When Relationship Boundaries Are Weaponized

6 minute read
Battle is a certified clinical sexologist and sex and dating coach, educator, and speaker. She is the author of This is Supposed to Be Fun: How to Find Joy in Hooking Up, Settling Down, and Everything in Between

In the wake of pro-surfer Sarah Brady sharing alleged text messages with her ex, Jonah Hill, the internet exploded with a discussion about boundaries. Can boundaries be weaponized? When (if ever) is it okay to set a boundary for another person?

Hill’s alleged requests of his ex to honor his boundaries included not hanging out with people he disapproved of and taking down pictures of herself he deemed inappropriate. Subsequently, Hill was also accused of using “therapy speak,” which according to journalist Rebecca Fishbein’s Bustle article “Is Therapy-Speak Making Us Selfish,” is “prescriptive language describing certain psychological concepts and behaviors.” But exactly how toxic can therapy speak be? Is it possible that Hill believed he was just advocating for his needs in his relationship? In a world that’s now very tuned in to therapeutic practices and terms, it’s important to understand the difference between advocating for ourselves and inflicting our will upon people we care about.

The whole thing reminds me of a term that my friends and I use for smooth operators in the health and wellness community: Spirituality Bros. These folks are attentive to their spiritual and emotional development, as well as those of their potential partners. On the surface, this seems great. Finally, someone who “gets it.” They aren’t afraid to go deep, and their priorities to live a growth-oriented life are aligned with ours—that is, until they begin to use spiritual growth to test or erode personal boundaries of their partners. Using the guise of spiritual expansion, they may insist on spending time together under certain conditions or make requests of their partner to behave in ways they deem appropriate for their spiritual path. For them, this is the ideal relationship. They get their needs met by taking on the role of spiritual guide or guru within the relationship, which creates a power differential. The result can be coercive at the very least—and emotionally or physically abusive at worst.

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To be fair, there are plenty of people on spiritual paths who do not use tactics of manipulation and control within their intimate relationships. And there are plenty of people in therapy who are able to navigate their boundaries in healthy ways when in partnership. The trouble is, we often find it difficult to spot toxic misuse of spirituality or deep self-work, for ourselves and in others. The Brady-Hill debacle highlights something that has been in existence, but perhaps has a new form.

Since the inception of Tarana Burke’s groundbreaking #MeToo movement, we’ve been looking more closely at something that had been shrouded in darkness for far too long. We’ve begun a cultural dialogue about the many subtle ways that abuse can start. And oftentimes, emotional abuse comes before anything physical. According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, “Emotional abuse includes non-physical behaviors that are meant to control, isolate, or frighten you.” Sometimes, emotional abuse is obvious to spot, but it can also turn into something a bit more subtle and sinister like jealousy, manipulation, humiliation, and other coercive tactics that are done to “hurt, disempower, and traumatize the partner who is experiencing the abuse.”

While the “boundaries” that Hill allegedly expressed would fall under the category of emotional abuse, people also have strong opinions about Brady sharing her private text messages with Hill, citing that as a boundary violation itself. After all, what happens between couples should stay within couples, right? But reality is much murkier than that. Regardless of what you think about the leak, what Brady and Hill’s texts do is show us how emotional abuse can manifest.

For many of us, being in therapy is new. Some folks may have never been in therapy and what they know about boundaries, gaslighting, and narcissism is from social media, which can deliver quippy memes, but don’t get to the root of what these terms mean. The problem with this type of education about boundaries, specifically, is that it misses the relational nuance of what it means to enforce a boundary.

Read More: Gaslighting, Narcissist, and More Psychology Terms You’re Misusing

People typically don’t just say “this is my boundary,” and that’s the end of the discussion. Healthy boundaries sometimes have to be negotiated with the people we care about. They aren’t always unilaterally decided. In her article, Fishbein points out, “the emphasis on protecting one’s individual needs can overlook the fact that someone else is on the other side of that boundary-setting.” Hill’s text-messages overlook Brady’s humanity and her needs for safety and freedom to be the person she wants to be.

It’s important to acknowledge when boundaries are being weaponized, rather than negotiated in a partnership. In fact, think about how boundaries are being expressed in your relationship. Are these boundaries purely about your person and their needs? Is the boundary about them stopping a conversation because they are emotionally flooded and need time to reset, or is it because they have a pattern of shutting down any conversation that challenges them? Another good gauge is to notice if there are any attempts to emotionally repair when things go wrong in the relationship. Is the person able to acknowledge that, whether they intended to or not, they hurt your feelings and that calls for accountability and an apology?

Most relationships require more uncomfortable negotiations than we all would like, but we owe it to ourselves to have those conversations, and be open and willing to see the other person’s side. Therapy speak can only take you so far if you’re not willing to listen to the needs of others, talk through them, and come to mutually agreeable solutions.

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