Originally published November 27, 2022 on Hailey Magee’s blog
I’m being dead serious when I say that the distinctions in this article have been the most important thing I’ve learned in my work setting boundaries.
If you feel confused about why your boundaries aren’t working—or struggle to understand the difference between a request, a boundary, and an ultimatum—read on!
If your boundaries aren’t working, you’re probably making requests instead of setting boundaries.
Requests and boundaries are both tools we can use to meet our needs.
When we make a request, we ask someone else to do, or not to do, something in order to meet our needs. For example: “Would you mind speaking to me more calmly?”
Requests ask someone else to change their behavior—and they may or may not do so. For this reason, requests are fundamentally unenforceable; the outcome is out of our control.
Meanwhile, when we set boundaries, we are making clear what we will or won’t tolerate. For example: “I can’t continue the conversation when you raise your voice at me.”
A boundary is only meaningful if we enforce it—so, enforcing this boundary would mean leaving or ending the conversation when the other party 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 and the outcome is entirely within our control.
Here are some other examples:
We explore this fundamental difference in my new on-demand workshop, Setting Boundaries with Difficult & Unreceptive People. Get it here.
When should we use which?
Requests: Our First Course of Action
When we have a need in our relationships, requests are a great place to start. By making a request, we give the other party the opportunity to meet us in our needs.
If the other party is receptive to our request, we should 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.
Boundaries: Our Second Course of Action
If we make a request and the other party is unwilling or unable to meet it, we have to 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.
At this point, we have two choices—both of which fundamentally accept that the other party isn’t changing:
- We can radically accept that their behavior is unchanging and that our needs will not be met—and we can choose to stay in that situation as it is.
- We can set a boundary.
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 my needs?
If a person regularly hurts us and they’ve been unreceptive to our requests to stop, we might take greater distance and space from them—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—and take space from it or end it 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 quite gray. The distinction lies in our tone, intention, and mindset when we say it—which is hard to quantify in a meaningful way.
However, to put it simply, a boundary is about our own limits, whereas an ultimatum is specifically designed to control somebody else. Ultimatums focus on others’ behavior, not our own.
For example: Your boundary might be, “I’m unhappy and dissatisfied in a relationship where I’m not shown affection. I can’t be in one without it.”
Maybe you communicate this to your partner in the midst of a conversation about the state of your relationship. Maybe it’s followed by a conversation about what “affection” means to you and how that need can be met. Or, maybe you leave it at that, and your partner gets to decide how they will respond.
An ultimatum might be something you say at the end of a huge fight: “If you don’t start stepping up, telling me you love me, and showing me the bare minimum of kindness, I’m out of here!” You slam the door as you leave.
In the latter case, you’re trying to get your partner to change and your tone is one of anger and control.
Furthermore, many people set ultimatums that they don’t 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.