By Maritha Pottenger©


The cardinal dilemma can occur in several different variants in the horoscope: planets (Mars, Moon, Venus, Pallas, Saturn), houses (1st, 4th, 7th, 10th), and signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn). The more times it is repeated, the more significant it is.


Highly cardinal people learn much through direct experience. There is a tendency to generate crises. The four major areas of life (self/physical body; home and family; partnership; and career/status) are subject to change. Often it seems as though cardinal people attract events—and/or changes in their basic life structures—as the best forum in which to learn. The school of “hard knocks” (experience) is generally a major one.


With the cardinal dilemma, we are working on a balancing act—both within our psyches and within these four major areas of life. The internal struggle is between independence; dependency/nurturing; equality; and control. The external competition is between time and energy for ourselves; for family members; for a committed partnership; and for a career/contribution to the outer world. Although the degree of time and energy we devote to each “corner” of the cardinal dilemma will vary from one stage of life to another, people who are strongly cardinal need all four areas. They cannot give up any “corner” without missing out on important part of their life’s learning and satisfaction.


The challenge of the cardinals is to express each side of their nature in the appropriate time and place. Letter One (Mars, Aries, 1st house) tells us that it is appropriate to be assertive, independent and forthright in our desires in terms of taking care of our physical body and doing something for ourselves (interests, hobbies, self-development, etc.). Letter Four (Moon, Cancer, 4th house) tells us that it is appropriate to take turns taking care of loved ones (family members). With Letter Four, we need to develop the maternal side—the ability to care for, protect, guard, cherish, and help grow to maturity (whether children, pets, a garden, or other outlets for our nurturing side). We also need to maintain the capacity for health dependency—to be able to lean on others, to allow them to assist us, to know when (and how) to ask for help, to develop a good emotional support system (of friends, family, etc.). With Letter Seven (Venus, Pallas, Libra, 7th house), we need to learn to be an equal—to take turns with at least one other person in a comfortable, mutually pleasing give-and-take. We need to see clearly both sides of issues and to learn to find win/win solutions. Honing the art of compromise and negotiating skills will be valuable. With Letter Ten (Saturn, Capricorn, 10th house), we need to make some kind of contribution to the outer world. It may be in terms of a career, community service, or other responsibilities that we shoulder. We need to be strong, reliable, responsible, disciplined, and willing to hang in for the long term. This sector encourages us to develop our expertise, to own our own authority, to work toward the role of “wise old (wo)man.” Here, it is appropriate to lead, direct, and take charge.


Until we reach a reasonable balance (and it is never perfect, varying from hour to hour!), we may feel very torn between these major life areas. We may feel that we neglect our marriage to look after the kids, or that work takes us away from our families, or that we don’t have any time for ourselves because of everything we are doing for everyone else, etc.! Guilt is often a major issue, and one of the challenges we must learn to overcome. (After an initial “wake-up call,” allowing us to commit to doing better or differently next time, guilt serves no useful purpose and should be banished. Playing the guilt song again and again in our heads is like keeping an alarm clock going off for hours.) We must be practical. When children are younger, they take more time (so less time is available for the other three major “corners” of the cardinal dilemma). A healthy balance means we adjust as our circumstances change, and we do the best we can. We also recognize that there are only 24 hours in each day, that these life areas are naturally in competition, and we cannot do it all. We must make compromises. (If you want to be at the absolute top of your profession—Letter Ten—you won’t have much time for your home and family—Letter Four.) We choose.


Another important part of the balancing act is expressing our various psychological drives in the appropriate arenas. Letter Ten wants to dominate and to get tangible results. Letter Ten is very hard-nosed and bottom-line oriented. This is appropriate in the world of business and vocational responsibilities. It is inappropriate when dealing with a committed partnership. If we try to run the show (or pick a partner who wants to dictate to us), we are out of balance with our cardinal dilemma.


While we are working on the cardinal balancing act, we may go from one extreme to the other. It is possible to flip back-and-forth for years between the various drives involved (e.g., taking control versus being dependent; going your own way versus giving in to another person; being overly accommodating and being angry; doing things only on your own terms and feeling squashed by authority figures; being a total loner versus feeling needy, whiny, abandoned; etc.) Learning the art of moderation—and to find that golden mean in the middle—is a challenge.


Here are some of the issues of each of the cardinal squares and oppositions.

Letter One versus Four: this is tied to—on the most basic level—the separation of self from mother and family. With too much intertwining, we may have a hard time identifying how our own personal needs and desires differ from those of our mother (figure) or family members. We may be trained to “want” what the family feels is appropriate. We may swing between anger and feelings of abandonment. If we over identify with Letter One, we will try to be very independent, self-reliant, courageous, etc. Then Letter Four comes into our life in indirect ways—perhaps projection (getting involved with smother mother types or needy, whiny, dependent people who cling to us like flypaper); perhaps repression (stomach problems or getting sick as the only way to allow ourselves to be taken care of if Letter Four is repressed). If we overdo Letter Four, we may be too much the emotional protector and caretaker of others (and end up feeling drained, especially if we haven’t learned to sometimes be dependent). Or, we may swing from being the parent to being the child in our interactions with others—feeling emotionally and physically burdened in one position, and overly vulnerable in the other. Or, we may be so caught up in that “family focus” that we project Letter One (attracting angry, self-centered, “me first, my way” individuals) or repress it (having headaches, colds, minor cuts, burns, accidents, surgery, etc.).

     If the tension between these two sides is great, we may choose not to have children or a family—because we don’t want to give up our freedom, because it would curtail our ability to pursue our personal desires, because of old abandonment/insecurity issues from our own childhood, because the emotions feels overwhelming, etc.

     A healthy balance means that we can be assertive, forthright and open about our own desires and needs, while keeping room for some close, caring, emotional connections. We may maintain contact with our family of origin and/or develop a family of our own. (For some people, their pets are their family.) We can easily move between being the caretaker and leaning on (accepting support from) others. We may nurture the strength and assertion of loved ones. We may provide a protective environment in which people can “find themselves.” We may be a guardian of physical and psychological integrity and authenticity. We may be very active and assertive about domestic matters and on behalf of loved ones.


Letter One versus Seven: This combination often operates as a seesaw, with people swinging from one extreme to the other—alone/together; freedom/closeness; assertion/ accommodation; anger/appeasement; my way/your way, aggressive/passive, etc. When mixtures of Letters One and Seven are present, the individual has six possible variations in relationships—three painful and three constructive:

1)      Giving away the power. “I need you to like me, approve of me. I do not exist unless you recognize and respond to me.” In extremes, this can lead to abusive relationships. In moderate forms, the individual is too accommodating, to eager to please the other party and loses track of her own needs in trying to keep that significant other happy.

2)      The best defense is a good offense. “I’ll get you before you get me.” This variation occurs when the individual feels very vulnerable, at risk, because s/he has given away the power. So, as a self-protective measure, this person will try to strike first. “I’ll hurt you, push you away, before you can hurt me.”

3)      Withdrawal. Again, the individual has given away the power and feels vulnerable in relationships. Therefore, s/he decides that the only way to be safe is to avoid relationships. A hermit variation is chosen. (“If I do not get involved, no one can hurt me.”)


In some cases, people spend a lifetime going between these three variations: giving in and giving away too much of their power; getting angry and fighting to get it back and attacking others; then getting frustrated and disgusted and swearing off people and relationships. (“I’ll never do that again.”) Usually, however, after being alone for a time, the need for closeness kicks in, the person starts to get lonely and—unless they have learned the more constructive variations—repeats the whole cycle once more: give in, fight, run away!


4)      Compromise. The individual learns to seek out a middle ground, to look for interactions that allow both people to get some of what they want (but neither person gets all of what s/he wants). Negotiating skills are developed. Open communication and expression of desires is improved. Partners learn in what circumstances a 50/50 split is feasible and when taking turns is a better option. (For example, if partners disagree about savings goals, half might be allocated to save for something she wants and half to save for something he wants. In matters of holidays, partners may have to agree to alternate—one year at her family’s place and the next year at his.)

5)      Healthy Competition. In competitive interactions, there is also a give-and-take between people. With sports, games, business, people have opportunities to test their strength and skills against other people. They can win some and lose some—and discover that neither they (nor others) are destroyed by losing sometimes. This is another constructive outlet for working on the balance between self and other. (Healthy competition means with some rules, standard so that no one really gets hurt. Cutthroat competition is not healthy.)

6)      Helping People. When individuals take on the role of a helper or healer, they are taking the power back into their own hands, but using it to assist others. Working with people who need something is less threatening. The other party is asking (directly or indirectly) for you to do something for them. You are less likely to feel endangered or that their power will be used against you. You can develop more security in your own strength and ability to take constructive action.


When the One-Seven polarity is prominent in a horoscope, it is advisable for the individual to pursue all three of the constructive alternatives: compromise, healthy competition and helping people. The more they can direct themselves toward activities that are constructive, the less likely they are to fall into some of the negative variants.


Letter One versus Ten: The challenge inherent in this combination is to find a balance between self-will and the practical limits of the wider world. On the down side, people can overdo either Letter One or Letter Ten. In the former case, we have criminals and other rule-breakers who constantly fight the limits in life. They consistently butt their heads against the stone wall of reality. They refuse to acknowledge any boundaries to what they want (when they want it). They may fight time, authority figures, conventions, or the practical limits of their own physical body. (Health problems are possible in those circumstances.) The individuals who overdo Letter Ten often feel blocked, inhibited, frustrated, and hemmed in. They may have had punitive parents or have to face a dictatorial, controlling, rigid boss. They usually feel: “There is no point in me even trying. I will just fail or fall short—or they [the world, authority figures] will just stop me.” Such people give up before they even really start. They block themselves with doubts, self-criticism, feelings of inadequacy, fear, anxiety, and paralysis.

     The happy medium is achieved by those individuals who put much personal energy into achieving something worthwhile in the material world. An entrepreneurial spirit is often strong; they like working for themselves, on their own terms. These people are pursuing their desires, but within the “rules of the game.” They work within the system, and accomplish a great deal. They are sensible in regard to what they demand of themselves—accurately assessing their abilities and not going into extremes of overdrive or self-blocking. They find power through accomplishment. The more they do, the more they feel they can do. They become comfortable with the roles of executive and expert.


Letter Four versus Seven: The balancing act may be between children and spouse, or between family of origin and partner. Individuals may feel torn between being dependent, nurturing, or an equal peer. They may end up expecting equality from people who are not yet equipped for it (e.g., one’s children) or turn what should be equal partnerships into parent-child interactions (whether they play the role of nurturing, supportive, clinging parent or the role of dependent child). Unfinished business with a parent may be faced in marriage or other partnerships. Equality of effort in regard to caretaking, emotional support, and domestic matters is in focus.

     On the high side, partners can take turns taking care of each other. Relationships can be based on emotional support, warmth, and caring. Family may be an important bond (perhaps even how or why the two people got together). Individuals may maintain a partnership (ongoing, regular contact) with either or both parents. Children may be encouraged to develop empathy and the ability to see both sides of an issue. Everyone’s voice may be heard and honored in familial interactions.


Letter Four versus Ten: Tension between maternal and paternal archetypes is likely. In some cases, there was tension between the parents, perhaps even a separation. Regardless of the parental matrix, the individual is trying to find a happy medium between time and energy committed to the home environment and family members, versus time and energy committed to outer-world accomplishments, career, status and achievement needs. On an inner level, people are trying to balance warmth, compassion, and emotional closeness and protection with pragmatism, discipline, realism, and responsibilities (getting the consequences of your actions). The individual may swing from being too protective to too harsh. Or, the person who identifies with the loving, helpful mother archetype may unconsciously draw in punitive, restrictive, cold “father” types. The individual who is carrying too much of the load, feeling responsible for the weight of the world, may unconsciously attract others who are clinging, dependent, emotionally needy, or totally wrapped up in family matters.

     These motifs can be combined in a number of different ways. A family business is an option. We may work with family members (parents, children, etc.). We might run a business from our home (or be writers or people who work at home) or our vocation could involve land, real estate, food, shelter, clothing, or providing the basic needs of people. A profession that is nurturing and emotionally protective is also an option (nurse, nanny, social worker, etc.). We may be very responsible about domestic chores and organization. We might create a family atmosphere at work and emphasize common sense and realism within the nest.


Letter Seven versus Ten: This is another parent/partner combination. Unfinished business with a parent (particularly the authority parent) is likely to be faced in later love relationships. We may pick a partner who pushes the same buttons as Daddy did. (Sometimes the partner is literally older as well.) We may be attracted to people who are strong, dominating, critical, controlling, punitive, too focused on the bottom-line, too ambitious, overly involved with their work, or carrying other power and accomplishments themes too far. Or, we may fall in love with wimps and end up carrying the whole load, being the “parent” in the relationship, doing all the work, feeling responsible for everything. Or, we may delay, hesitate, put off relationships for fear of being hurt, rejected, controlled, put down, etc.

     Positive options include working with people. This can be choosing fields such as counseling, consulting, personnel work, etc. Or, we may literally work with a romantic partner, sharing a career as well as a household. The key is keeping the controlling, judgmental energy focused on the material world rather than toward your own (or someone else’s) personality. These people may be quite graceful, charming, attractive, and pleasing on the job.

     In relationships, making sure that work and responsibility are shared is essential. If both partners work, and each can aid the other in his/her particular areas of strength and competence, all will be well. If either one is carrying too much of the load, difficulties will ensue. The “underdog” will resent having less power, and the worker bee will resent having to labor so hard! So, taking turns—each giving in their own areas—is the best course. On the upside, these people can be very practical about relationships and are willing to work hard (put much effort into) on their relationships. They are big on improving their interactions with others.


Other Issues


As noted, cardinals are very associated with events. The more cardinality in current patterns, the more likely that events will occur. It is important to remember that the angles of the horoscope (Ascendant, Descendant, Midheaven, and IC) are cardinal in their own nature (even if the signs on them are fixed or mutable). So, whenever we have hits to the angles, we may change our basic life structures. (That change can be voluntary and self-initiated—or we may be dragged kicking and screaming into alterations.)  With the Ascendant, we may change our physical body in just about any way (tattooing, plastic surgery, health challenges, physical training, an exercise regimen, etc.) or alter our sense of identity (including changing our name) and what we do instinctively. With the IC, we may move, remodel, renovate a home, change the pets or people we are living with (e.g., moving in an aged parent to take care of him/her; kids going away to college—or coming back for financial reasons, etc.). Either parent may have to deal with a cycle change. With the Descendant, we may get married, divorced, initiate or deal with a lawsuit, or make significant shifts in our face-to-face interactions with other people. With the Midheaven, we may change our status, our vocation, our career efforts. Changes in the parental matrix are possible. The way we handle authority and responsibility are up for grabs. Our standing in the community may be affected.


We never “resolve” a cardinal dilemma. We continue to work on the balancing act (inner and outer) throughout our lives. We can, however, learn to stay near that happy medium, so that most of the time we are able to devote some time and energy to each of the major “corners,” and that we express each psychological drives in the arena which suits it best!