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What is a healthy boundary in a relationship? Jonah Hill’s emotionally abusive ‘boundaries’

In this day and age it’s not uncommon for people to engage with therapy, learn relevant psycho-education and practice many of the teachings, including boundary setting in order to co-create healthy relationships. But what happens when mental health jargon and boundary setting is used in a way that’s not intended and may cause harm? What if you’re dating someone who disguises unhealthy demands and coercive control with mental health language? Case in point, Jonah Hill’s text exchange to his now ex, Sarah Brady. Jonah Hill’s relationship with Sarah has been much discussed on social media recently.

Celebrity relationships can sometimes offer a lesson for the rest of us. Hill is a relatively well-known Hollywood actor who has recently been accused of being ‘narcissistic and misogynistic’ by his former partner, Brady. In a recent screenshot of communication between Hill and Brady, Hill outlined his boundaries as follows:

For context, boundaries setting is the act of inviting another person to treat you with respect in order to not feel as though the person you are engaging with is hurting you, causing mistrust or is manipulating you. It’s in essence a request, not a demand for respect. Generally, I teach my clients to communicate their boundaries in a way that allows the other person how another person’s actions are impacting them and how you want to be treated. If an individual has articulated their boundaries and the other person neither engages with or respects the boundary, it is up to the individual to decide whether they can continue engaging with someone who doesn’t respect them or their boundaries. With that in mind, Hill’s articulated very clearly what kind of behaviour he doesn’t want with a partner.

The problem with Jonah Hill’s boundaries

However, the issue with the way Hill went about this is multifaceted: firstly, his boundary setting is a form of coercion in that he has created an ultimatum rather than a boundary. A boundary isn’t about telling a person what they can or can’t do and telling people who they can and can’t see. It’s also not a threat to terminate a relationship if their demands aren’t met. A healthy boundary might instead sound like, “I feel uncomfortable when I see flirtatious behaviour with other guys as it’s quite triggering and makes me feel jealous and shaky in our relationship. I don’t want to stop you from being with other guys but I’d appreciate being reassured that this isn’t an ongoing action taking place.” Notice that this boundary isn’t a command, it’s an invitation. The only reason an ultimatum would ever likely come out is if the individual you were dating had disrespected your boundaries for a long time, things weren’t improving, and the relationship was on the rocks.

Secondly, this conversation should ideally occur in person and never as a text exchange. Healthy boundarysetting is best accomplished when two people communicate about relevant issues that are occurring that are potentially deteriorating the relationship. Having this conversation via text loses all relevant tone and nuance and can read like a series of demands rather than a productive exchange between two people. In Hill’s defence, having a partner who is engaging in flirtatious behaviour is a red flag for many people and it’s a valid issue to be addressing in his relationship. I also respect that this might have been extremely triggering for him to witness behaviour that was offensive to him. With that all being said, the healthier approach to handle this wouldn’t be to stop his partner from doing the things she does, it would be about discussing how this makes him feel in person and how to fix this situation as a couple and for Hill to privately work on his own triggers.

Finally, boundaries are not a means of controlling triggers. For context, triggers are emotional responses we experience that can cause us to experience emotional flashbacks ranging in intensity. Depending on the severity of the flashback, we need to consider how we respond to a situation. For example, one person might be mildly triggered by their partner’s communication style and not be too bothered by it, whereas another person might spiral. It’s up to each individual to recognise that our triggers can indeed be caused by another person’s actions but we cannot control that other person to manage our triggers. We can only communicate with them to let them know how their behaviour is triggering us and what they choose to do with that information is up to them. It is also our responsibility to work on our triggers to by self-soothing and processing the emotions surrounding the triggers we experience. But boundaries are not a means of controlling another person to prevent yourself from being triggered. Hill’s response to Brady’s behaviour exhibits an attempt to control her in order to pacify his distress rather than an attempt to communicate his experience respectfully and to also make attempts to self-soothe his hypervigilance.

Jonah Hill’s relationships should have boundaries, and so should ours, but they should never become emotionally abusive. It’s wonderful that therapeutic techniques are more wide spread and utilised than ever. However, in the hands of people who are not aware or on the receiving end of someone’s misuse of therapeutic tools and practices, the consequences can be dire. Having worked with clients who have been gaslit and coerced by the misuse of boundaries, it can have a detrimental impact on their self-esteem and their recovery and illustrates how well intended practices can be problematic, and at times, dangerous to people on the receiving end.

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