Identifying Coercive Tactics

What would you think if you received this text from your partner? Or a friend received this text from their partner?

“If you need to have boundaryless, inappropriate friendships with men, model, post pictures of yourself in a bathing suit, or have friendships with women who are in unstable places and from your wild recent past beyond getting lunch or coffee or something respectful, I am not the right partner for you. If these things bring you to a place of happiness I support it and there will be no hard feelings. These are my boundaries for romantic partnership.”

A few weeks ago, Jonah Hill’s ex-girlfriend, Sarah Brady, shared a bunch of text messages he sent her when they were dating. Among them was the above list of “boundaries.” As you can imagine, this stirred up a lot of discussion online.

I fell into a Reddit hole about it and was stunned by the amount of misinformation out there about boundaries. People are truly unaware of the differences between coercion, abuse, effective boundaries, and control, which is what this episode is about.

I also talk about the signs of coercive control to watch for and why the Jonah Hill situation is more manipulative than it may seem.

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

What Are Boundaries?

Let’s start by establishing what boundaries are and what they are not.

I describe boundaries as your own personal rules of engagement. They let other people know what is okay with you and what is not okay with you. Your boundaries are on your side of the street. They consist of your preferences, desires, limits, and dealbreakers.

Jonah’s texts allude to having dealbreakers around Sarah’s behavior, but what is manipulative and wrong is he knew what she did for a living before they got together. He waited until she was emotionally hooked and then said, “Stop doing these things because these are my boundaries.”

I am not saying we can’t have dealbreakers around someone else’s behavior. We can.

For example, let’s say you are in a relationship with someone who is sober. You have never known them as a drinker.

Suddenly, they fall off the wagon. You tell them you will leave if they do not get sober again because their drinking is threatening the relationship.

You are stating your limit, not coercing them into becoming sober.

But things Jonah was fine with at the beginning of his relationship with Sarah were suddenly dealbreakers months in.

What depressed the crap out of me was the consensus on Reddit: “Well, he told her politely and not abusively that they should split up if she wasn’t okay with it.”

No. Jonah was trying to use “boundaries” as a lever to control her.

What is the Difference Between Boundaries and Control?

Boundaries are about us. They let people know how to interact with us. They are not about trying to change or control other people’s behavior.

Control often surfaces in relationships lacking trust. A jealous partner may try to control you by telling you who you can hang out with or what you can wear.

Regardless of whether there is a good reason for jealousy, boundaries are not synonymous with control, and boundaries are certainly not the same as coercive control.

What is Coercive Control?

Coercive control often flies under the radar because it does not always leave physical scars. You might talk yourself out of it by thinking, am I being too controlling? Too reactive? Too sensitive?

Coercive control implies there is some kind of threat. It involves domination and a pattern of oppression, such as using the fear of harm to “keep you in line.” It is about controlling your behavior, thoughts, feelings, and actions. Coercive control is emotionally abusive, and it can include physical abuse as well.

For a quick overview of boundaries, control, and coercive control, download the guide, which has examples and explanations of each.

What Are the Warning Signs of Coercive Control?

Less Control Over Your Life

If you notice having less and less say in what you wear, who you hang out with, how you spend your money, how you decorate your home (if you live with someone), the car you drive, and your partner is asserting themselves more and more, this may be a sign of coercive control.

Someone completely coercively controlling you looks like having almost no say about your own life, which is scary.

Threats: Implied or Overt

Threats are a big tactic used with coercive control. They may be obvious (“I will leave you if you do X”), or they may be implied (“Do not do Y, or you will regret it”).

Abusers will often use your love of an animal to control you, too. “If you do not listen to me, I will take the dog to the shelter when you are at work.”

Ultimately, threats are another way to control your behavior.

Emotional or Physical Abuse

Anything physical like hitting, biting, pinching, or slapping is coercive abuse (and abuse no matter what).

Someone trying to humiliate you, make jokes at your expense, call you mean names, criticize your looks, or make you feel insecure are all signs of coercive control.

This may sound like your partner saying, “Are you really going to wear that outfit? I have to be honest- it makes you look chubby.”

They tap into your insecurities and act like they are doing you a favor when they are actually trying to make you feel insecure so they will have more control over you.


Another big thing to watch out for with any kind of control is an attempt to isolate you from the people in your life. Isolation increases the amount of control abusers have over you and makes it harder for you to leave.

Abusers might mention how talking about your relationship with others would be a massive betrayal.

Isolating can look innocent, too.

They may create excuses for why you cannot attend social functions with your family. They often use guilt to manipulate you into staying with them rather than going out with your friends.

They may also play down your interests to discourage you from doing them: “Why are you going to take a dance class? You aren’t a dancer. How dumb.”


Abusers may exert control over you by monitoring you throughout the day.

This is an extreme example, but I had a client whose house had an entire surveillance system setup, including in the bathroom. It was supposedly there for “safety.”

Her partner watched her constantly, knew what she was doing and when, and said things like, “Why are you eating that?”

It was scary. I eventually helped her get out safely, which is critical if you are dealing with someone like this. If you are thinking about leaving, keep your cards close to your chest. Do not reveal anything.

Your safety is the most important thing in this situation (I have a blog about how to safely leave an abusive relationship here). This is not the time to broadcast your plans. This is the time to keep them quiet.

A not-as-extreme example is your partner using tracking technology on your phone or car to monitor you. Some people think this is normal. It is probably fine in families or relationships with mutuality and healthy respect, but if one person wants to know the location of the other, it is controlling.

Additionally, someone might check your browser history, internet usage, or texts. All of this monitoring is invasive and makes you feel controlled because you are. There is no privacy.

Financial and Sexual Control

Financial control is when someone restricts how much you can spend or insists you share information with them, even if you have separate accounts. They may run up debt or open credit cards in your name without your knowledge.

Sexual coercion involves manipulating and pressuring you into being sexual when you do not want to be. They may threaten you with consequences if you refuse or offer something in exchange for being sexual.

None of these things are about having boundaries, despite abusive folks trying to say they are. They are misusing the word.

Abusers are experts at flipping the script and making you feel like you did something wrong to cause the interaction (like Jonah did in his texts to Sarah).

Remember –  you have a right to be autonomous in your relationships and your life.

A Personal Example

Many years ago, I was in a very codependent relationship. I had gone away with friends and went to a club one night. When I returned, my ex told me, “You don’t seem to understand, I don’t like it when you go out dancing.”

This spelled the end of the relationship for me. I replied, “You don’t seem to understand: we are not the same person, and you are not the boss of me. You can not like it, and I can actually still do it.”

(I got out of there as fast as I could.)

This is an example where someone feels justified in what they are doing and saying, and they flip the script to attempt to make you feel bad.

Healthy Relationships

Being in a healthy relationship means you can feel and be free and securely tethered at the same time. Both people are allowed to be themselves, dress how they want, and do what they want- based on mutual trust and respect.

Control issues tend to surface when a relationship lacks trust, usually after a betrayal.

Every situation is different. Coercive control is specific and extreme. Regardless, when we set boundaries, we need to be clear we are setting them for ourselves- not to control other people.

For an overview of boundaries, control, and coercive control, download the guide.

What do you think about boundaries, coercion, and control? Have you ever felt coercively controlled in a relationship? Has anyone in your life misused boundaries to control others? What misconceptions about boundaries have you had?

I hope this added value to your life and as always, take care of you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}