How To Tell If Your Partner's 'Boundaries' Are Actually Manipulation

Although many of us are now familiar with the term "therapy-speak," in which people use words they've learned in therapy to communicate their needs, recently Jonah Hill took this to a whole new level. In a series of messages to his former partner Sarah Brady, Hill (allegedly) laid out his boundaries for a romantic relationship. But what Hill called "boundaries" were far from that. Instead, they were rules for how Brady was supposed to behave and his expectations for her.


Boundaries are something we set for ourselves to keep us feeling safe and secure. It's a line we draw in the sand to protect us from the behaviors of others. For this reason, everyone should have boundaries. Boundaries, however, are not something we impose on others. "From what I can ascertain, Hill is the one invading Brady's boundaries, not the opposite, by expecting her to adopt his preferences," clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. tells Well + Good. "It's tricky because we use the word boundary so loosely that all of us can slip into that and say, 'You crossed my boundary because you didn't do what I want you to do,' but that's just not how 'boundary' is used."

As much as what Brady experienced is upsetting, it did shine more light on the dangers of therapy-speak, especially when it's weaponized — as it is in this scenario. Sometimes our partner's "boundaries" aren't boundaries at all, but actually pure manipulation. 


Your partner uses their boundaries to isolate you

One of Jonah Hill's "boundaries" that very quickly became a meme was him telling Sarah Brady that if she needed "friendships with women who are in unstable places and from your wild recent past beyond getting a lunch or coffee or something respectful," then he wasn't the right partner for her (via Newsweek). He also forbade her from having "boundaryless inappropriate friendships with men." Not only are these clearly not boundaries, but they are isolation tactics. When your partner is able to isolate you from friends and family, it gives them greater control.


According to a 2023 study published in Personal Relationships that researched gaslighting and other forms of manipulation, isolation is common in toxic romantic partnerships. Among the participants in the study, isolation was used for three main reasons: so the manipulator could avoid accountability, to keep partners from having a social circle on which they could rely, and as a way to make survivors of this manipulation dependent, confused, and experience a loss of self. When you've been isolated long enough, you wake up one day and realize that the only person in your life is your partner — and that's exactly what they want.

Your partner's boundaries make you feel guilty

Granted, we didn't see all of Jonah Hill's messages to Sarah Brady, but in the one in which he uses his boundaries to isolate her from others, he also delivers a guilt trip: "My boundaries with you [are] based on the ways these actions have hurt our trust" (via Newsweek). Allegedly, in addition to friendships of which Hill didn't approve, among the laundry list of his expectations, he included that Brady couldn't post photos of herself in a bathing suit on social media. Brady is a professional surfer and Hill knew that when he met her. What's going on here is that Hill is trying to guilt trip Brady for all the things she didn't do just as he asked.


"A guilt trip is best defined as the intentional manipulation of another person's emotions to induce feelings of guilt," social worker and founder and director of Gold Therapy NYC Liza Gold tells PsychCentral. "Guilt-tripping is a natural form of passive-aggression that people [resort] to when they don't have the skills or language to assertively communicate their needs or feelings."

A 2018 study published in Europe's Journal of Psychology found that people who are made to feel guilty often experience feelings of shame as well. These emotions can negatively affect self-esteem, decreasing self-worth, and contribute to further isolation. Again, it comes down to trying to get complete control.

Your partner's boundaries are used as threats

Wielding threats is another way that boundaries can be used to manipulate. If your partner lays out their demands while calling them boundaries and throws around threats when you don't obey, or as they might call it "respect their boundaries," that's a bad sign. Not only do healthy relationships not involve threats, but when people threaten those they supposedly care for, it causes them distress as well as destroys the fabric of trust in the relationship, per Valerie Tate. When you constantly feel like you're on egg shells because of threats, you can never feel comfortable in the partnership. This can really mess with someone on a mental and emotional level. 


"Any boundary that is enforced [by saying] 'you will do this or you're a bad person, or you don't respect me or you don't love me, or if you don't do that, I will kill myself,' these are not healthy, respectful boundaries. They're something quite different," Head of Service Quality and Clinical Practice at Relate Amanda Major tells Cosmopolitan UK. "And in fact they're very abusive."

Threats are also another way to coax someone into doing something they don't want to do or being someone that they're not. It's a trap used to control and, essentially, keep someone in their place.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.


Your partner's boundaries have nothing to do with their well-being

Because boundaries are meant to keep our emotional, mental, and physical health intact, they're supposed to be about us and how we decide to do that for ourselves. If your partner's so-called boundaries aren't about their well-being and are, instead, rules they have set for you, that's just control and manipulation.


"It's not a boundary if one party makes a decision that the other party is unclear on, didn't agree to, or was fully unaware was a requirement, and it's then used to throw back into the face of that partner," therapist Emma Kenny tells Metro UK. "Because then it's falling more into the category of coercive control. Neither party can use those boundaries to control the other person's behavior if it's at the detriment for another person's happiness."

As much as it's great that more people are going to therapy and using the words they've learned there to convey their feelings and communicate more effectively, when the words are misused, it becomes problematic. While it's one thing for someone to maybe not understand what boundaries are or what they look like, it's a whole other thing when therapy-speak is used purposefully to manipulate and strip someone of their agency.