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Get Out Or Stay Out? ‒ Ultimatums Vs. Boundaries In Recovery

Written by: Travis Thompson, LMFT, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


One more time, just one more time, and I’m done. I know last time I said that, but this time I really mean it. There is no way that I can go through with this again. It has already been too many times and I have given too many chances. What would my parents say with this one more chance? How could I even tell them that I am still here? They have been telling me for years that I should leave, but I just can’t. How could I do that after everything we have been through? Things were better before, that’s for sure. But what do I do now?

Falling Out Again

Within the throughs of addiction, there can be times of consistent variability in relationships and emotions. It is no wonder that so many partners and family members of addicts find themselves unsure about how to handle things when life becomes unpredictable. It is only logical to feel unhinged and disoriented when relapse or significant consequences come around again. Losing footing in the relationship becomes all too common, even to the point where it is expected.

When these things happen, arrests, DUIs, loss of relationships, health scares, and other significant changes, a choice comes into play. We can either continue the relationship or demand change. Sometimes these choices are made in desperation and sometimes they are made in defiance. Other times, they may be made in insolence or near indifference. No matter which way they come about, there seems to be an interesting phenomenon that manifests itself. Somehow, someway, you are at your absolute wit’s end again. To those without experience, it can seem absurd to have to make a life-long decision more than a few times in life, and we can often make them multiple times a month. At the height of addiction, nearly every intensive conversation we have with our addicted loved ones revolves either emotionally or literally around substances, whether that be around the financial, relational, or legal concerns at the time.


When we are finally “fed up” for the 15th time, we must do something about it. Different people will give different ideas about how to make a change. There is some confusion on what demanding change looks like. First, we need to define what change is and how we get there. What we hope for, what seems so far away, is to have a drastic shift in behavior that moves away from addiction and use into healthy relationships. Ultimatums and boundaries can seem incredibly similar, and sometimes are spoken about interchangeably. While similar in idea to a boundary, an ultimatum has distinct characteristics and likely outcomes.

So, what is an ultimatum? Made in times of incredible frustration or anger, ultimatums are an attempt to force change in another person without the determination to keep it after a situation has calmed. Typically, they are made in the heat of an argument, or in the breakdown of a relationships. Often considered threats, ultimatums use emotional energy to request a change in someone, hoping to use the intensity in the moment to persuade change. An example of this is a wife who finds out her husband has been drinking again and keeping it secret. Once she finds him and attempts to confront the behavior, a temper can easily flare, resulting in a comment like, “if I ever see you doing this again, I am leaving you!” Honest as she may be in the moment, relationship decisions made in moments of high tension tend only to hold their value in high tension. This means that as soon as everyone has calmed down, expectations can change, and a cycle can form.

As the less effective of the two, ultimatums can seem pointless to pursue. At least on paper, there is no reason to engage in them. If they fail nearly every time and only make people more frustrated and guilty, what is the point? While they may not be useful in the long-term, they are accessible and prone to giving the immediate response desired. Ultimatums do sway someone in the moment to engage and care. When we are feeling desperate and out of options, that may be the best we assume that we can get.


There is an alternative to the haphazard and impulsive attempts to change called ultimatums, and that is boundaries. Boundaries differ in their potency, time thought about, and ability to sustain long-term. They are mad in times of calm as a response to repeated unwanted and unhealthy behavior. Boundaries also do not use outside leverage but engage in an honest discussion about inner needs and desires. They are more difficult to form and adhere to but allow for the honoring of what is truly needed for an individual and couple.

Let’s talk about what boundaries consist of and how they are formed. There is a helpful metaphor to use when wanting to make a boundary. Think of healthy boundaries as if they were fences with clearly posted signs. From here we can relate the mechanics to realistic patterns. Fences are stable. In order to remain upright, they also need posts, or a sense of grounding to stay strong. With this we can see that boundaries, the way that we protect ourselves and request change, should be rooted in a solid grounding of reality. This reality could be what we believe, what we need, or what the facts of the situation are. Examples of this could include the need to feel safe with a partner, fear of the effects of addiction on children, or spiritual beliefs in wholeness and sobriety. Helpful posts to support this fence are a benefit when they cannot be argued from another’s standpoint. A feeling of need is not something that can be convinced out of someone and spiritual or religious beliefs are often grounded in overall ideas of health. These needs can also be shared as a desire to have a partner that is engaged, or one that can be trusted.

The next part of the fence is the outer wrap that contains it. Connected to the posts of belief and need, this aspect is the wrap around guard that allows for no intrusion. A fence is completely ineffective if there is a gaping hole around the corner. To make a boundary effective, these beliefs and needs should encompass all parts of yourself. If there is a true desperation for change due to significant hurt, then wrap-around protection is needed. Other people should not be able to drop this guard and various situations should not cause the guard to faulter. Often the most draining and times consuming, maintenance of the fencing keeps harm away.

The last part of the boundary fence is the clearly posted sign. This must be open and shown to whoever walks up to the boundary. The reason for this is to have an honesty about what is needed and to be transparent about what is being asked. In the physical world, these signs are often warnings of trespassing and indicators of the person that owns the land inside. For relational boundaries, much of this is the same. In making a boundary for safety, there should be a clear distinction on what is being protected, what the expectations are, as well as what the consequences are if the other person attempts to break in. A helpful template for this is if ______ happens, then I will ________. This differs from the ultimatum as there is forethought and support present prior to the conversation. This posting may even come off as emotionally flat or disconnected. This is okay. Boundaries should be steadfast and provide stability for those that need them.

What the specifics of these boundaries should be is what feels congruent to the person, as well as the feedback of those that they trust. Some partners have boundaries of leaving the home if they find out about use again. Some will find themselves with pending divorce papers. Any one of these options, and all the ones in between, should be things that you can make peace with if they come to pass. Unfortunately, it is highly likely that an addicted partner or loved one will push or break that boundary. As is the nature of addiction, manipulative behavior and disregard for others’ needs lead to unhealthy interaction and the taking advantage of loved ones. At this point, it is imperative that the consequences of this breach are followed through immediately and fully. Otherwise, the boundary that was made can seem like an empty threat or ultimatum.

Long-Term Growth

At the end of this exercise in boundaries and engagement of needs, we hope to see change. If we do not, then it is perfectly acceptable to walk away. In fact, I encourage the partners of addicted individuals to hold to boundaries without regret. It can seem harsh to those struggling with addiction, but that is the point. In order for an addict to remain stable, they need support from someone. Unfortunately, that support ultimately drains the other person to the point of not recognizing themselves. So, as an act of empowerment of self and defiance in the cycles of addiction, partners should hold firm to the boundaries they set. Change is not likely to come without it.

This is the crux of the discussion of boundaries. They are a demand for healthier living and interaction. The core of this is for the partner of the addict to want to see a better life. What has always given great support to partners, but intense anxieties to those in addiction is the gift of leaving without guilt or remorse. Some addicts will never change. They may be able to find someone to support them or placate their sickness. What a partner or family member may need to hear is that it may take the addict 7 or 10 tries to get sober. That does not mean you have to stick around to find out if that happens. Once you have reached the point of exhaustion and you have run out of options, finding yourself worn-down and unable to recognize yourself, it is perfectly reasonable to step away. Again, this is not a threat, but a response rooted is self-preservation.

Harsh as it may seem, takes heart in this. The number one indicator of relapse is family stress. This does not mean that if a wife is not nice enough, they will relapse or if a boyfriend does not tell them they love them enough, all is lost. Instead, it points to the fact that those around an addict, family members, partners, and loved ones, have the most significant impact on the outcome. This can be used to our advantage. The best hope for recovery that an addict has is for those involved with them to demand healthy living for themselves, whether or not the addict gets better. It can be described as buying tickets to a flight that you will go on. They have a seat too, but if they do not take it, you still leave. This further journey has room for both of you, but it will be taken all the same. Breaking the cycle of addiction and codependency, this is the best shot that they have in changing their lives as well. Find support and those knowledgeable in boundaries and healthy living and prepare to live a life of fullness, inviting them along if they so choose.

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Travis Thompson, LMFT, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Travis Thompson, is a researcher, teacher, and therapist focused on healing the lives of those in addiction. With a drive to see effective, long-term change in his community, he has dedicated himself, his practice, and his doctoral work on both research, education, and implementation of recovery. He strives to further the mental health field towards a holistic and advanced understanding of what addiction truly is, where it comes from, and how we all can help.



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