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'Boundaries' vs 'Control'?

This weekend, conversations began on social media about emotional abuse and coercive control, after screenshots were shared of texts from actor Jonah Hill to his ex-girlfriend Sarah Brady. Brady is a professional surfer, and Hill’s texts explain the 'boundaries' he’d like to set for their relationship: she shouldn’t surf with men, post pictures of herself in a bathing suit, or have 'friendships with women who are in unstable places’, or ‘inappropriate friendships with men’.

Hill describes these requests as his boundaries for a romantic partnership. Setting boundaries and knowing that your partner will respect them is something we’ve talked about in previous blogs as a good thing - a green flag for a healthy relationship. So what’s the issue here?

The problem is that so-called boundaries like this aren’t really boundaries at all: they’re about exercising control. Positive boundaries are about affirming love and security in relationships, not limiting how your partner can operate in their professional life, or restricting who they can and can’t be friends with. In fact, isolating a partner from the other people in their life is a common tactic of abusers: ‘They aren’t a good friend for you’; ‘You’re better off just spending time with me’; ‘they're a bad influence’ - these are familiar lines, dressing control up as care, with the aim of isolating victim-survivors from their support systems.

"Positive boundaries are about affirming love and security in relationships, not limiting how your partner can operate in their professional life, or restricting who they can and can’t be friends with"

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In labelling his requests as boundaries, Hill sets himself out as the reasonable one. In fact, he’s the one who’s been hurt; her actions have damaged his trust, he says in his messages. Again, this line of argument is something that is all too familiar for survivors of domestic abuse. The DARVO model describes how abusers will ‘deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender’ when confronted: setting themselves out to be the victim rather than the perpetrator. Victims and survivors are led to question their recollection of events or understanding of the situation, making it even more difficult to reach out for help.

So how can we tell the difference between control and safe boundaries?

Two key things to consider are motive and context. First, motive: are the boundaries in place to keep both partners feeling safe and secure within their relationship, or are they demanded by one partner out of jealousy and a need to dictate how the other person behaves? Then, context: are the boundaries actually about the relationship, or do they extend to other spheres, like your professional life or your relationships with friends and family? That's not what positive boundaries should be about.

Finally, is the ‘boundary setting’ consistent with a wider pattern of manipulation and coercion? For example, if an abusive partner requires you to update them on where you are and who you’re with, that can be a sign of coercive control. But in a healthy, loving relationship, it can just be a sign that your partner wants to know that you’re safe. Remember that it’s okay to trust your gut - if something doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to reach out for help, even if you’re not sure or your partner is telling you that it’s fine.

If you feel that you might be in an abusive situation, help is on hand. You can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247, or speak to Refuge using their online chat function. You can also get in touch with our Survivors' Network - we're not an emergency service or helpline, but we can stand alongside you as you access the support you need. 

Molly's Story

Molly is a survivor of domestic abuse who found freedom and healing through the Restored Survivors' Network, and a local church who were ready to help.

Read Molly's Story