Jonah Hill’s Text Messages Serve A Reminder About The Language Of Coercive Control

Because not all 'therapy speak' is well intended.

Image via Instagram, @sarahhbrady

Over the weekend, professional surfer Sarah Brady shared a number of text messages allegedly sent from ex-boyfriend Jonah Hill, all of which display a glaring pattern of coercive control and emotional abuse.

From sending her lists of ‘rules’ he wanted her to abide by, to screening her social media for photos he deemed inappropriate, the Superbad actor has apparently been revealed as someone who wishes to keep his romantic partners under a possessive and unhealthy scrutiny. But what jumps out most starkly in the messages is the language used to make each demand sound reasonable.

Many have been quick to point out that this is no accident. Instead, it’s a recognisable tactic often found in controlling relationships; utilising ‘therapy speak’ to justify abusive behaviour.

When looking at the texts, it’s easy to feel as though they wouldn’t fly with us. How could you let someone speak to you that way? Any person who would send us a text like that we’d cut off immediately! The thing is, these aren’t the kind of texts you get when it’s early days – they generally trickle in over time. An analogy that springs to mind is often used to reference abusive relationships; if you put a frog in boiling water, it’ll jump right out. But if you put a frog in warm water, and gently increase the heat, it will stay there until it boils.

Many women are victims of coercive control, and when you’ve built a relationship with someone, your natural instinct is to empathise; to consider what they expect from you and to try to understand where they’re coming from. It’s hard to leave when you feel like the person you love isn’t intending to harm you.

This is especially true when your partner is actively in therapy. If the way they approach conversations is backed by what you believe to be support from their therapist, surely their concerns are founded? Unfortunately, not all people who go to therapy take what they’ve learned for personal healing and growth. Sometimes, people will use tools gained in therapy to manipulate others.

The messages shared by Sarah serve as an example of how this is done; and a reminder that just because your partner uses language that they’ve learned in a professional setting, it doesn’t make what they say right.

How can we tell the difference when we’re in the thick of it? This is where the way that ‘therapy speak’ is used comes into play. The key words we’re looking for in these messages are ones frequently associated with speech surrounding mental health. They’re words which are important for building healthy foundations – when they’re used in the right context. Words like ‘boundaries’, ‘triggering’, ‘trust’ and ‘accountability’. In the texts shared by Sarah, instead of using these key phrases to open healthy discussions about mutual respect, the language is used as ammunition to make her act in specific ways. It’s not only intended to persuade and invoke guilt, but to threaten.

Jonah’s words suggest that if Sarah didn’t comply, he would end their relationship. It’s like saying, “if you do what I say, you won’t hurt me – and I won’t hurt you either.”

Of course, people are entitled to have different desires and boundaries in relationships – that’s their prerogative. If you don’t want to date someone who hates the gym because you envision a life where you can enjoy workouts with your partner, that’s totally fine! But you wouldn’t get into a relationship with someone who hates the gym, then threaten to leave them if they don’t start going.

Boundaries are values that we can use to make ourselves feel safe and comfortable; they aren’t rules to be enforced on other people. Healthy relationships don’t inhibit anyone from feeling free to be themselves and act independently.

It’s interesting to note here that Sarah has pointed out a contradiction in Jonah’s feelings towards her behaviour. Allegedly, when the pair began to date, Jonah was attracted to Sarah’s photographs (shared on her Instagram) which show her in swimwear. The surfer shared messages where Jonah reacts to her pictures with love heart-eyes emojis, keen to get to know her better at the start of their relationship. Once the pair were together, however, Jonah reportedly took issues with the photos, suddenly finding them inappropriate and “hurtful”. So what changed?

Twitter user @ItsCherrySue answers this question pretty aptly by referencing a quote from TV presenter Trevor Noah’s mother, as shared in his book;

“The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. ‘He’s like an exotic bird collector,’ she said.

“He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”

Yeah…we reckon that hits the nail on the head.

If you think you may be a victim of coercive control, Women’s Aid offer great resources and can provide discreet advice. You can find them here.