How the Term “Boundaries” Can Be Misused in Conflicts

Given the recent viral arguments taking place on social media recently debating therapeutic terms like: boundaries, coercive control, ultimatums and consent regarding the past couple made up of surfer Sarah Brady and actor Jonah Hill, I thought defining and discussing these terms could be a helpful tool to many current dating, and/or established partners out there.  

What seems to be happening out there on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter is a war of words about power during relationships and after a break up.  As these two people are public figures and not known to me, I won’t claim to know what went on in their relationship but I think there are many lessons here for humans out there entering into or already in emotionally committed relationships that I’d like to help define and clarify these therapy terminologies. 


According to The American Psychological Association the definition of a boundary is: “a psychological demarcation that protects the integrity of an individual or group or that helps the person or group set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.” 

In psychotherapy sessions, therapists help their clients set boundaries when they: 

  • are more concerned with pleasing someone else than listening to their own needs 
  • need to create space to reflect quietly to consider their own needs first 
  • have not had past experiences or childhoods of having their needs validated by others 
  • require counseling to develop the skills needed to express their needs to another person.  

Many times these folks have been taught either explicitly or implicitly in their family of origin and/or community that their individual desires or needs are not as important as others around them. This kind of psychological modelling could have come from parents, siblings, grandparents,a religious leader,  a romantic partner and/or the community as a whole. For example, a client who was routinely told she was selfish each time she sought out help with her anxiety over schoolwork as a kid or when a classmate bullied her became an adult who felt like an imposter at work and submitted to every demand her boss demanded of her, even when it was above and beyond what was expected of her colleagues.  

Therefore in a romantic relationship, a boundary is a request by one partner that enhances the relationship. For example, a partner requests that his girlfriend make more of an effort to arrive on time for the dates they’ve agreed to because it shows that she has respect for their agreements and for the time they’ve carved out to be with one another.  

Another example regarding a sexual encounter which I’ve heard frequently in a sex therapy session occurs when a woman requests that her husband refrain from abruptly touching her breasts right after she’s consented to be intimate with him as it is a sexual turn-off rather than a turn-on.  When a person hasn’t had these kinds of requests modelled in a healthy manner growing up, they really lack the confidence, skill and when it comes to sexuality the Sex Esteem to listen to their needs and make these requests smoothly. Alternatively, if they’ve seen a parent make demands, threats or demeaning comments when asking the other parent to change a behavior, the child has witnessed coercion. 

Boundaries Can Prevent Future Heartache

In the recent Netflix show Jewish Matchmaker, one of the more religious single women Fay goes out with a man named Shaya and they seem to really enjoy one another’s company, sense of humor and they both practice Orthodox Judaism and are looking for a spouse, to get married and have children. However, when Fay says that it’s important to her that her husband pray with a group of other men three times a day and devote themselves to studying the Torah, Shaya lets her know that he prays on his own in the morning and that he’s not a studious kind of Jew.  She gives it some thought after the date and in a respectful manner lets him know that this wouldn’t fit with what she’s looking for in a family. They part on good terms and this is part of what each of them understand as religious boundaries that are to be respected.  What they both understand after deep reflection (we even see a scene of Shaya talking to his rabbi about his ambivalence), they agree that they are not eachother’s people. 

Implicit Vs. Explicit Boundaries

Back to the Jonah Hill/ Sarah Brady drama, why are so many people defending Hill and attacking Sarah Brady? Because she has released texts she received from her ex-boyfriend in public without his permission.  While sharing texts between two people (and not related to a crime) is not considered a crime legally, Sarah may have broken a relational boundary. This boundary is that partners assume that what is shared between them is to be kept from public scrutiny via social media.  This is what we would call an implicit agreement. However, as a couples and sex therapist with many years of practice, I can tell you that this is one of the all-time misunderstandings in most relationships.  Don’t rely on implicit agreements. Why? 

Because what one partner may consider private information, another partner feels freer to share either with close friends or with the world. That is why having meaningful conversations about what boundaries you want to keep in your joint relationship around your intimate sharing of information is so important. 

Secondly, expecting certain boundaries to be adhered to by a partner can also be misused by partners who are either trying to control the actions of their partner, or are beginning to groom their partner for future emotional abuse and/or physical abuse.  I believe that the many folks online who are angrily reacting to Jonah Hill’s alleged use of the term “boundaries” are actually viewing this usage as a covert step towards manipulative control and coercion (which I’ll talk about in a future blog).

The fact that Sarah claims to have taken down some of the photos from Instagram that Jonah allegedly found disagreeable or objectionable has been interpreted by many of her online followers as evidence that she was being coerced. But was it?


One concept I teach partners in relationships is “differentiation” which means that you are able to remain confident in understanding how to nourish and expand your own self-esteem while respecting your partner to have different ways of doing so for themselves without damaging the relationship. For example, one partner might really depend on their yoga practice and community for helping them keep their mental health stable and their body equally strong.  If their partner isn’t as physically agile, but has a good sense of differentiation they can lift up and support their partner’s commitment to their work/health balance without viewing it as a negative reflection on them.  Another way to express differentiation?  You do you, I’ll do me.  

What if the texter (allegedly Jonah Hill) revealed by Sarah Brady on her Instagram instead wrote: When I see you in the photos, I feel insecure of losing you to another man. It triggers my own jealousy and anxiety when you post photos of yourself in a bathing suit and I’m not sure how I will handle this going forward. But you shouldn’t change what makes you special and vital.  You do you, I’ll do me. And I don’t think I can show up as a supportive partner for you in the way you deserve.  I’m so sorry, there’s nothing critical I am saying about your actions, this is about work I need to do or the type of partner I would be better suited to.  This is not on you, this is on me to figure out. 

What are the Lessons Learned Here?

DON’T become deeply involved with someone who carries a fantasy that you will change your daily behaviors, dress, career, praying habits, or social groups in order to be your significant other.  

DON’T try to diminish someone’s strengths and vitality because you’re feeling more insecure or anxious by it. If you can’t stand the heat baby, get out of the kitchen! Even if that heat initially really turns you on. 

PLEASE DO create written agreements about how texts between you will be kept confidential and private during the relationship and perchance if it doesn’t work out, after a relationship ends. 

DO make agreements about what information between you is to be kept private and what information can be shared with close friends and/or family.