What does it mean when the language of therapy, such as notions of boundaries, is used to justify actions within the context of a romantic relationship? This question has been debated recently after a series of text messages allegedly sent from Jonah Hill were leaked by his ex-girlfriend in which he lists what she should not wear or do as his “boundaries for romantic partnership.” In order to add insight from the perspective of a couples therapist, our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist spoke to Buzzfeed about how therapy speak can be employed to avoid feelings of ambivalence.
In “We Had Relationship Therapists React to the Alleged Jonah Hill Texts to His Ex-Girlfriend, Sarah Brady,” Matt observes the relationship on display in the texts seemed to have reached an “impasse,” particularly in regards to the overtly gendered dynamics. “We don’t want to ignore the gender part of this,” Matt explains, “which is men having a certain set of ideas about women’s bodies and the kinds of relationships women should have. And some men having the idea that they have a right, entitlement, and authority to stipulate that with the expectation that the women they’re in a relationship with are going to comply with.”
Yet, Hill’s use of the language of boundaries to communicate his positions raises larger questions beyond their relationship. Matt notes, “As a therapist, I’m really intrigued by this question, which is with the language of therapy, and in this particular case, the language of boundaries, what sort of value are we adding? Rather than saying, ‘I don’t like when you do this, I don’t want a relationship when you do this.’”
Though not in the article, the language of boundaries seems to be employed as a defense against feelings or anxieties. We often have competing feelings about a situation. In this case, we might hypothesize that the beliefs Jonah Hill has about the way his partner should dress and present herself, as well as how she should navigate mixed-gender relationships, are at odds with a certain self-view. His beliefs that women ought to act a certain way and male partners ought to be able to dictate those ways of acting are quite conservative, old-fashioned, and controlling. These beliefs, sincerely held as they may be, may not sit well with him and therefore, there is a tension between his self-view and the belief he holds.
For instance, many on social media asked an obvious question: Why, if Hill is concerned about the modesty of someone he dates and is so specifically disliking of bathing suits, would he choose to date a surfer? Hill seems to hold several competing, ambivalent, contradictory positions: He wants to date a woman who is attractive and catches notice of other men and wants a chaste partner. He also wants a professional partner who is comfortable in her skin and expresses feeling wrong when she does so. Finally, he wants to project himself as having a kind of politic—as a sort of man who respects women—and he wants to solve his bad feelings by demanding a certain chaste presentation.
Ideally, one would do well to sit with and resolve these tensions and if the beliefs sustain, own it. However, Hill doesn’t own it. In referencing boundaries, he’s making an appeal to a certain authority—the authority of therapy or at least, of good, healthy self-care, which has become highly fetishized lately. As Matt articulates in Buzzfeed, “[Boundaries] functions as this extra layer of justification, that in reality doesn’t really have much meaning. I think it doesn’t really have much to do with therapy, or at least with good therapy.”
To take a broader view, what does it mean to justify actions in this way? Apart from Hill, we could also imagine an example of a therapist, who is raising their fee or choosing to work remotely in spite of declining risks from COVID, saying, “I’m doing these things as an exercise in self-care.” A key question is: what additional work is being done by folding in “self-care” as an underlying value? Rather than saying, “I’m raising my fee,” which might be interpreted as, “I’m raising my fee because I’d like to make money,” or, “I’ve found that remote work suits my lifestyle better and I’m choosing to continue working this way,” the language of self-care functions as a kind of denial, a splitting-off. In this example, the therapist is splitting off feelings about asserting their own wants and needs in tension with the wants and needs of others. Modeling self-care is, in reality, a modeling of self-denial.
Ambivalence is rough and owning it means examining complicated feelings and desires, some of which don’t align with our self-image. It also means taking a clarified position at the cost of giving up the competing position. For Hill, he could either own that he wants a relationship where he can control how his partner dresses and accept the consequences of that to his self-image (and perhaps lose his relationship). Or, on the other hand, he could look at the insecurities that are raised for him in being in a relationship of separateness in which each person is free to move through the world on their own terms. Either way, he’d probably need to do some good therapy.