anger, blame, or judgment and you follow through on it, then it's a boundary and is meant to take loving care of yourself. If it's said with an angry tone, then it's likely a threat meant to control your partner. Your intent, to love yourself or control your partner, will be transmitted through your energy and tone of voice.

When it's about loving yourself, then the statement is about what you are going to do in the face of the other's unacceptable behavior. You have accepted that you cannot change your partner, and you are just letting your partner know what you are going to do the next time this behavior occurs.

Often, the willingness to set a clear boundary about what you are going to do and then doing it can completely change the dynamic in the relationship. When you are no longer being a victim of the other person, and you are no longer trying to control them, the space might open for change to occur.

Start learning how to love yourself with Dr. Margaret's 30-Day at-home course, Love Yourself.

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