None of us like being told what to do. And when we feel like a rule of some kind is being imposed upon us, it’s likely that we’ll start feeling defensive or stubborn. So, how do we set boundaries for ourselves without triggering these negative feelings in others? We’ll be exploring this very question in today’s third and final post of my mini blog series on boundaries. Don’t forget to check out my first two posts on the subject: “Boundaries 101” and “Harmful Myths About Boundaries.”
Let’s Rewind: Requests versus Demands
Before we talk about setting boundaries that don’t trigger defensiveness, we need to differentiate between requests and demands.
A request is about asking for a positive, concrete action in a way that’s polite and respectful. A “positive action” involves asking someone to do more of something rather than to stop doing something whenever possible.
Ex: Would you be willing to wipe down the counter after you’re done cooking?
You’re asking for something specific and for more of something, not less of something.
You’re being polite and respectful by saying “would you be willing to…”. You can also choose to say, “I would like you to _______” or “I’d really appreciate it if you could ________.”
When requests come from a judgmental, self-righteous place, they’re demands. With demands, the person on the receiving end may worry that there will be negative consequences if they say ‘no.’ If your requests are filled with statements like, “you should,” “I deserve,” “you better,” or anything along those lines, they’ve become demands.
Ex: You should stop leaving the counters dirty all the time.
“Should” sounds judgmental and implies that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way of maintaining one’s countertops, which will only trigger defensiveness.
“All the time” is not specific enough and implies that there is an overall character flaw in the other person—that they’re inconsiderate.
Asking someone to stop doing something sounds like a criticism instead of constructive feedback and there’s no wiggle room for the other person to voice their opinions or preferences.
How Do Boundaries Fit Into All of This?
Boundaries communicate what we feel is appropriate or inappropriate in various domains of life. However, here’s what many people forget about this concept: boundaries are about my needs, my feelings, and what I’ll do to protect myself. They are not about what another person “must” do for me to feel okay. Though this sounds quite simple, the difference is very significant.
Telling your partner, “You have to stop talking about work so much” is a demand. It comes across as judgmental and vague and doesn’t have any explanation behind it.
Imagine if you said this instead: “It’s important to me that I have some time to unplug from work, so I’m going to go read my book now.” This is a boundary. It has nothing to do with the other person and instead has everything to do with me—my need to unplug from work and my way of honouring that need.
Healthy boundary-setting typically has the formula of: feeling + request + self-care strategy (optional). Again, these are all about my feelings and my self-care strategies, not the other persons’. Here are some examples:
I feel overwhelmed when I hear you speak like that [feeling] and would like you to lower your voice [request]. If that doesn’t feel possible, I’m going to go for a five-minute walk and come back when I’ve calmed down [self-care strategy].
Compare this to: “You’re such an asshole for talking to me like that. You need to watch your tone.” In this case, the focus is on the other person’s flaws and what they need to change, which puts us in a disempowering position.
I feel frustrated when you ask me to continually loan you money [feeling]. I would appreciate it if you could speak with an accountant about how to organize your finances [request].
Compare this to: “You can’t control your finances. I’m not loaning you money any more.” While you are, in fact, setting a boundary, it’s done in a way that sounds judgmental and demanding.
I feel hurt when I see you on your phone during dinner [feeling]. Does it sound reasonable if I ask that we put our phones away during dinner [request]?
Compare this to: “Put your phone away or I’m going to eat somewhere else.” This, too, is a form of boundary-setting, but it’s done in a rather judgmental and harsh way.
Household Chores, Bed-Making, and Other Common Frustrations for Couples
I’ve noticed that many of us have a tendency to focus on who’s “right” or “wrong” when it comes to boundary-setting, but this is the wrong question. Healthy boundary-setting is instead about asking, “How can I take care of myself?”
I’ll use myself as an example. When my partner and I started living in quarantine together during COVID-19, we were faced with a conundrum: I like getting into a freshly-made bed each night while he couldn’t care less if we never made the bed a day in our lives.
Now, I could spend my precious energy trying to answer the question of who’s “right” or “wrong” here, but what’s the point? The bottom line is that our preferences in this one area are simply different, and to make the topic of bed-making into a conversation about moral rightness or wrongness is just absurd and useless (though I can’t tell you how many couples do this).
So, here’s what I did:
I focused on making a request rather than a demand by asking him, “Would you be willing to make the bed if you wake up after me in the morning?” Remember, a request is different from a demand in that it opens you up to the possibility of someone saying ‘no.’
While my boyfriend is a nice guy and will sometimes make the bed because it makes me happy, this doesn’t happen all the time. Again, I could sit here asking “who’s right” in this situation until I’m blue in the face, but that seems like a ridiculous way to spend my time. Now, the question becomes, “How do I take care of myself?”
Now when I see that the bed isn’t made, I ask myself if I’m willing to make it that morning because I want to or if I can just live with it being unmade. I do not make the bed from a resentful place of, “THIS GUY NEVER LISTENS TO ME” while huffing and puffing dramatically. I simply ask if I’m personally in the mood to do it or if I’m not, period. It has nothing to do with him and everything to do with me.
The Bottom Line
Boundaries help us communicate what we think is appropriate versus inappropriate in different contexts. When done correctly, they put us in an empowering position as they clarify what our needs are, what we’d like (not need) others to do to honour them, and how we’ll take care of ourselves if this isn’t possible. When we tell other people they “have to” do something, we’re making demands that will likely trigger feelings of hostility, frustration, or stubbornness. When we politely make requests and focus on taking care of our needs ourselves, we are able to maintain healthier relationship dynamics and feel more in charge of our day-to-day lives for the better.
What have you learned about boundary-setting throughout your life? What do you think of all of this and/or do you have any questions? Share below!