The Difference Between ‘Boundaries’ And Rules In Relationships

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When it comes to all the therapy-speak that’s hit the cultural zeitgeist, few phrases have had more sticking power than “boundaries” and “boundary setting.”

The concept of boundaries was especially sticky this weekend after Jonah Hill’s ex-girlfriend Sarah Brady publicly accused the actor of being “emotionally abusive” on social media.

In alleged texts from a few years back, which Brady posted on her Instagram story, the “Moneyball” actor takes her to task for failing to respect his “boundaries for romantic partnerships.”

In the screen-capped texts, Hill lists out some of the things he refuses to tolerate in his relationship with Brady, including her posting swimsuit photos on Instagram or surfing with men, even though she’s a surf instructor.

He also had a boundary on who Brady could spend her time with: “No friendships with women who are in unstable places and from your wild recent past” unless it was “getting a coffee or lunch or something respectful.” (Their relationship ended sometime in the first half of 2022, after a year of dating. Hill is now in a relationship with vintage online boutique owner Olivia Millar, and they welcomed a child together in June 2023.)

The texts came to light just as another celebrity story involving a man making similar demands of his girlfriend was going viral: On Wednesday, Keke Palmer’s boyfriend (and the father of her son) Darius Jackson quote-tweeted a video of Usher serenading Palmer at his Las Vegas show.

“It’s the outfit tho, you a mom,” Jackson wrote of Palmer’s sheer, form-fitting dress. In a follow-up tweet, Jackson dismissed anyone criticizing him: “This is my family & my representation. I have standards & morals to what I believe.”

Many called out Jackson’s behavior as toxic or emotionally abusive. (Palmer herself doesn’t seem to be having any of it ― days later, she started selling T-shirts that cheekily read “I’m a Motha” — though it’s not entirely clear what the couple’s current relationship status is.)

In Hill’s case, some called him out for “weaponizing” therapy and couching an ultimately controlling ask in gentle therapy-speak.

Hill’s use of therapy buzzwords isn’t surprising; he’s become something of a poster boy for mental health after recently releasing a documentary, “Stutz,” about his work with psychiatrist Phil Stutz.

The Hill-Brady story brings to mind a widely shared article that Bustle published early this year, wherein writer Rebecca Fishbein wondered if the ubiquity of therapy-speak in our everyday lives (“gaslighting,” “narcissism,” “boundary-setting”) was making us all a little more selfish.

There’s nothing wrong with setting boundaries and advocating for yourself, she argued, but it shouldn’t come at the price of invalidating the other person’s feelings or experiences.

“When you’re on the other side of someone’s perhaps overzealous self-care, the experience can range from annoying, to frustrating, to downright hurtful,” Fishbein wrote.

In texting, Hill certainly comes across as someone who’s done a lot of therapy ― but also someone who should probably consider a whole session on misusing ultimatums in relationships.

“Good start,” he appears to say when Brady deletes a few risqué photos. “You don’t seem to get it. But it’s not my place to teach you. I’ve made my boundaries clear. You refuse to let go of some [photos] and you’ve made that clear. I hope they make you happy.”

Even therapists see potential trouble in clients using prescriptive therapy in their day-to-day lives (or being reductive about what they’ve heard their therapists say).

“I think a lot of so-called ‘therapy-speak’ is weaponized in relationships as a way to lay blame, reject accountability, and ultimately to try and control others’ behaviors when we are feeling uncomfortable,” said Britt Caron, a psychotherapist in Toronto, Canada.

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One therapist we spoke to said she tells clients who are confused about boundary-setting that boundaries should ultimately serve two purposes: to protect or contain yourself and to connect you with others.

There are notable differences between boundaries and rules.

Caron and other therapists we spoke to thought that what Hill asked for (and what Jackson alluded to with his “standards” for dress) was more along the lines of “rules” than boundaries.

“Boundaries are setting limits to what you are personally willing to do or tolerate,” Caron told HuffPost. “A boundary is something that you have to determine for yourself ― not something you can force someone else to comply with.”

Relationships are messy, and it’s tempting to lay down a laundry list of rules in order to make them less so, but that’s not how you establish meaningful connection with others, Caron said.

Han Ren, a psychologist in Austin, Texas, thinks the best definition she’s seen of boundaries comes from therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab’s New York Times bestseller “Set Boundaries, Find Peace.”

In it, Glover Tawwab writes that boundaries are “expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships.”

“I will add that they’re directly related to protecting your own integrity, health, and safety, and extend beyond being mere preferences,” Ren told HuffPost.

In the case of Hill, Ren thinks the actor was delivering more of an ultimatum.

“It comes across as, ‘Take these pictures down or else we can’t be in a relationship together,’” she said. “That’s based on his preferences for her behavior, which encompasses much of her professional and personal identity, and the requests don’t seem essential to his health, integrity or safety.”

“He’s setting rules that ask her to fundamentally change who she is and how she engages in her work and relationships to placate his own insecurities,” the psychologist added.

“He frames it as a boundary by saying ‘You can continue to do this and there’s no hard feelings, but this is what I need to feel safe in a relationship with you,’” she said. “While this is technically boundary-setting, it is rigid, ego-driven and controlling.”

Liz Higgins, a therapist and the founder of Millennial Life Counseling in Dallas, Texas, tells her clients confused about boundary-setting that boundaries should ultimately serve two purposes: to protect or contain yourself and to connect you with others, not to disconnect you more, she said.

“Protecting yourself relationally means having a healthy understanding of where you end and others begin,” she told HuffPost. “When we have this understanding, we do not operate out of a need to control others or out of a need to please others.”

“Assuming that because something bothers you it needs to change is not a great way to approach relationships and will likely result in relationship ruptures”

– Britt Caron, a psychotherapist in Toronto, Canada

Admittedly, conversations around boundaries can be confusing. Jaime Zuckerman, a psychologist, said she often hears clients talk about how their boundaries “failed” because the person still did whatever problematic behavior the client was bothered by.

“I try to remind people that boundaries are for the person establishing them,” she said. “They are not created as a means to change the behaviors of those around us. Either your boundaries will be respected or they won’t. It is then up to you to decide if the relationship is one worth maintaining.”

What to consider if this is an issue in your relationship.

In a relationship, you should always be allowed to ask for what you need from a partner, but asking and exploring are very different from demanding and controlling, Higgins said.

“You also need to be secure in yourself and be OK with what your partner’s response may be,” she explained. “You should be prepared for them to say no and to know what that means for you if so.”

A real, vulnerable dialogue in person or on the phone ― not a tense back-and-forth text exchange ― will help you connect from a place of curiosity rather than from a place of judgment and fear. (Of course, a vulnerable dialogue cannot happen in a relationship that is not built on a foundation of safety: “If there is verbal, sexual, mental/emotional or physical abuse, this suggestion won’t work until the relationship has reached a recovered and safe state,” Higgins advised.)

If you’re someone who tends to have feelings about what your partners wear or post, you and only you are responsible for making decisions about what to do with those feelings, Caron said. (Note here, too: The examples here are men, but women can also be controlling about social media use and wardrobe, of course.)

“Your decision might mean ending a relationship, having a conversation or simply doing some introspection and moving on,” she said.

That’s a healthier, more empowered approach than taking a hard line on your partner changing their behavior.

“I think that if you feel the need to tell someone else what to do, your best bet is to start by looking within and figuring out what’s bothering you and why,” said Britt Caron, a psychotherapist in Toronto.

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“I think that if you feel the need to tell someone else what to do, your best bet is to start by looking within and figuring out what’s bothering you and why,” said Britt Caron, a psychotherapist in Toronto.

“I think that if you feel the need to tell someone else what to do, your best bet is to start by looking within and figuring out what’s bothering you and why,” she said. “That might look like seeing a therapist or talking it through with a trusted friend.

“We all have our stuff, and that’s fine! But assuming that because something bothers you it needs to change is not a great way to approach relationships. It will likely result in relationship ruptures and possibly abusive dynamics.”

If you’re a man pushing for a wardrobe change or less-revealing selfies, it’s worth considering the power dynamics at play and the misogyny that may underlie some of those feelings, Caron said. (For instance, how the Madonna-whore complex ― the belief that being nurturing and being sexual are mutually exclusive options for women ― plays out whenever a man expects a woman they’re dating to cover up and be invisible to the world once they’re exclusive.)

“We internalized things like misogyny and sometimes uphold those problematic structures in our interpersonal relationships,” Caron said.

As for therapy-goers in relationships, be mindful when using therapy-speak, and don’t assume that just because you’ve done some therapy, you’re all clear on the ethical and emotional-intelligence front. As humans ― even humans in therapy ― we’re always a work in progress.

“A person’s intentions, willingness to learn and grow, and openness to feedback are such big parts of this conversation, too,” Ren said. “It’s not what you do; it’s how and why you do it. Ongoing calibration, communication and attunement are necessary in every relationship.”

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