Wellness·6 min read

What the Jonah Hill and Keke Palmer Dramas Are Teaching Us About Boundaries and Control

Graphic of woman and fence
July 12, 2023

In the wake of two (still evolving) celebrity couple scandals, the internet is buzzing about what it means to have "boundaries" in a relationship. When does one partner asserting their needs and limits tip over into trying to control the other partner? Here, experts dive into what healthy boundaries in a relationship really look like, plus the red (not beige) flags you can look out for.

Here’s what happened

Last week, Keke Palmer's boyfriend Darius Jackson publicly criticized what she was photographed wearing during a concert, saying "It's the outfit tho [sic].. you a mom." Fans came to her defense, with one tweeting “don’t date a baddie if you’re gonna be this insecure.” But Jackson doubled down on the comments saying he’s representing his “standards & morals” as “a man of the family [who] doesn’t want the wife & mother to his kids to showcase booty cheeks to please others.” 

Then, days later, actor Jonah Hill's ex-girlfriend, pro-surfer Sarah Brady, accused the actor of being emotionally abusive by sharing a series of Instagram Stories showing alleged texts between her and Hill. In those messages, the actor allegedly sent Brady a lengthy list of "boundaries" (including: no surfing with men or “[posting] sexual pictures”) and said that he’s “not the right partner” if she “needs” these things. [Insert eye roll.]

“In both cases, men expressed a desire to control how their partners dressed and how much of their bodies they revealed,” says Darby Saxbe, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. “Women's sexuality has been guarded and controlled since time immemorial across countless religious and cultural traditions that prescribe how women can dress and behave, so this is nothing new.”

But what is new is the abundant use of mental health terminology or "therapy speak," in everyday conversations, and, in these cases, the weaponization of such words against a partner.

“'Therapy-speak' can give people a sense of authority and makes others reluctant to question what they are being told — they feel like if they question the therapy lingo, they're undermining someone's mental health,” says Saxbe.  

When 'therapy speak' is weaponized

In Brady's Stories we see this play out as Hill uses words like "boundaries" and "triggering" to explain his demands, including dictating who she can spend time with (no women in “unstable places”) and how (nothing with those women “beyond getting a lunch or coffee or something respectful”). 

While Jackson doesn’t lean on 'therapy speak,' per se, many are likening his  “morals” and “standards”  to Hill’s “boundaries” — an attempt to use language to legitimize control.

But that's not how boundaries work. According to a recent TikTok posted by Jeff Guenther (better known as “TherapyJeff”), a licensed professional counselor, a boundary is “a rule or guideline that one creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for others to behave toward them, and how they’ll respond when someone passes those limits.”

The point of boundary-setting is for people to recognize when others are overstepping and respond accordingly rather than trying to change the other person’s behavior. “One really valuable lesson you can learn in therapy is that you really can't change other people — the person you have the most power to change is yourself,” Saxbe says. “So any time people use therapy-lingo to change or control other people in their lives, it's a sign that the lessons of therapy haven't quite sunk in.”

Considering Hill directed and starred in “Stutz,” a Netflix documentary focusing on the teachings of his own therapist, the irony has not been lost on commenters across social media following the drama. Nor has his prior release of an apparel line featuring a hat that reads "Complete Unrelenting Control." 

It can be difficult to recognize these controlling behaviors as wrong because of the manipulative tactics that come with them. “It's very often couched in this language of, ‘I'm doing this for your benefit, not mine,’” says Rachel Louise Snyder, a journalist and author who has spent her career reporting on abuse and domestic violence. The inclusion of 'therapy speak' adds yet another layer. “What happens in 'therapy speak’ is there’s a little bit of this moralistic virtue signaling, right? Like I’m a little more informed, I’m more emotionally mature … and I’m telling you that you are harming me in this way,” Israa Nasir, a therapist and mental health educator, told NBC News.   

But it’s essential that you do identify these behaviors so that you can remove yourself from a harmful situation or “make an exit plan,” as Brady wrote in one of her Stories. 

How to spot and respond to relationship warning signs

To be clear, setting boundaries can still be beneficial for mental health when used appropriately. Being aware and communicative about your needs, wants, and limits in relationships is healthy and productive, and “setting boundaries” is essentially a way of describing that process. “If you feel like you constantly fall into patterns where people are taking advantage of you, it might mean that your limits are not clear to others, and it can be helpful to work on expressing them more effectively,” says Saxbe.

In some cases, these red-flag behaviors rise to the level of what some experts call “coercive control” — a form of abuse that involves using manipulative tactics (like isolating someone from family and friends) to gain power over another person (most often, a man over a female partner). According to Snyder, a “classic” example of coercive control might be a male telling his female partner “I see the way men look at you, and for your own protection, I think you should not wear miniskirts anymore.”

Don’t let someone else’s mental health journey infringe on your autonomy, Snyder says. If someone in your life is “prohibiting your freedom in a way that you would not prohibit yourself,” she says the key is to “get out.” Plus, reflect on your boundaries and make sure that you’re using them as an internal guide rather than “set[ting] them on someone else,” she says. 


Controlling relationships are often masked by manipulative tactics, and 'therapy speak' can be one of them. As the language of mental health continues to show up in our chats and feeds, it’s important to know how these words should be applied in the real world since their misuse has real implications on how we feel and interact with one another.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or go to thehotline.org.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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