Requests vs. Boundaries vs. Ultimatums: The Ultimate Guide

By Hailey Magee – original article linked here

Do you ever feel like your boundaries just aren’t working—and no matter how many times you set them, the people in your life aren’t listening?

If so, watch out⁠: you might be making requests or giving ultimatums instead of setting boundaries. Here’s the difference:

If your boundaries aren’t working, you’re probably making requests instead of setting boundaries.

When we make requests, we ask others to change their behavior. For example: “Could you please speak to me more calmly?”

When we ask, others may or may not agree. Requests are fundamentally unenforceable.; the outcome is out of our control.

Meanwhile, when we set boundaries, we make clear what we won’t tolerate. For example: “I can’t continue this conversation when you raise your voice at me.”

A boundary is only meaningful if we enforce our words with our actions—so, enforcing this boundary would mean leaving or ending the conversation when the other person raises their voice.

When we set a boundary, we are making clear what our actions will be. For this reason, our boundaries are fundamentally enforceable. The outcome is entirely within our control.

(My on-demand workshop Boundaries 101 for the Recovering People-Pleaser teaches you when to use requests and boundaries—and how to enforce your boundaries in the face of resistance. Get it here today and watch anytime.)

Here are some other examples:

So, when should we use which?

Requests: Our First Course of Action

When we have an unmet need, requests are a great place to start. By making a request, we give the other person the opportunity to meet us in our needs.

If the other person is receptive, we can offer a window of time for them to shift their behavior. Maybe we ask a partner to show us more affection, and if they’re willing, we can observe over the course of a few weeks how their willingness to say “I love you” or offer a hug increases.

If the other person isn’t receptive, it’s important that we accept their answer. We cannot force more from someone who is unable or unwilling to give more. We have to release the illusion that, if we only ask a 17th time, then finally, they will become receptive to our needs.

Boundaries: Our Second Course of Action

At this point, we have two choices:

  • We can radically accept that their behavior isn’t changing—and we can choose to stay in the situation as it is.
  • We can radically accept that their behavior isn’t changing—and set a boundary accordingly.

When we set a boundary, we ask ourselves: How close and connected am I willing to be with this person who is unable or unwilling to meet this need?

If a person regularly hurts us and they’ve been unreceptive to our requests to stop, we might exit interactions when the hurtful behavior arises; take distance and space from them overall; or end the relationship altogether.

If a person regularly disappoints us by not offering as much love, affection, time, or help as we’d like, we might set a boundary that acknowledges that this relationship in its current form isn’t working for us. We might take space from the relationship; decide certain topics of conversation, or types of interactions, are no longer doable for us; or, in some cases, end the relationship entirely.

“But that sounds like an ultimatum. What’s the difference between a boundary and an ultimatum?”

Truthfully, the area between boundaries and ultimatums can be gray. The distinction lies in our intention when saying it.

When we set a boundary, we’re sincerely asserting our limits. By the time we set a boundary, we’ve accepted that they are not changing, and we’re doing what it takes to create safety or well-being for ourselves.

When we make an ultimatum, however, we’re trying to control others. Ultimatums are scare tactics intended to incite change. When we make an ultimatum⁠—perhaps by saying, “If you don’t quit drinking, I’m leaving you”⁠—we’re hoping they’ll change in response. Many people set ultimatums that they don’t intend to enforce, which highlights their true nature as attempts to control others’ behavior instead of genuine attempts to protect ourselves and our needs.

Why We Get Stuck Making Repeated Requests

Some of us never cross the bridge from requests to boundaries. We stay stagnant in the same situations, making the same requests ad infinitum, forgetting the adage that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

There are a few reasons for this:

  • We don’t believe our needs are valid or important enough to warrant setting hard boundaries around them
  • We’ve been told our needs are unreasonable, and so it seems too “demanding” to set a boundary around them
  • We’re afraid of the grief that will arise when we accept that (1) the other person isn’t changing and (2)  setting a boundary may mean stepping back from this relationship

Grief is an enormous part of the boundary-setting process⁠—one that regularly gets overlooked. While setting boundaries is a very self-respecting and powerful thing to do, it’s often accompanied by some loss and sadness—and in order to effectively set boundaries, we must accept this part of the process, too.

Setting and enforcing our boundaries means accepting the limits of our control and releasing illusions of control that keep us stuck in unchanging situations. It means respecting our needs enough to make hard choices to protect them.

Hey: Even the healthiest relationships include differences, disagreements, and mismatches in needs.

My on-demand workshop, Using Boundaries to Sustain Complicated Relationships, will teach you how you can sustain difficult relationships with friends, family members, and colleagues by learning how to disengage from interactions that don’t feel good; how to stop over-giving and feigning comfort when something’s bothering you; how to differentiate and get clear on where you end and others begin; and how to be discerning when deciding when a connection needs to end for good. Watch it here today.

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