Ultimatums (threats) versus Consequences

SCENARIO: You’re a victim of abuse and you are learning about boundaries and have found the courage to try to set some boundaries with your abuser. During a discussion, (s)he is escalating into abuse, which happens quite often. You clearly and calmly point out the unacceptable behavior and you give the abuser a CONSEQUENCE that will occur should that behavior occur again or continue:

Please stop yelling and calling me names. You do that often, and it makes me feel frightened, disrespected and very hurt. I’d like to be able to have discussions with you without you calling me names and yelling. I will not tolerate being yelled at and called names. If you continue, I will leave for the weekend and start considering spending less time around you and putting some distance between us in this relationship.

The abuser may respond with something like this:

I’ll do anything I want! Stop giving me ultimatums! Your threats won’t work with me!

The inference the abuser is making here is that the victim trying to *control* his/her abuser.

First, realize that ABUSERS LOVE to play the semantics game. It serves to distract from the subject of their abusive behavior.

But, for our understanding, let’s look at ULTIMATUMS vs CONSEQUENCES and what the differences are in the meanings and the objectives behind these two words:

Ultimatums or threats are a means of *control* and are typically given when the behavior in question hasn’t occurred yet. The person giving the ultimatum or issuing the threat is very invested in the outcome of the situation and in controlling the other person’s behavior.

Consequences (as part of boundary-setting) are a means of *protection*  Consequences are set forth when the behavior in question has already happened. The victim is attempting to protect themselves from the hurtful behavior recurring again. (S)he lets go of the outcome because (s)he isn’t interested in control, only in self-protection. The primary objective is only self-protection, NOT controlling the other person. The other person can continue to behave as they choose, however with a boundary, you have let them know that you will not stick around to tolerate it.

A good broken-record response to the abuser’s accusation might be:

I’m going to do what I need to protect myself.

‘Broken-record’ is an assertiveness technique found in the book “When I Say No I Feel Guilty‘. This is an excellent book for victims of others’ controlling behavior. Certain assertiveness techniques can help a person avoid being controlled so easily by others.

In this type of situation, DO NOT engage in an argument or discussion with the abuser about whether you are “giving ultimatums” or “threatening” them.

The MOMENT you start defending yourself from the abuser’s accusation, you immediately give it validity and (s)he will have then succeeded in changing the subject away from the abusive behavior that you’ve confronted them with.

Calmly state your objective: “I’m going to do what I need to protect myself.” repeatedly in response to his/her continued accusations and raging – before you leave the vicinity. Or, simply THINK that to yourself and leave the room or premises to avoid being further drawn into this semantics discussion with the abuser.

ALSO, before setting such boundaries, HAVE A PLAN. Be prepared to carry out whatever consequences you’ve given should the abuser’s hurtful behavior recur (temporary time away from the relationship with no contact, leaving the relationship, spending the night or weekend elsewhere, etc.). ALSO, be prepared to leave immediately should (s)he become enraged and should your physical safety be in jeopardy!

If the abuse you spoke to them about recurs or continues, DO NOT BACK DOWN from the consequence you have set forth. Don’t let the abuser “sweet-talk you out of it” or woo you back into the relationship before you intend to return, or try to get you to contact him/her or to spend time together again before you stated that you would. If you allow this to happen, the abuser will know (s)he can continue to get away with abusing you and with violating your boundaries – because you let them!

IT IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED that you have a clearly defined escape plan (for yourself and children if necessary), and be prepared to call police if (s)he becomes physically dangerous – before beginning to assert boundaries in this way with your abuser, particularly if they have a past record of physical violence.

Know that abusers most always ESCALATE their abuse tactics whenever their victims begin setting boundaries and attempting to protect themselves from the abuse. They do this in order to maintain CONTROL. Maintaining CONTROL over their victims is of utmost importance to an abuser. The most dangerous time for a victim in an abusive relationship is when (s)he tries to leave or defend him/herself – because at that point, the abuser has lost control and power over their target.

This can be a dangerous and frightening time for victims of abuse. However, it is important for abuse victims to be able:

  • to recognize and identify verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse before it escalates to physical violence. Physical violence in intimate relationships is ALWAYS preceded by verbal and emotional abuse, and often other types of abuse as well.
  • to recognize the tactics abusers use to distract from, hide, deny, blame others for, and minimize their abusive or violent behavior
  • to protect themselves from abuse by setting boundaries (including consequences should those boundaries be violated) whenever possible

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