Intertidal wetlands such as saltmarshes and mangroves provide numerous important ecological functions, though they are in rapid and global decline. To better conserve and restore these wetland ecosystems, we need an understanding of the fundamental natural bottlenecks and thresholds to their establishment and long-term ecological maintenance. Despite inhabiting similar intertidal positions, the biological traits of these systems differ markedly in structure, phenology, life history, phylogeny and dispersal, suggesting large differences in biophysical interactions. By providing the first systematic comparison between saltmarshes and mangroves, we unravel how the interplay between species-specific life-history traits, biophysical interactions and biogeomorphological feedback processes determine where, when and what wetland can establish, the thresholds to long-term ecosystem stability, and constraints to genetic connectivity between intertidal wetland populations at the landscape level. To understand these process interactions, research into the constraints to wetland development, and biological adaptations to overcome these critical bottlenecks and thresholds requires a truly interdisciplinary approach.