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What’s the difference between a request, a boundary and an ultimatum?


Written by In Sight

Any relationship, whether it’s a friendship, relationship or professional, involves good communication, mutual respect, and space to express our needs. There will be times where we will make requests, set boundaries and sometimes even issue ultimatums. While these three things might seem similar at first glance, understanding their differences can greatly enhance our ability to communicate effectively and compassionately with others.

If you’ve grown up with trauma, emotional abuse or in a narcissistic family, it’s likely that these lines are blurred for you, and that is completely valid. We invite you to have compassion for yourself as you take steps to better understand your relationships, and as with learning any new skill – knowing the best approach takes time and practice!

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Requests: Extending a hand

At the heart of any thriving relationship is the ability to make requests. When we ask for something, whether it’s help with a project, some personal space, or a favour from a friend, we’re inviting the other person into our world and sharing a piece of our vulnerability. A request is essentially an open-ended question that respects the other’s freedom to respond. It says, “This is what I need or desire. Can you be a part of this?”

The beauty of a request lies in its gentleness and flexibility. It’s like extending a hand rather than pointing a finger. When we make a request, we’re expressing our needs without imposing them. We acknowledge the possibility of a ‘no,’ and that’s okay. Someone saying no can feel like a rejection, particularly if you’ve grown up with trauma, but allowing someone space to say ‘no’ is a huge part of genuine, authentic relationships. The focus is on mutual respect and the understanding that everyone’s needs and abilities vary. For some people, rejection or criticism can evoke a sudden emotional response such as sadness, hurt or anxiety. Sometimes it’s physical pain, like a knot in their stomach. This is usually a sign that rejection is triggering something deeper, and we’d recommend seeking support such as our online Coping with Rejection course.

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Boundaries: It’s all about us, not them

While a request is about asking for something, setting a boundary is about clarifying what we need to feel safe, respected, and whole. Boundaries are the invisible lines that define our personal space—emotionally, physically, and mentally. They are crucial for our well-being and the health of our relationships.

Setting a boundary is a way of saying, “This is where I draw the line.” It’s not about controlling others but about taking responsibility for our own comfort and safety. For example, you might set a boundary by saying, “I need some quiet time in the evenings to unwind.” This isn’t a demand on others but a declaration of what you need to thrive.

Boundaries are inherently compassionate because they prevent resentment and misunderstanding from taking root. By clearly communicating our limits, we help others understand how to treat us and what we value. And when we respect others’ boundaries, we foster a deeper sense of trust and respect.

Ultimatums: The Last Resort

An ultimatum is often seen as a final stand, a last chance that says, “This needs to change, or there will be consequences.” It’s a declaration that comes into play when vital boundaries are repeatedly ignored or when a situation becomes untenable.

Unlike requests and boundaries, which are built on the hope of mutual understanding and respect, an ultimatum carries an inherent tension. It’s a tool of last resort, used when all other attempts to resolve a situation have failed. An ultimatum says, “I can’t continue under these conditions.” If you find yourself constantly issuing ultimatums, it’s usually a sign that there’s something wrong in your relationship (link to toxic friends) and it could be time to check the Bullshit Filter! (link)

The critical aspect of an ultimatum is that it must be something you’re prepared to follow through on. It should never be used as a tool for manipulation or a bluff. It’s a clear statement of your limits and the actions you’ll take to protect your well-being if those limits are not respected.

Respecting our own needs and others

The key to using requests, boundaries, and ultimatums compassionately lies in our intention and approach. It’s about recognising that everyone has their own needs, fears, and limitations. When we make a request, we’re inviting cooperation, not demanding compliance. When we set a boundary, we’re taking care of ourselves, not rejecting others. And if we ever need to issue an ultimatum, it’s from a place of self-respect and necessity, not punishment or control.

In all these interactions, compassion for ourselves and the other person is crucial. It’s also imperative that we understand our own needs, wants and values, something that survivors of trauma can struggle with. It’s about finding the balance between our needs and those of others, with respect and without silencing them. By understanding the difference between requests, boundaries and ultimatums, we can build stronger, more respectful, and loving connections with those around us.

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