Can we talk about what boundaries really mean?


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I am having a very interesting experience right now with my difficult child sister, who I have an on again, off again relationship with because if she gets upset with me she will cut me off for various periods of time. Well, she is upset again, this time because I thought I was setting a boundary, and her reaction made me wonder about boundaries...are they an attempt to control the other person as she suggests?

I simply told her, and have been leading up to telling her, that I could no longer hear her talking about her abusive boyfriend, who she admits or HAS admitted is abusive, because it makes me frightened for her so...if she still wanted to see him and felt she loved him, I would rather not know about it. Her reaction was interesting. And thought provoking. She said "I will talk about what I want. You can not control and manipulate me about what we talk about."

Forget that she has done this to me a thousand times, like we can't talk about our mother, but she claims that this is different because Mother is Mother and she loved her. I have always gone along with topics she wanted to ban. Jumper is another person she doesn't want to hear about. "I don't talk about MY kids. You think Jumper is perfect, but she isn't." Ok, so we don't talk about our kids.

When we set a boundary, I always thought it was about ourselves and what we can/can't handle and not about the other person, but she kind of made me wonder about that and feel guilty. I can actually see her point. Yet I do love my sister and I worry so when she is alone with this man that has blackouts from drinking and seems to in my opinion stalk her when she tries to cut him off from her life and she always goes back to him.

Is my request going too far? I tried to tell her that the boundary was about me and what I can handle and not about her; that I have listened non-stop about him for three years ande it is causing me great angst. We got into a texting argument in which she claimed I tried to control her and I was fairly non-reactive. When shej typed "You are borderline. I don't expect you to understand boundaries" I just typed, "Ok." (I think it was nasty to bring up borderline. I do have traits. I have never been diagnosed and I have made good progress.).

Finally, I got tired of the nasty texts to I told her I'm taking a short time out and will get back to her when I feel ready. I told her I did not want to fight with her and that I loved her, but needed to take a few days off from talking to her/texting her. The texting fight was causing me a lot of stress. But is cutting off a discussion for a few days a form of control? Interestingly, she texted me again, but I ignored it, but I felt guilty that I ignored it.

Control or boundaries? Now I"m really confused. She was really being abusive, bringing up every secret I have shared with her about myself in a nasty way...I did not react. Just typed stuff like "Ok" or "Thanks for sharing your thoughts." But finally I couldn't read anymore and I put a stop to it.

Now I wonder if boundaries are a form of controlling other people and being selfish. Interestingly, 36 did not react as nastily as my sister when I told him about my boundaries that he needed to respect if he wanted to talk to me.

Now I'm all confused.


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I think boundaries are controlling. They control what you will and will not allow to happen to you. in my humble opinion its sort of like saying you will wear a seatbelt....should you be faced with an accident you choose not to participate in additional harm. IE: Should you choose to talk to SIS you choose not to allow her to cause you additional stress.

Do I think they are selfish...not unless you consider protecting your sanity/health/body selfish.

Do I think they are manipulative......yes they manipulate your relationships. Why because they allow you to take something bad/stressful/hurtful and mold it into something less bad/stressful/hurtful.

Should you feel bad about it? NOPE. She has a messed up relationship and you have listened and provided advice for three years. She has chosen not to take that advice and now you are chosing not to listen to the talk. Sounds pretty simple to me. Why would you listen if you get stressed out by it and she has no intention of changing it. Why not say when you are ready to leave the relationship I will be happy to listen and support you. Until then listening to you describe abuse is traumatizing to me and I can't handle that if you aren't willing to change anything.


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Staff member
Boundaries are about self-preservation, in my opinion. In that way, some would consider them "selfish." Having healthy boundaries means you won't allow people to take advantage of you. I don't think that's about trying to control the other person, although a manipulative person will certainly try to turn it around to make it seem that way.

Perhaps it's in the approach. Your sister is right in that you can't tell her what to talk about, and you shouldn't try. I wouldn't set it up as a "request" for her to stop talking about various issues - phrase it so it's about you, not her. When one of my kids is pulling me into their drama, I say, "look, I appreciate that you need to talk about this, but I can't deal with it right now. It's stressing me out, and it's not even my problem. It might be better for you to find someone else to talk to, someone that's not so emotionally involved." If they accuse me of being selfish, so be it. I don't let myself be sucked into that manipulation.

Sometimes boundaries can be set in place without even verbally expressing them. You simply change the subject, or get off the phone. Remember that list we created years ago, with what to say to our difficult children? That applies to other relatives, too :)


one day at a time
MWM, take out your Boundaries book again by Cloud and Townsend. It's right there in black and white. When we set a boundary, people are not going to like it. That is for sure.

When we say what we will or will not do, after we have been doing it already for a long time, people don't like that. They want us to stay the same. They want to keep on doing what they have been doing.

But we aren't going to put ourselves through ________ anymore. We can either say it---like you did with your sister---or we can use actions, not words.

When sister calls and starts talking about the boyfriend, we can say, Oh, somebody's at the door. We can change the subject. We can say the pasta is boiling over on the stove. We can say, hey, let's talk about something else, okay?

MWM, you know how to do this already. You do it with difficult child already. You're confused because she counterattacked hard, hitting your soft spots.

With my mother, who talks to my aunt three or four times a week and gets so upset about what she hears---crazy stuff---I said, Mother let every other call go to voice mail. Only answer when you feel strong and ready to handle it. Get off the phone when it starts. My mother is not going to straight out say: This stuff is sick. My aunt isn't going to change. They love each other. So they are going to talk, but there have to be limits---boundaries---to those talks, or my mother is super upset all the time. Who wants to continuously hear a bunch of sick, sick stuff? I don't. That's why I limit my time with difficult child.

You have a right not to hear all of this stuff from your sister. She will have to find somebody else to vent to. It's not you, anymore. I would imagine you have offer helpful, loving advice over the years and she has never taken it. I learned in Al-Anon that you say something one time. One time. And then saying it a second time, and third, etc., is an attempt to control and manipulate.

Your sister knows she is in a sick relationship. She just doesn't want to do anything about it. On some level, MWM, it's working for her.

I think boundaries are about respect. Respect for me. Respect for you. Once I learn that something is really not good for me, I need to limit that something. I can do it kindly (say what you mean, but don't be mean about what you say) or I can just act on it.

I think saying it kindly is more honest but that's everybody's call.

Also, I try hard (and I fail a lot) not to offer advice unless I am specifically asked for it. I have learned this in 12 step work. Who do I think I am to tell somebody else what to do? How can I know the dozens of variables that make up their life and their decisions?

Get your book out MWM. You are okay. You are on solid ground here. Figure out if something isn't working for you, and then work to change that situation. That is what you did.

To spell it out, I read that you told her what YOU would and would not do. You did not tell her what SHE should and should not do. That could be controlling and managing if that were the case and you weren't asked for advice.

You could get back with her and clarify: Hey sis, I''m sorry we got off track yesterday. I'd like to clarify. I don't want to talk about your boyfriend anymore when we get on the phone together, because it's upsetting to me. That's all. I love you and I want to keep talking like we always do.

Then don't engage anymore on the subject. No back and forth. She still won't like it, and she will be pushing back. Just say, hey, let's agree to disagree on this. Whoops, I've got to go. Pasta boiling over. Talk to you tomorrow!

Calamity Jane

Well-Known Member
Maybe your sister feels like you're abandoning her when you tell her you won't listen to her anymore. Is she in therapy by any chance? If not, would you feel comfortable telling her that unless/until she seeks professional help with this issue, you simply cannot hear about the abuse? By labeling you as controlling and manipulative, I think your sister is "guilting" you, or hijacking the relationship. By default, an abusive relationship is all about control, and she clearly does not have control with her boyfriend. She is afraid of losing any sense of control now in your relationship, and it must be frustrating for her. That's why she's ratcheting up the nasty talk about your borderline. I guess I would gently tell her the next time it comes up in your conversation, that you understand and appreciate her need to talk about what's going on with her boyfriend, but that a professional's advice would be so much better for her than your sympathy alone.
Look, it's the same thing as if she was telling you she had perpetual agonizing headache. She could talk to you about it till the cows come home, but you aren't really capable of doing anything other than sympathizing. That could be a sign of many serious problems, but you're not equipped to do anything but listen, and it's very stressful. Your advice would be for her to get help for her problem. If she rejects your suggestion, and she probably will, you have no choice but to maintain boundaries. You must respect yourself and acknowledge your limits. You are not out of line here, she is. :smile-new: Good luck; you're a dear person who cares about her sister - you have nothing to be confused about!


Well-Known Member

what jumps out at me here is the text fight. When SO and I were in a year long knock down drag out mud wrestling survival fight, we both saw our own "relationship therapists" and we saw one together...ALL of them said "no texting."

They said if the text is anything more personal than "I'll be home at 5", don't send it.

They were totally right. TExt fighting is awful, destructive, confusing, doesn't deliver the message properly, and can be saved to brood over and provoke more harm. Next time...stop the texting and say "lets stop texting and talk".

We (SO and I) had a hard time changing modes, since texting was kind of a "safe" feeling zone to talk about sensitive stuff...but it was a safe place to attack the other person from too, and that isn't OK.

Now for your question...the answer is ...I DON"T KNOW!!!

I do feel weirdly shut down when I'm told by people I love that I can't bring up a topic that is important or integral to my life.

And I told my loving sister this January that I did NOT want to talk with her about difficult child, and that if he and she were in contact I did NOT want to hear about it. That has lead to an awkward, elephant in the room type situation.

I like crazy in VA's approach...using it each time the topic comes up, instead of delivering a dictum.

"look, I appreciate that you need to talk about this, but I can't deal with it right now. It's stressing me out, and it's not even my problem. It might be better for you to find someone else to talk to, someone that's not so emotionally involved[/quote

I also like COM's approach of cutting it off with polite diversions.
Relationships don't have to be ALL "let it all hang out". Its OK to be subtle with the directions.

On a totally different note..
Remember that list we created years ago, with what to say to our difficult children?

where is that list???I want it!



Well-Known Member
PS I think you handled yourself REALLY well by not engaging in the nasty text exchange, and by declaring the need for a break.

I'll share one more thing from my couples counselling, which I found a good guideline...the person who ends the conversation, meaning the person who says "this is too much for me , we are going somewhere bad, lets stop now" (and I think that is a VERY healthy and appropriate thing to say) is obliged to be the one who reopens the topic at a calmer time, preferably within 24 hours. Otherwise it is simply shutting the other person down, and no one likes that.

Hugs and good luck to you...



one day at a time
I do feel weirdly shut down when I'm told by people I love that I can't bring up a topic that is important or integral to my life.

I do, too, but that's on me, not on the other person. I feel cut off, disconnected, lonely, and like I've done something wrong.

I probably have. And I don't like feeling that way.

The key question is: What do I do when I have that feeling? Do I strike back? I used to. I could give as good as I got.

Today, I am working to own my own stuff. If somebody says to me, hey I don't want to talk about that anymore, I need to feel my feelings about it, keep my mouth shut, and reflect on it later.

Most of the time, they are right. Sometimes they may not be, but I can't figure that out in the moment.

Time. Blessed time.


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Staff member
MWM, I think everyone has given you stellar advice. My heart goes out to you, you are trying so hard to see her point of view and do the right thing, you are most endearing MWM.

My first thought is that your sister is a difficult child. difficult child's often see our boundaries as control. And, they often go for the underbelly in attack mode when they don't like something.

My feelings, and as you always say, 'disclaimer', this is only my opinion............when I set a boundary with a healthy person whom I am in relationship with, it is simply respected. I expect it to be and it is. When someone sets a boundary with me, I listen and respect it, end of story. If I love someone, I trust that they are taking care of themselves and whatever boundary they want is what I will comply with. I think that is a healthy connection. When one sets a boundary with a difficult child, all hell breaks loose. It seems they are not really interested in your boundaries, only in whatever it is they want. Your sister sounds like a difficult child. To me, your request seems like a normal, healthy request. Your sisters response, to me, seems very gfgish and selfish and in fact, mean spirited. I don't know your history, that would play a part in it in the present, however, whatever the history is doesn't give another the right to blame, manipulate and be mean.

My read on it is that your sister was projecting onto you her own control issues. And, she sounds like a bully. Perhaps, as we speak about here, limiting your exposure to your sister may be what it takes for you to increase your peace rather then decrease it with the stress of being in the "energy field" of a difficult child.

I'm the only one who can decide what boundaries I want around me. Like a fence. I put it up and I allow who gets through.


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Thank you all. My sister is a strange bird . She cut off my brother when she was younger and he was not invited to her huge wedding. She made it better with him later on. The funny thing is, as horrible as she was to him, he believes she really loved him and forgave her. Remember, I'm the bad guy in the family. My brother was rejected by my sister for being "ugly and looking like he's gay." He has no idea she shunned him for those reasons. At least, I'm sure she never told him, but she used to talk to me about him looking "gross" all the time. For years she didn't want anyone to know he was her brother.

She was thirty when she got married, not twenty. My Mom's favorite was my brother, yet she screamed at my sister to invite him but found a way to forgive my sister for NOT inviting him to her wedding. But, yep, Mom cut me out of her life. Our family dynamics make little sense. My brother is closer to Sis than me, although he lives in NJ and isn't close, really, to either of us. She really got him to forget all the bad stuff, but I swear now he'S angry at me for reasons I don't know. Go figure. I don't really care anymore. The dynamics of the family is that it's my fault. And I bought it for years. Although that is still the dynamic with Sis and Bro, I really do not buy it. I think they're wacked, really, and that Sis is mean-spirited. This is a shock to me. I always told myself she was the nice one and I was the dog. Looking back, it was never that way.

This texting war with my sister showed me a side of her I had never seen because she usually just cuts me off cold. She does not normally engage me AT ALL so she doesn't spew the venom. Her silence was her punishment. She once would not talk to me for three years because my mother, of all people, told her that I was telling her nasty stuff about her, which was sort of true one night about ten years before this incident, but it was also an attempt for me to show my mother that her ignoring my sister was harming her and causing her to do harmful things to herself.

Because my mother told her that, she would not talk to me for three years nor even tell me why she was angry. To this day she has never heard my side of something that she thought was so horrible that she cut me off for three years and called the cops when I went over to her house to try to find out why she wouldn't talk to me.

Three whole years over this and no explanation. Yes, she cut me off TEN YEARS after it even happened for THREE YEARS and still thinks it was ok. She doesn't think it was a bit much or that it could have been worked out. I did bring this up in our texting fighting and she got all defensive and said it's in the past and we have different memories...she refuses to allow me to talk about the painful issue of my mother disowning me. But I have to listen to her talk about this boyfriend who is a real kook and dangerous. Anyone who is a kook, with anger and drinks until he blacks out is dangerous. I think she is partly why she is being so vile, but maybe s he was always this way and I didn't see it because she would cut me off...thus not letting me see her at all.

You really can not reason with my sister when she is angry. I tried. She wrote me one last text, which I didn't see until after I posted this thread. It was "I may need more time than just a few days."

I wrote back that this was fine, so did I, and I called her "sweet sissy" (she's not). I am relieved. I don't really want to talk to her. Actually, I'm, not sure I even want to know her. She can go from being nice to being so incredibly vile and I don't want to fight with anyone. I just want peace in my life.

I guess I will have another chunk of time when I don't talk to Sissy, but this time I have to do some serious thinking. She was REALLY nasty and vindicative over basically just a request not to talk to me about her boyfriend. Frankly, I don't ever want to hear about him again. It stresses me out to no end. I have a lot going on now. Hubby and I are moving. Jumper is graduating (Mom is so shocked and even a little sad). Sonic is moving to his own apartment. Julie is having my first granddaughter...yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!!! I have a new job that I like a lot.

I can not have this toxicity in my life. I am not sure what to do about it. She is my only relative in our very small family, other than my father, that I have any contact with. In a way, I value that. In a way, I think about my own beliefs that DNA connections don't make people more special and that maybe it is best just to see what she does and to absolutely forbid her to be abusive anymore.

What do you think I should respond if she texts me yet again in order to get the last word in? Better yet, does anyone know how to send her e-mail automatically to spam? I really don't text so I don't read my phone, just my e-mail. She can text my phone all day and I won't see it.
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one day at a time
I just want peace in my life.

This says it all. Once we start breaking free, we find drama and this type of "stuff" toxic and viscerally repugnant. (do you like that phrase? : )

You're the healthy one, MWM. Claim it.

I think you can still be kind to her and just let things flow a bit. Keep it light. On the surface.

If she starts go to for a deep dive, then whoops! The pasta is boiling over.

She can text my phone all day and I won't see it.

Consider that a gift. Give this some time, this time. Wait a few days, and then text: Hey, just wanted to check in. Hope all is well.

This is good advice for me to take as well with some of my more dramatic family members. Thanks for this thread.

Hugs to you. We can be your family, too.


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Staff member
MWM, this made me think of you. When I first saw it I laughed out loud.

Ram Dass.jpg


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COM, you ARE my family and I hope I am yours. Long ago I realized my DNA collection was not your normal or even close-to-normal family. I just really always loved my little sister a lot. She's seven years younger than me and after I stopped teasing her as a little kid, I admired her for what I thought was her amazing poise and balance in the face of having lived in a loony bin.

What I'm finding out is that she was just better at hiding her own serious problems than I was. And because I was more aware that I had problems I got help much earlier. She just started therapy this year for the first time in her life even though she knows he has had a lifelong battle with anorexia. One of the big reasons I was the family black sheep was that I dared to talk out loud about our dysfunction. So they, in turn, needed to think that since I was the only one talking about it, it wasn't true and that I was just causing trouble.

My sister has done this little on again/off again all our lives and last time I vowed we were done. I don't think I'll make that promise this time because I don't know if I can keep t hat promise to myself. But with the way she threw the secrets I had told her in my face in a demeaning way, never again will she get anything more out of me than what the weather is like or if I talked to Dad lately. All deep conversation is forever over as she lost my trust. She doesn't have to know what I'm up to and I'd rather not know what she is doing. Before she met this loser boyfriend, she was sleeping with a married man. I was shocked and mortified. He wasn't separated or anything...he was a married man who was going to stay married and whose wife had no idea it was going on. And she did it for a long time. And she would cry if he didn't call her like she cries when her boyfriend treats her like garbage.

I'm not saying she's immoral. I don't judge people as I have not yet been told I am a Higher Power. However, I could not do something like that. Her and I are very different people. I think we should stop trying to make a close sisterhood work. My life is so good now. This really threw a kink into my attempt at peace and I need to get it back.

Thanks to all of you for giving me a great perspective. I know I've said this before, but I love you all.


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Staff member
I have not yet been told I am a Higher Power.

MWM, the "yet" cracked me up.

It reminded me of a friend of mine once telling me that she had this theory that we all, every single person on earth, had a stint as GOD, a hundred year reign. We were laughing about it, it was tongue in cheek. I said,"wow, I can't wait until it's my turn, I would solve all the problems, wars, hunger, hatred, bigotry, disease", on and on I went.
And she said, "I'm pretty sure you already had your turn."
We laughed a lot about that.


Well-Known Member
Her boundary about this topic is different than yours. Are you free to respond frankly on the subject without it being an argument? If not then she has set boundaries on you. She should feel free to discuss it with someone who wants to play by her rules.


Well-Known Member
I hope that your sister's therapist can help your sister set some healthy boundaries in her own life. Oh wait... she can't because then she will be trying to control someone else.