Posted by: Donna Cunningham | January 28, 2010

6 Common Misconceptions about Boundaries in a Relationship

©2000 by guest blogger, Irene Matiatos, PhD, All Rights Reserved
Donna says: I found this article on Dr. Irene’s site amid a large collection of self-help articles for people who are in verbally abusive relationships. She allows reprinting in order to spread the word about ways to end abuse. I especially wanted to share this one with Skywriter’s readers because learning to set healthy boundaries is a theme we’re exploring as a positive outcome of Saturn’s transit through Libra. Saturn is the planet most related to boundaries and setting limits, while one of Libra’s main preoccupations is relatedness.  Here’s Dr. Irene’s wisdom on common misconceptions about our responsibilities in a relationship:
Boundaries distinguish each individual’s “territory,” the place where personal responsibility begins and ends. The self is the only area over which an individual has any control. Angry people and codependent people both have weak boundaries. They do not control themselves. This is unfortunate. Loss of boundaries, loss of control, loss of choice, loss of freedom, loss of self…are a package deal…

boundary setting, Donna Cunningham, Skywriter You are personally responsible for everything inside the boundaries that define “me” from “not me.” Everything! You are responsible for your feelings, your values, your behavior, your thoughts, choices, insights, beliefs, limits – everything!

That is fortunate. Why wouldn’t you want to have control? Would you trust someone else to raise your children? To choose your wardrobe, your furnishings, or your mate? To run your business, your home, or your marriage?

 Because you set the limits, you are personally responsible for protecting yourself. Your duty to yourself and to your Maker is to take care of yourself and not allow others to trespass. This includes cultivating your ability to say “no,” to others even if your actions disappoint them or hurt them. The good news is that since you are responsible for yourself, other adults are responsible for themselves. Always! They have to deal with your limits. You have to deal with theirs. People have a real hard time with this concept.

 Common Boundary Questions:

  • Isn’t it my responsibility to make my partner happy?
  • Isn’t it selfish to set limits with others?
  • How can I set limits and still be a “good” person?
  • Why do I feel guilty when I try to set limits?
  • Sometimes I know what’s best for my partner. Isn’t it my job to care for them?

 Let’s take them in order:

Isn’t it my responsibility to make my partner happy? No. Not only isn’t it your responsibility to “make” another happy (or miserable, or anything else), but you simply can’t do it. You don’t have that kind of power. (Unless, of course, your partner gives it to you.)

Go out of your way to treat your partner well! Knock yourself out…do all sorts of wonderful things! However, despite what you do, you are only responsible for your own feelings. Your duty to yourself is to be aware of your own motivation and expectations, your delivery, how you feel, and everything else about your actions.

Your partner’s reaction to you is your partner’s responsibility. Even if they try to pin their reaction on your actions, their reaction is their responsibility. Period. End of story. For example, a verbally abusive husband who spends much of his time trying to create a safe environment for himself by controlling his wife (and treating her poorly in the process) is not responsible for his wife’s feelings. She is. She lets him violate her boundaries. Now the pair can continue their mutual boundary violation ad nauseum: he can blame her for his woes and she can guilt him for hers. And on and on the story goes…

In reality however, the abusive husband ultimately answers only to himself and to his Maker. The usual price is the loss of self, the loss of inner peace, symptoms, etc. The wife, who discounts her feelings and makes excuses for her husband’s mis-behaviors, is also responsible to herself and her Maker. She pays much the same price for selling out.

With or without self-awareness, each person has chosen to put themselves in the position they are in. When the angry husband is mad that his “ungrateful” wife did not react to his kind efforts as per his expectations, that is his problem. If his wife allows him to make it her problems, that is her problem. This co-dependent relationship style really complicates matters. According to these assumptions, the couple might seek marital counseling so the wife can learn to be appreciative of her husband’s kind acts. There is an assumption that there is something wrong with her for being unappreciative.boundary setting, Donna Cunningham, Skywriter

Isn’t it selfish to set limits? No, no, no. In fact, it is destructive not to set limits. Who will take care of you if you don’t? Who knows more about what you need, or don’t need, than you do? It is unfortunate that the word “selfish” has such a bad connotation. Perhaps we need to think in terms of “self-caring.” Then we may more appropriately ask, “Isn’t it self caring to set limits?” You bet!

How can I set limits and still be a “good” person? How can you not? By the way, what is a “good” person? (The word I prefer is “integrity.”) How do you feel when you’ve been sooo good, that you  have been taken advantage of? Do you hide your angry, resentful feelings, smile and pretend – often even to yourself – that all is OK? Or, do you let your anger out on the next poor soul who crosses your path? How can you possibly feel good about yourself if you carry so much luggage?

Why do I feel guilty when I try to set limits. Because you are well-trained to believe that it is your responsibility not to disappoint others, to please, protect, “make” them like you, etc. There are cognitive techniques that can effectively help stamp out irrational guilt.

Not all guilt is irrational. Each situation needs to be examined. What is the individual’s underlying motivation? An example is the jealous, insecure husband who did not want his pretty wife attracting male attention in his flashy convertible. He “set limits” on her use of his car despite his not needing it and despite her responsible driving record. Since he was trying to control, he has every reason to feel guilty (assuming Mr. Ego would ever admit it).

boundary setting, Donna Cunningham, SkywriterSometimes I know what’s best for my partner. Isn’t it my job to care for them? Absolutely not! Care about your partner; do not care for them. Big difference! They have the right to make their own choices, including choices that you believe are wrong.

You may state your opinion once, even twice. Then you need to drop it. Stop trying to control them, fix them, guide them. Spend your energy controlling yourself, including learning to tolerate your partner’s choices. You don’t have to agree with your partner’s position. You do have to respect it.

About the Author: Dr. Irene Matiatos, has a PhD in clinical psychology from Long Island University who has specialized in family therapy, domestic abuse issues, and anger management. Her website, Ask Dr. Irene, has a large collection of helpful articles about abusive relationships, including verbal abuse as well as a forum and advice section. (See them at She can be reached for private consultations, including phone consultations at 845-774-4393 or by email:

The article collection notes that the contents of her site may be reproduced expressly and exclusively for not-for-profit publication in printed format as long as the source URL, the website, and the author(s) are specifically mentioned. Sites interested in publishing specific pages online should link unless granted specific permission to reproduce. All material is intended for educational purposes and must not be considered a substitute for informed advice from your own health care provider.


  1. Once again, thanks. Nice couple of posts.

  2. The timing of your posts never cease to amaze me. Today I went on a Sexual Abuse course (at work). It was for other partnership working as we call it in the UK (police, social services, working with vulnerable people (children, adults etc..)

    I was amazed at the number in the group who are very professionally involved with sensitive issues and situations that turned round and said they didn’t know how to set up boundaries. (we were talking about how to protect ourselves emotionally – especially if we are very sensitive ourselves to the subject we are supposed to support the client with e.g. child abuse).

    I even upset one lady (not intentionally – she just took exception to my comment back) She said only people with loving stable backgrounds and families should work in this field – I said no, I didn’t agree with her comment (all very friendly) that some degree of empathy helped enormously apart from reading books and passing exams.

    No family will go without some issues in their lifetime – and we as individuals will have some degree of support to give another – professionally or otherwise.

    So yes, I did enjoy the class, but have been left deeply concerned at what some professionals seem to think is appropriate in supporting another with their own standards. The article reflected beautifully issues to work on with a client or ourselves. I just wish more people would understand this, and then maybe there wouldn’t be so much miscommunication and lack of self-worth.

    I am trying to support a male friend who is blinded in a co-dependant affair – but he is too sensitive to the issue to take any advice from anyone – he has no idea about boundaries and sees inappropriate behaviour (attention seeking tactics – some extreamly vile) as a cry for help – he is their saviour !!! – they must really like him !!! – but after reading this, it has given me a few thoughts on how to explore the topic without making it too personal to him. (in other words, giving him food for thought – to digest in his own time).

    Excellent article as usual, Carole

    • Thanks, Carole. I’m not at all surprised by the cluelessness of professionals in the field, as being in contact with an abused person can be terrifying on a personal, unconscious level and can cause blind spots and denial in what’s supposed to be a calm, rational professional demeanor. As to codependency, there’s a chapter devoted to it in my ebook, Counseling Principles for Astrologers that you might want to read. I wrote it while working extensively with adult children of alcoholics and discovering that an astounding number of my astrological colleagues had alcoholism in their family. Donna

      • I was looking at your offer for 3 ebooks – which ones would you recomend to go with the Counseling Principles for Astrologers.

        I am not quite a beginner – but still in early stages of intermediate…

        I work full time – so I dont get much time to read up for my personal interests.

        Thanks, Carole

      • Hi, Carole, Perhaps An Astrological Guide to Self-Awareness, which is beginner/intermediate and Astrological Analysis, a series of essays on particular topics, an intermediate level book. There is a category called Bits from my Articles and Books near the top right hand side of the blog that has book excerpts from each of the books–that may help you make a choice. Donna

  3. It really bothers me that the majority of people think someone setting healthy boundaries is a bitch.

    • Setting boundaries is not something traditional males like in women–we’re supposed to be NICE and submissive. But the other thing is that when you’re first learning to do it, it’s so hard that you tend to be overly-emphatic about it and hence come across as aggressive (read bitchy). The more you do it, the more comfortable it becomes, and you learn less abrasive ways to achieve the same things…a bit of charm, a bit of humor perhaps.

      Another thing is that if you’re at all uncertain that you deserve to set boundaries, they pick up on the guilt and uncertainty. They push back by controlling remarks about being bitchy, things that shame you to pull you back in line. When the time comes that you are perfectly comfortable with setting limits and are absolutely certain that it’s your right, that comes across as solid and unwavering, and they stop pushing back. (It’s an Alpha female signal.) Hope that helps. Donna

      • This is so true. And synchronistic for me—I just recently heard about this and attempts at this. When you really step into your “bitch” no one questions you. It’s whey you question yourself that no one believes you and gives you trouble! Oh, so ironic! Training wheels really do give you a run for your money. But once you feel the essence of boundaries and worthiness of those boundaries, you won’t forget. And you’re no longer a bitch. ha. I think you’re called “grounded” then.

      • I’m smiling. Yup, you got it! Donna

  4. Thanks Donna, I am very happy to be here, I’m experimenting with my moon in Aries 4 degrees of the full weight of Saturn in Libra and Pluto in Capricorn …… took him well within what could be …. but a little lonely, as a curiosity tambienn current, born only a few hours of difference with Angelina Jolie June 4 -1975 …. sorry for my bad English

    Eduardo Couniago

    • Always interesting to find astrotwins. You can probably find her chart at AstroDataBank on AstroDienst, along with the charts of a great many celebrities. Donna

  5. Hi Donna, it gives me great pride to contact you, but it is unfortunate that your work is not avalaible in Spanish, angelina chart yes I do, if your are interest in genealogy of your last name Cunningham (I have Sun in IV)…. I can to send you somewhere ….. I will follow your publications….but i have to study mor english….

    Thank you

    Eduardo Couniago

  6. Wonderful article. Very informative.

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