Article by Dr. McKenna Hereford
If you’ve heard about The Ultimatum show recently on Netflix, you’re not alone! The show consists of monogamous couples wherein one has issued an ultimatum to propose/get married. Basically, one partner wants to get married and is tired of waiting while the other partner is not ready for various reasons. The participants then date other partners who are also participants on the show with the goal of moving toward a decision of engagement or the end of the relationship. The controversial reality show has sparked many conversations on a variety of topics, including about ultimatums.
But what exactly is an ultimatum?
Ultimatums are focused on another person’s behavior. If “x” happens/doesn’t happen, then there will be “x” consequence. “If you don’t propose to me by the end of this year, I’m breaking up with you” is an example of an ultimatum. Ultimatums, such as in the show, may be effective but also might elicit defensiveness. For example, if I issue an ultimatum to my long-distance partner (“If you don’t move here in six months, I’m ending the relationship”), I might not only cause my partner to feel trapped but also might issue the ultimatum myself when feeling emotionally reactive. Generally, people are more likely to feel defensive when the initiation of a conversation occurs while emotionally charged. On my end, this is an attempt to create the best possible outcome for myself or maybe even us as a couple. However, because the focus is on the partner’s behavior (or lack thereof), that leads to limitations. I usually can’t force the other person to do what I want them to do, so then I might attempt an ultimatum.
This sounds similar to a boundary. What is a boundary then?
Boundaries are truly focused on ourselves. When setting a boundary, a person has recognized their limits and has established boundaries with themselves and maybe others as well. An example might include “I don’t have the emotional bandwidth right now but want to be there for you. Can I call you later this week?” Other examples of boundaries include informing a family member you will not continue speaking with them if they use offensive language toward you or completely ceasing contact with the person. This looks similar to an ultimatum, but the language and intention are different. With a boundary, I’m focused on myself and my limits and simply informing the other person of my intentions and actions without attempting to coerce the other person to do something. Boundaries might include behaviors with others, such as these examples and/or setting internal boundaries such as emotionally distancing ourselves in some way when we cannot act on our limits. For example, you might need my job with a boss that is micromanaging but you could use some self-soothing exercises during or after our interactions to ground yourself and create protection so you don’t internalize comments.
It’s worth noting that culturally it may not be appropriate, safe, or feasible to verbally set or directly on boundaries with others. An example includes maintaining some sort of relationship with immediate or extended family. You might rely on your family for resources and/or truly love them and want them in your life in some capacity. In those cases, finding subtle ways to align with our limits, such as finding ways to get off the phone, offering an alternative method of support, or establishing a sense of acceptance might be beneficial, again depending on context. Acceptance in this case doesn’t necessarily mean morally you are okay with how you are treated but intentionally making space for how you feel in your own way. The goal of these more internal boundaries is to create emotional distance between yourself and someone else’s behavior and to maintain your own well-being during those interactions.
Therapists often tend to emphasize boundaries more than ultimatums, so why would people give ultimatums? There are likely many reasons. People may set boundaries and have felt those limits have been violated multiple times, leading to hopelessness and seeking a last resort. Setting boundaries with others also means we have to set boundaries with ourselves, which can be very difficult! When you set boundaries with others, it requires follow-through and setting the same limits with yourself regardless of the type of boundary. Sometimes, it’s also easier to focus on the other person’s behavior when we feel activated in some way. All of this can be tricky to navigate, and you deserve self-compassion.